Rash of transfers has hurt and helped in Virginia
Tony Bennett had Virginia's basketball team off to its best start in more than a decade this past season when two players came to him with news that put a damper on his Christmas holiday.
K.T. Harrell, a sophomore guard who made 15 starts as a freshman but whose playing time was diminishing, and James Johnson, a redshirt freshman front-court player who hadn't yet cracked the rotation, were leaving in their second seasons to go elsewhere.
They left immediately, exiting a program that was 10-1 and had won eight straight games.
The departures set Virginia back, Bennett said, taking away two players that had more than a year of schooling in his system, and proved to be part of a near epidemic.
Research by one of his assistants found that more than 400 players transferred last year, and the rash of departures has been a hot topic whenever coaches get together, he said.
The biggest culture change, he said, is how quickly players decide to leave.
''I think they're leaving sooner,'' Bennett said. ''Usually guys would stay for a couple of years and after they're underclassmen, if they could sense that there's opportunities there or it wasn't a good fit or what have you, but they would usually give it a full two years.''
And when they don't, it can mess up the plan a coach has in place for the coming years, as well as rendering the amount of time a staff spent recruiting a player almost useless.
''It sets you back,'' said Bennett, in his fourth year at Virginia. ''We were projected to be more of an upper-class team, and I think a way for us to have success ... is to bring in recruiting classes, a couple of recruiting classes, and they kind of marinate and they mature and become upperclassmen, and then you have guys that have been in your system.''
Theories abound about why players choose to leave, from lack of playing time to not liking the coaches or the college atmosphere, or in the case of Anthony Gill, a coaching change.
Gill, a highly touted 6-foot-8 forward, had high regard for Virginia while he was being recruited, but committed early to South Carolina and coach Darrin Horn. Gill started 26 of 31 games last season as a freshman, but Horn was fired after the team finished 10-21.
Gill was right behind him in leaving and landed at Virginia.
''It was definitely a tough decision, but at the end of the day it was what was best for me and I had to do it,'' he said of transferring.
At Virginia, he'll be reunited with high school teammate Akil Mitchell, but will have to sit out the coming season before getting to play again. Still, the agony he anticipates wasn't enough to keep him from leaving.
''I struggle with that every day, just the fact that I have to sit out, and just to keep fighting and keep working, but it'll all pay off in the end and that's the way I'm looking at it right now,'' Gill said. ''But it's definitely tough to start that many games and then sit.''
Also sitting out next year will be Dorian Finney-Smith. After being one of Virginia Tech's biggest recruiting wins in recent years and starting 30 of 33 games, he transferred to Florida.
The decision to leave, he told new coach James Johnson, was made in January, before nine-year head coach Seth Greenberg was fired and Johnson, his top assistant, replaced him.
Johnson said he's learned over time not to take such decisions personally.
''If a kid doesn't want to be here, I don't want a guy in the program that doesn't want to be here,'' said Johnson, an assistant coach and recruiter for 19 years. ''College basketball is very difficult - being a student-athlete, the demands on your time in the classroom and practice and video and individual workouts and strength and conditioning. It's tough enough, and if you're unhappy and we've got to coax you to be happy, that's just too much.''
The Hokies also landed a transfer, shooting guard Adam Smith, from UNC-Wilmington.
Smith started 29 games as a freshman and was second on the team with a 13.7-point average. He did his best in the biggest games, scoring 32 against Wake Forest and 23 against Maryland.
''He felt like he could play at a higher level,'' Johnson said.
Bennett chalked much of the revolving door mentality up to a desire for instant gratification, and said the trend makes frankness in the recruiting process more important.
''I tell a lot of guys, `You could probably be anywhere when it's going well and be happy, but sometimes a way to make a good decision about where you want to be is to assume you're in a place where it's not going well. You're in adversity. It's tough. It's something not going right,'' he said. ''`Now make your decision. Where do I want to be when it's not going well?'''
He even makes them a promise, and it has nothing to do with playing time.
''`You want a promise? You're going to go through adversity. How's that?''' he said. ''`You're going to battle. You're going to struggle, and you're going to wonder if you made the right decision. That's going to happen. That's just reality. That's anywhere you go.'''
More and more, it seems, players are putting that promise to the test more than once.