At a time when Virginia has cracked the AP Top 25 for the first time in Tony Bennett's tenure and emerged as an NCAA tournament contender, the Cavaliers are also dealing with some unexpected roster attrition.
Sophomore guard KT Harrell and redshirt freshman forward James Johnson, both decided to leave the program this past weekend, leaving Virginia (10-1) shorthanded heading into the start of ACC play next month. Bennett will only have nine scholarship players at his disposal even after he said he'd opt to play Paul Jesperson, a 6-foot-6 freshman guard from Merrill, Wis. who was going to redshirt this season.
Dwindling playing time was a factor in the decisions of both Harrell and Johnson. Harrell started Virginia's first five games of the season but averaged less than 12 minutes per game off the bench in the team's past six contests because the accuracy of his outside shot declined. And Johnson has appeared in just six games and averaged a mere 6.2 minutes off the bench.
"We're just seeing more and more now players deciding to leave for a number of reasons, but usually playing time is the majority of it," Bennett told the Daily Press on Monday.
"It used to be where you'd give it a good two full years. Now, you're seeing it a little more after the first year, or even midway through the year. It's unfortunate, but every year I've coached, probably every year I've been a head coach I think I've lost at least a couple of guys, more at the end of the seasons ... We don't disrespect our players. It usually comes down to homesickness, playing time is usually the key thing and guys want to play, but you're seeing more and more of that."
Neither Harrell nor Johnson are substantial enough losses to derail Virginia's momentum this season, but both were valuable bench players capable of stepping into greater roles should injury strike the next few months. Furthermore, even in today's trigger-happy transfer climate, it's surprising both would leave so soon since greater playing time may have been available as soon as next season.
With Assane Sene and Mike Scott mere months from graduation, Johnson had a chance to crack the starting lineup as a redshirt sophomore. And Harrell showed enough promise in shooting 42.1 percent from three-point range and averaging 8.0 points per game as a freshman that it wasn't unreasonable to think he could earn his way back into the lineup once this slump subsided.
The loss of Johnson and Harrell coupled with the previous departures of Billy Baron (Rhode Island) and Will Regan (Buffalo) mean that four members of Bennett's six-man 2010 recruiting class have now transferred. Where their absence will be felt most probably will not be this season but in future years when Virginia has to start freshmen and sophomores instead of experienced upperclassmen.