- - Saturday, December 24, 2011

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — When Tony Bennett arrived at Virginia, three players left the program within the first year. It was chalked up as normal activity, as lots of college athletes transfer or depart when a new coach doesn’t fit their style.

This time, though, the answers won’t be as simple.

The Cavaliers lost two players in two days, first guard KT Harrell on Friday and then forward James Johnson on Saturday. Of Bennett’s first recruiting class, which consisted of six players, only two remain.

Calls to the U.Va. basketball office were not returned Saturday, which was a scheduled off day for the team. The comment from the program was in the form of an emailed press release, which said Bennett would field questions from reporters on Monday.

“Obviously with KT Harrell yesterday and James today deciding not to continue at Virginia I am disappointed,” Bennett said in the Saturday email. “But with that being said, if James and KT feel it’s best for them not to be here, I think it’s better for everyone to part ways.”

Johnson’s decision is surprising because of the price he will pay to transfer. The other players will be able to maintain a full four years of eligibility, but because Johnson used a redshirt year in 2010-11, he will lose a year if he transfers as an athlete to another Division I institution.

In the past, Bennett has cited the multitude of transfers out of his program as an odd coincidence. Of the players he recruited, Billy Baron left to play for his dad, who coaches at Rhode Island, and Will Regan left for more playing time at his hometown school, Buffalo.

But Harrell had been a starter this year, and Johnson, a 6-9 forward from California, appeared poised to take over for Mike Scott when the all-ACC senior graduated at the end of this season. Johnson has played in six games this season. He scored nine points and grabbed eight rebounds.

Johnson’s comment in the email read, in part: “I love and respect all the individuals that make up the Virginia basketball program … The support and love they showed me was unbelievable and it will be very hard to leave this group. However, I feel strongly that it is in my best interest to pursue other opportunities.”

Virginia is enjoying its most successful season in years, and is No. 24 in the current Associated Press poll, the team’s first ranking since 2007.

Johnson, whose family moved to California while he was in high school, gave no indication that he has chosen his next destination.

The Cavaliers are idle until Tuesday, when they play host to Maryland-Eastern Shore.

Read Michael Phillips‘ Virginia blog at timesdispatch.com