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Pitt transfer Cameron Johnson commits to UNC; not yet immediately eligible

rwillett@newsobserver.com

Cameron Johnson, a 6-foot-7 graduate transfer from the University of Pittsburgh, committed to North Carolina on Tuesday, and did so without the assurance that he'd be able to play next season.

Johnson confirmed his commitment, first reported by ESPN, in a text message but added that he was “not yet immediately eligible” to play next season. For more than a month, he has been seeking a full release from Pitt, which has placed restrictions on where Johnson can and cannot play next season.

Unlike undergraduate college athletes, who are forced to sit out for one season after they transfer, graduate transfers are eligible to compete immediately under NCAA rules. But different conferences and universities have their own graduate transfer rules, and Pitt has refused to give Johnson a full release for next season.

The university is allowing Johnson to transfer anywhere and receive immediate athletic financial aid. But Pitt informed Johnson, after his appeal, that he would have to sit out for one season if he transferred to another ACC school, or any other school that will play against Pitt in men's basketball next season.

In a recent statement, the Pitt athletic department said “we have remained consistent to our department policy and we will continue to do so.”

Johnson's case has become an alluring, aggravating target for college athletics critics who have found hypocrisy in Pitt's policy. One of those critics, the outspoken ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, shared his disgust with Pitt's policy in a series of tweets.

“Cameron Johnson GRADUATED from Pitt, and stayed at Pitt when his coach, Jamie Dixon, bolted to TCU,” Bilas recently wrote on Twitter. “Now, he's restricted? That's wrong.”

Johnson, who was granted a medical redshirt after injuring his shoulder early in his freshman season in 2014, averaged nearly 12 points per game last season. He scored 24 points against the Tar Heels during UNC's 80-78 victory against Pitt at the Smith Center on Jan. 31.

On the court, Johnson proved himself as a valued contributor last season in coach Kevin Stallings' first year at Pitt. Off the court, meanwhile, Johnson excelled enough to have graduated with a 3.9 GPA, he said, in communications.

Johnson's academic record is another reason why his supporters have argued for a full release: He spent three years at Pitt, remained on the basketball team through a coaching change and graduated, with honors, a full year ahead of schedule.

In a recent phone interview, Johnson said he had “high interest” in UNC, but that he “wouldn't want to sit out a year” anywhere he transferred. Johnson's remaining eligibility is especially valuable, and if he were forced to sit out a year, he'd have only one more season of eligibility remaining.

Johnson's decision to commit to UNC could be a sign that he's hopeful he'll be able to play immediately, after all. If he is, he could help the Tar Heels fill the considerable void left by the departed Justin Jackson, the 6-foot-8 wing forward who earned ACC Player of the Year honors.

Johnson's decision to commit to UNC might also be reflective of his desire to come to UNC regardless of whether he's immediately eligible. Johnson has committed, after all, without the assurance that he'll be able to play next season.

Johnson recently said that Roy Williams, the UNC coach, was fighting on his behalf, trying to secure Johnson's 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.

About his quest for immediate eligibility, Johnson recently said that he was “just kind of letting it play out.” In the meantime, he felt strongly enough about UNC to finalize his plans to go there, even while his immediate eligibility remains in doubt.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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