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Virginia is for Leavers. But why?

Jul 13, 2013, 6:52 PM EDT

Tony Bennett AP

I live in Charlottesville, VA, so I hear all the questions and concerns about Tony Bennett’s program on a daily basis. When one of those questions begins to creep into the national college hoops conversation, you know something strange is going on.

Following the news that Taylor Barnette will transfer from UVA, announced very late in the offseason just last week, the question has been widely asked: What’s up with all those transfers, Tony? Bennett has been on the job in Charlottesville for four years, and he’s had eight transfers make the headlines. For a program that seems to be on the cusp of the NCAA tournament every season, that’s an alarming trend.

I hit up a friend who has worked in a few AD’s offices in the state, and he came up with the same answers that Jim Young of ACCSports did in the article I linked above. It’s a combination of four factors, which I’ll quote from my source while maintaining his anonymity:

Short answer: playing time/homesickness/reaches/system. Pick at least one

Homesick: Regan/Johnson/Jesperson
Playing time: Harrell/Baron/Barnette
Reaches (were they really ACC players?): Regan/Baron/Barnette
System: Spurlock

In a way, I’d have to nudge Billy Baron – who played the 2010-11 season with the Cavaliers – into the homesick camp as well. Baron chose UVA over his father Jim’s program at Rhode Island. With his dad on the perennial hot seat, Baron must have wondered why he threw over his pops to average 11 minutes and three points per game, even at an ACC school. Billy rejoined his dad for one season at Rhode Island before Jim was fired, and the two moved on to Canisius together.

If you look at the list of transfer reasons, the first two are kind of understandable and universal, though. Every program deals with transfers that fall into the homesickness/playing time category. The ones that seem specific to Bennett and UVA are the last two.

The system, at this point, is a well-known commodity. Bennett used it to revive Washington State before he came to Virginia. The upshot: If you want to run, don’t play for Bennett. There’s no mystery there, and Bennett’s assistants, who have been with him for years, are not misleading anyone on that score. It’s a testament to Bennett’s charisma that Tristan Spurlock – a Virginia native who transferred to Central Florida – stayed on for one season of Bennett ball after being originally recruited by Dave Leitao. By this point, no player should pretend to be shocked when he’s asked to crash the boards, play interior defense, and walk the ball up the floor more often than not. The system is what makes Virginia a dangerous team against programs that can out-recruit them at every turn. Unless a truly elite player plans to come to Charlottesville, the system has to be paramount.

So, that brings us to the reaches. To contend in the ACC, you have to be in a position where you’re not reaching very often. Bennett’s been building a program from the ground up, so he’s had to extend his grasp from time to time. In fact, despite the potential shown by each player who transferred out, you’ll note that only one of them has latched on with a power-conference program so far. Will Regan shuffled off to Buffalo. Baron followed his dad down the conference ladder to the A-10, then the MAAC. Jeff Jones became a contributor at Rider, and Spurlock is growing into his role at UCF. James Johnson moved closer to home, landing on a quality San Diego State roster, but he’s still warming the bench. We don’t know yet where Jesperson or Barnette will end up. That leaves K.T. Harrell, who will start the next phase of his career at Auburn next season. Not exactly a step up in the current college hoops pecking order. We’ll never know if Bennett could have shaped those guys into ACC-caliber players, but right now, it sure looks like he didn’t lose anything he can’t live without.

As the ACC gets tougher, with the addition of Pitt and Syracuse, Bennett will find his program being pushed closer to the NIT or worse every season. It’s unlikely that the days of a Ralph Sampson coming to UVA will ever return, so we’ll expect the Cavaliers to be forced to reach from time to time. That’s fine, as long as those kids aren’t the core of the starting five.

Local fans will fondly remember when this team was paced by the wonderful backcourt duo of Sean Singletary and J.R. Reynolds. I believe Tony Bennett can find that kind of chemistry on his own roster, possibly very soon. If a few flyers and projects don’t work out in the interim, perhaps that’s not the worst thing in the world.

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

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