The ones who left

Previous transfer leave Virginia basketball for the better


If you’re a fourth year like me, you’ve been with Virginia basketball for the entire careers of seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell. I’ve witnessed their evolution since 2010 — their freshman season — when Harris was a three-point specialist and Mitchell was a springy ninth man who was good for a couple rebounds a game. You might have missed the tremendous strides they’ve both made in their game if you just started tuning in last year, when Harris was fourth in the ACC in scoring and Mitchell finished third in the conference in rebounding.

You might have also missed that Harris and Mitchell are the last two standing out of Tony Bennett’s second recruiting class at Virginia, which arrived in Charlottesville with six — yes, six — members of varying levels of esteem. For your weekly history lesson, I’ll give you an idea of who those other four players were and where they are now.

Forward James Johnson, rated the No. 92 recruit in the nation by ESPNU in 2010, redshirted his freshman season, only to play just six games in 2011 before transferring midseason to San Diego State. The San Diego native has made little contribution this season, playing 11.8 minutes per game and scoring on average just 1.8 points, though this can probably be largely attributed to his transferring into a top-10 team.

Forward Will Regan, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., played just 6.6 minutes a contest as a freshman before transferring to Buffalo, where he has averaged in double digits the last two seasons, including a 25-point, 10-rebound game in the Bulls’ January win against Kent State.

Guard KT Harrell, the No. 90 recruit in 2010, was one of Bennett’s first choices off the bench as a freshman at Virginia, playing 22.2 minutes and scoring 8.0 points per game. But in his second year, Harrell started losing playing time to a freshman by the name of Malcolm Brogdon, and the Montgomery, Ala. native left with Johnson at the midpoint of the 2011-12 season. He transferred to Auburn, where he averages 19.2 points per game. Harrell has only been held under 14 points twice this season — both of them losses for the Tigers.

The other player from that class to transfer is guard Billy Baron, a Rhode Islander who transferred to the University of Rhode Island to play for his father, Jim. After one season with the Rams, Baron again followed his father to Canisius College in Buffalo. Baron sits at third in Division I in scoring, pouring in 24.6 points in an unbelievable 39.2 minutes per game. He also leads the Golden Griffins in assists and steals and boasts the highest offensive rating in the country by statistician Ken Pomeroy’s metrics.

Now that you’ve indulged me, I’ll get to your question: what does this all mean for you, as a current Virginia fan? It means some juicy what-ifs — that’s what. The entire makeup of the team could be different if not for those four transfers. Let’s speculate.

If Baron had stuck around and developed behind former starting point guard Jontel Evans, he probably would have headed into this season entrenched in the same position, though he might not have become the dominant scorer he is at Canisius.

If Evans’s departure hadn’t left an unfilled hole at the point, would Bennett have headed to California to recruit London Perrantes?

And if either of the forwards — especially Johnson — had stayed and earned a rotation spot, would Virginia have needed to bolster its frontcourt depth by bringing in Anthony Gill, himself a transfer from South Carolina?

The biggest what-if, though, undoubtedly belongs to Harrell. Losing playing time to Brogdon was one of the biggest reasons Harrell transferred, but shortly after he and Johnson left, Brogdon broke his foot, missing the rest of 2011-12 and all of 2012-13. If Harrell had stayed, he likely would have stepped into the starting lineup instead of Paul Jesperson.

Could Harrell’s scoring ability have helped push the Cavaliers over the hump and into the NCAA Tournament last season? If so, would Brogdon have returned and become the star he has been this season? Or would he have perhaps transferred himself?

I have my guesses about the answers to those questions: no, yes, probably, probably not and I don’t think so.

The truth is, however, that while the presence of prematurely departed players would have likely had a major effect on the season’s outcome, we don’t really know what that effect would be. Maybe Virginia would be undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country, with Baron feeding the ball to Harris. Maybe the Cavaliers would be somewhere around .500 and dwelling in the bottom of the ACC, with KT Harrell trying to carry the scoring load.

All I know is if the butterfly effect happens to be true, I owe Baron, Harrell, Johnson and Regan dinner, because I wouldn’t trade this season of Virginia basketball for almost anything — and in an indirect-and-yet-not-at-all way, they made it happen.

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