When men's basketball coach Tony Bennett offered scholarships to six teenagers, he knew he assumed a risk.
A freshman player is almost always a gamble - alluring for the potentially high reward of untapped talent, but dangerous for the unpredictability. Any first-year student feels growing pains as he adjusts to a more rigorous academic workload and a new culture, but a freshman basketball player must adjust to a new identity as well. He inevitably comes into the program as a high school standout, but college reduces him to one in a constellation of former stars.
With six freshman recruits, the odds are that at least one will struggle with those adjustments. Feb. 3, freshman guard Billy Baron's struggles seemed to get the best of him as announced that he was transferring to Rhode Island to play for his father. Baron became the third player to transfer from Virginia during Bennett's two-year tenure.
"The way it is, nothing shocks me anymore," Bennett said of Baron's decision. "Every year I've coached, even [at] Washington State, I've had guys leave - whether it's playing time, academics, homesickness."
Playing time\nBaron broke out to a hot start with Virginia, scoring 19 points in his first college game. But the freshman only played 18 total minutes during Virginia's first eight ACC games, and none in his final two games. Baron seemed stuck behind redshirt junior guard Sammy Zeglinski and sophomore guard Jontel Evans in the depth chart.
"He was unhappy as the season progressed," freshman guard Joe Harris said. "It was tough for him not playing and thinking about the opportunity he had with his dad. I know he was working even harder to get a starting spot, but it's tough to pass up on an opportunity to play."
Last year, Baron averaged 27.5 points and 6.2 assists at Worcester Academy. During his limited playing time with the Cavaliers, Baron scored three points per game on average.
Baron's fellow freshman teammate, guard KT Harrell, can relate to those difficulties. Harrell was Alabama's high school basketball player of the year, and appeared to be Virginia's most formidable freshman during the early part of the season. Harrell averaged 10.5 points through his first 19 games, but has slowed down to post 4.6 points per game in his five most recent outings. He, too, saw his minutes reduced, as Zeglinski replaced him in the starting lineup.
Harrell, however, understands the rationale behind the move.
"I know the coaches believe in me," Harrell said. "Coach Bennett and I have talked, and I just have to get my legs back underneath me and get my head back on straight. I was emotionally drained and physically drained these past couple games."
Academics\nHarrell spends physical and emotional energy away from basketball, as well. Although fans rarely see players off the court, the team's world extends beyond John Paul Jones Arena. Players are student-athletes, and must succeed in the classroom to see playing time on the court.
"The workload is definitely tougher as a first year than as a senior in high school," Harrell said. "We had work in high school, but nowhere near like a college student."
Every freshman juggles an intense academic load during college, and Bennett's six freshmen have the luxury of pursuing their degree on a scholarship. In exchange for free tuition, however, these freshmen carry the future of Virginia basketball on their shoulders. Consequently, they must balance their academic expectations with athletic ones.
"It's tough to get used to, especially having to deal with the time you put into basketball," Harris said. "This Monday I had morning lift at 7, class from 9 to 12, study hall after class. Then I had practice, I went to JPJ to have dinner, then my tutor, then I had study hall again."
Homesickness\nFive of Virginia's six current freshmen come from out of state. Baron was a Rhode Island native, and according to Harrell, his transfer stemmed in large part from a desire to return home.
"That was the major reason for his decision," Harrell said. "He just felt it wasn't the right place for him, and Billy works so hard. He will be really successful going somewhere he wants to be, especially playing for his dad."
Harrell, meanwhile, hails from Montgomery, Ala. The guard grew up in a devoutly Christian household, and adopted those same religious beliefs. Coming from that background to the University has been somewhat of an adjustment, the freshman said. He said he does not participate in much of University night life, but added that he does not condemn those who do.
"It definitely has been an experience as far as knowing who I am and just continuing to grow as a person," Harrell said. "I love the Lord, though, and that's not going to change whether I'm here or anywhere else."
Harris grew up more than 2,000 miles away from Virginia in an area that favored an easygoing lifestyle, the guard said.
"When you get down here, it's tough dealing with the time change and the way that people are," Harris said. "They are [a] little less laid-back, especially when it comes to sports. People perform in a high level in the classroom here and expect the same thing on the court."
After moving from Chelan, Wash., Harris sympathizes with Baron's homesickness. "I have a really big family, so it was tough to leave them," Harris said. "I also have a girlfriend that I've kept a relationship with, and you get homesick from time to time."
Parting ways\nBaron could not be reached for comment, but it seems these various off- and on-the-court challenges ultimately may have worn him down.
"Billy actually sent out a text to us before he left, saying he wanted us to come to his room, and he was just crying," Harrell said. "It was definitely tough, because we all wanted him to stay; we came here together."
No one understands Baron's decision better than his freshman teammates. Harrell promises, however, that while the freshmen can relate to Baron, they will not follow in his path.
"We came here for one reason alone: to change this program...and bring some excitement to the gym," Harrell said. "If we just continue to work hard, continue to stay together, we're gonna shock a lot of people and make some Virginia fans proud"