North Carolina

Pitt’s Cameron Johnson hoping for freedom to play immediately at UNC

Pittsburgh guard Cameron Johnson, left, dunks over Virginia guard Marial Shayok in March.
Pittsburgh guard Cameron Johnson, left, dunks over Virginia guard Marial Shayok in March. AP

The news didn’t necessarily come as a surprise to Cameron Johnson, a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, but nonetheless, he had been hoping for a different outcome. He had been hoping he could play college basketball next season wherever he chose – perhaps even at North Carolina.

Johnson, a 6-foot-7 guard who averaged 11.9 points last season for the Panthers, said during a phone interview on Monday that he has “high interest” in transferring to UNC. He likes the way the Tar Heels play, and the interest is mutual: UNC coach Roy Williams likes Johnson, who scored 24 points against the Tar Heels during UNC’s 80-78 home victory against Pitt on Jan. 31.

“If certain things work out, maybe that would be the place to go,” said Johnson, who is considering four other schools. “I wouldn’t want to sit out a year, but my interest level in UNC is high.”

There, though, is Johnson’s conundrum: He could play immediately at some of the schools he is considering. At UNC, he could not. At least that’s how it looks for now, with Pittsburgh limiting Johnson’s options and making it more difficult for him to transfer to a fellow ACC school.

Ask Johnson for his reaction to his situation – the fact that, as it stands now, he’d have to sit out for a season if he were to transfer to UNC – and he might release a long, pronounced sigh. He did so during the phone interview on Monday, and in some ways that said it all.

I wouldn’t want to sit out a year, but my interest level in UNC is high.

Cameron Johnson

“It’s kind of hard to say what my reaction is,” Johnson said. “I was hoping they would let it be full a release, but I guess they have their reasons for putting the one-year sit-out for the transfer.”

Because Johnson is a graduate transfer, NCAA rules allow him more mobility. Unlike undergraduate transfers, who are forced to sit out for a year after they transfer to a new school, graduate transfers are allowed to compete immediately.

Within those NCAA rules, though, individual schools can enforce their own policies for graduate transfers. Pittsburgh’s policy isn’t necessarily unique: Its athletic department restricts athletes from transferring to ACC schools and other schools that will be competing against Pitt next season.

Johnson was hoping that his case might be worthy of an exception. He graduated from Pitt in three years with a degree in communications. On the court he has been a valued contributor. Off of it, he did well enough, he said, to have graduated with a 3.9 GPA.

Johnson also remained at Pitt through a coaching change that occurred two years into his time there. In a statement provided by an athletic department spokesman, Pitt explained its stance on Johnson, who received a medical redshirt his freshman year and has two seasons of college eligibility remaining:

“Cameron Johnson and his father were informed of our policy as well as the appeals process when they elected to seek to transfer. They went through our transfer appeals process and were granted permission to contact ACC schools; however, the committee upheld the policy to limit immediate eligibility within the conference.

UNC’s Theo Pinson, left, and Pittsburgh’s Cameron Johnson chase down a loose ball in February. Robert Willett

“If Cameron were to transfer within the ACC, he would be eligible to receive financial aid immediately but would have to sit out a year of competition due to standard NCAA transfer regulations. Throughout this process, we have remained consistent to our department policy and we will continue to do so.”

Pitt is operating within NCAA rules in restricting Johnson’s options. If the university wanted, however, it could grant Johnson a full release, and he could be eligible to play anywhere next season – UNC or any other ACC school.

Graduate transfers within the ACC – from one ACC school to another – are uncommon but not unprecedented. UNC, in fact, was on the other side of such a scenario in 2015, when it provided T.J. Thorpe, a wide receiver on the football team, a full release to transfer to Virginia.

University of North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams talks with reporters about the decision-making process for Tar Heel players staying for another season or departing for the NBA.

After he earned his degree and decided to transfer, Thorpe didn’t have to sit out for a season. He played immediately, and played in a game against the Tar Heels the next fall.

Johnson’s situation, meanwhile, has elicited strong reaction from critics of major college sports bureaucracy. Jay Bilas, the outspoken ESPN analyst, is one such critic, and he used one of his preferred mediums, Twitter, to share his dismay with Johnson’s case.

“Cameron Johnson GRADUATED from Pitt, and stayed at Pitt when his coach, Jamie Dixon, bolted to TCU,” Bilas wrote in a recent tweet. “Now, he’s restricted? That’s wrong.”

Indeed, Johnson remained at Pittsburgh through a coaching change. Dixon left after the 2015-16 season, and then the school hired Kevin Stallings, who left Vanderbilt to become Pitt’s new coach. Such moves are common in a sport with as a large of a coaching carousel as Division I college basketball.

Transfers have become more and more common, too, though Johnson’s case provides another example of how it’s far easier for an in-demand coach to switch jobs than it is for an in-demand player to change schools.

So now Johnson waits. He said that Williams, the UNC coach, is working on his behalf and trying to convince Pitt to give Johnson his full release. Williams and Stallings, the Pitt coach, are close friends, and have been since Stallings served as an assistant coach early in Williams’ tenure at Kansas.

“Right now, I’m letting coach Williams see what he can do from his end, from the North Carolina end,” Johnson said.

In the meantime, Johnson is back home, just outside of Pittsburgh. He spends his days working out and waiting. He’s still hoping for his desired outcome – that he’ll be granted his full release – and he’s doing the only thing he can these days, he said, and “just kind of letting it play out.”

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter