In one of the more interesting turn of events surrounding the North Carolina basketball program this offseason, recent graduate Cameron Johnson’s eligibility for the 2017-18 season with the Tar Heels is being blocked by the University of Pittsburgh. While Johnson has not made a concrete decision to attend Carolina in the fall, it is all but certain that with immediate eligibility Johnson would be making his way to Chapel Hill.
If only things were that easy. The University earlier this week released this official statement about Cameron Johnson’s eligibility:
“We have remained consistent with our athletic department policy, within NCAA legislation, stipulating student-athletes are restricted from transferring to institutions within the Atlantic Coast Conference and those on our schedule over the next season. 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. 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. “
There is a little more to this situation than even the official statement indicates. In addition to not being able to immediately play for any other ACC schools, Cameron Johnson also cannot compete for a team that is on the 2017-18 schedule to play Pitt. This means there is at least one Big Ten team, and a handful of other non-conference teams that Johnson is not allowed to immediately play for.
The school isn’t breaking any rules by doing this, as the NCAA and the ACC together allow for individual schools to decide how they want to handle graduate transfers. UNC itself allows for graduate athletes to become immediately eligible at another school should they opt to go elsewhere.
So what makes this case a bit more unique? At this present time, Pitt is taking a lot of heat from the national media. Jay Bilas of ESPN specifically has been very outspoken on the issue on twitter:
Cameron Johnson GRADUATED from Pitt, and stayed at Pitt when his coach, Jamie Dixon, bolted to TCU. Now, he's restricted? That's wrong.— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) May 21, 2017
The issue that Jay Bilas is referring to is when Jamie Dixon left the program in 2016 after University of Pitt’s AD Scott Barnes failed to commit to a long-term agreement with Dixon, causing Dixon to leave to take a coaching job at his alma mater TCU. Once Dixon left and Kevin Stallings came into the picture, the program had six players transfer to other schools.
Johnson stated that currently Roy Williams is working on his behalf to attempt to get full release from Pitt. Williams and Stallings are close friends, so maybe discussions between the two will be a step toward getting the athletic department to change their mind. However, this is not Stallings’s first involvement with graduate transfer controversy: under Stallings at Vanderbilt in 2013, Sheldon Jeter attempted to transfer to Pitt, only to be denied the transfer. Because of this, Jeter ended up going to a junior college for one semester and eventually accepted a scholarship from Pitt. Ironically, Stallings would eventually become the head coach at Pitt for Jeter’s final year.
The situation with Pitt, UNC, and Cameron Johnson is definitely one that has sparked quite the conversation. On one hand, a school retains the ability to hold onto their players’ rights, according to the NCAA, and if Pitt wants to restrict Johnson then they have that right.
On another hand, some believe that once you’ve fulfilled your undergrad eligibility you’ve fulfilled all obligations to that school and that should grant an immediate release to any program regardless of the conference. This could be something that the NCAA and/or ACC takes a harder look at given all of the national attention that it is receiving. Only time will tell.
What we do know is that if the Pitt stands their ground after Roy Williams and North Carolina have discussions with them, we may see Johnson attend elsewhere. It would be a blow to UNC, as Johnson would make a nice addition to the team for the 2017-18 season. Other suitors for Cameron Johnson include Kentucky, Arizona, Ohio State, Oregon, UCLA and Texas. Hopefully UNC manages to get everything worked out; stay tuned for updates.