PITTSBURGH — For the first time since he transferred to North Carolina in the offseason, Moon native and OLSH grad Cameron Johnson will suit up for the Tar Heels against the Pitt Panthers on Saturday night.
Johnson, a redshirt junior, is averaging 12.7 points per game for North Carolina and is shooting 38.7 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, fulfilling a similar role to the one he played for the Panthers a year ago.
His transfer was contentious as Johnson, who graduated from Pitt in three years, was ruled immediately eligible by the NCAA despite transferring within the Atlantic Coast Conference.
It’s a double-edged sword, for sure, as the Tar Heels robbed the Panthers of their most productive 3-point shooter and one of two players that could have returned with experience. Of course, Johnson could have transferred somewhere else — he had offers to attend Arizona, Kentucky and UCLA, among others — but then Pitt wouldn’t be facing him on Saturday.
Stallings was roasted in the national media for attempting to block the transfer, drawing the particular ire of ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who said Pitt looked “foolish, petty, vindictive or worse” for blocking Johnson’s move.
But Stallings also said that the decision was mostly out of his hands and that the Pitt athletic department followed previously established protocols. He also said that he wished there were fewer loopholes and more certainty in the process.
“I think that would probably benefit the sport of college basketball,” he said at the ACC media day in Charlotte last October.
The Big 12 Conference has just made a proposal that would allow Division I athletes to transfer and be immediately eligible any time there’s a coaching change at their previous institution, if a player gets a scholarship offer when they’re currently a walk-on or if a school is hit with NCAA sanctions.
That proposal falls short of leaked idea from the NCAA’s Transfer Working Group, as reported by CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein, that would allow any transferring player to be immediately eligible if they had a 2.7 or higher GPA.
Either way, it seems clear that games like Saturday’s, when Johnson will play his former team, are going to be come more common in the realm of college basketball.
But is that really a big deal? Current Pitt forward Jared Wilson-Frame, who committed to play with the Panthers while Johnson was on the team and said the two have become close, also said that playing against friends is the norm when it comes to high-level college athletes.
“it’s really just a mutual respect with all the players,” Wilson-Frame said. “You’re not going to dislike a guy because he’s good at basketball. … All the camps that you go to in high school, you play in those shoe-brand sponsored leagues, so you just see those people all the time and when you play at that level, you play against each other and with each other in a lot space. You just kind of make friendships throughout that time.”
So don’t expect there to be any additional level of hatred from the Pitt players toward Johnson on Saturday, and it sounds as if Stallings has been more upset by the process than the transfer itself. After all, he has his own shooting guard in Malik Ellison that he would love to have available this year.
The coaches with a legitimate complaint are those at the bottom of the NCAA’s food chain, who won’t have players from a lower level to reach down and grab. But thanks to the NCAA’s power-conference autonomy rules, they don’t have much of a say in the matter.
For now, Johnson playing against Pitt remains something of curiosity. But it’s probably a glimpse to the future of NCAA basketball.