At independent Cal State Bakersfield, Alex Johnson had redshirted a year with a knee injury, wanted to play in a conference and wasn’t particularly interested in the school’s graduate programs. He chose N.C. State, which needed a backup point guard after the transfer of freshman Ryan Harrow to Kentucky. Johnson studies family life and youth development with plans of mentoring troubled youth.
“It’s got to be a 50-50 balance,” Johnson said of academics and athletics. “I felt like I didn’t want to go somewhere where the basketball is good but they don’t have what I want to do for the master’s degree. … Making my decision for academics, I made sure that I wanted to do something I really wanted to do, something that was interesting to me.”
But Johnson admits the playing opportunity was key in choosing the Wolfpack instead of Florida State, which had a similar graduate program but also several returning guards. He’s averaging about five points in 20 minutes as N.C. State has its best start in Atlantic Coast Conference play in six years.
“I feel as though if basketball doesn’t work out,” Johnson said, “I have something to show for it: a master’s program … where I can actually help people.”
Johnson could’ve looked down the road in Chapel Hill for a successful example.
After sophomore Ed Davis entered the NBA draft followed by the surprise transfers of freshmen David and Travis Wear in May 2010, North Carolina had two big men left and it was too late to find a recruit capable of immediate help. Around that time, Alabama’s Justin Knox planned to finish undergraduate work and transfer after three years.
The 6-9 forward wanted to pursue playing professionally, setting up a perfect marriage with the short-handed and high-profile Tar Heels. He played every game as a reserve for a team that won the ACC regular season and nearly reached the Final Four. Knox finished his academic work, though he postponed the internship required to complete the two-year program in sports administration because he’s playing professionally in Belarus.
Coach Roy Williams would be open to doing it again, though he’s not adding graduate transfers to recruiting lists.
“For me, it would have to be a specific need,” Williams said. “We don’t always sit around, having a little meeting, put our hands together and have a seance and try to figure out who’s going to leave and have a year’s eligibility left.”
It’s not always easy for a player to find that fit.
Sam Maniscalco missed most of last season at Bradley with an ankle injury and decided to leave after a coaching change. He graduated and drew recruiting interest from several schools before choosing Illinois, which lost Demetri McCamey to graduation and had only freshman Tracy Abrams at the point. Maniscalco is enrolled in a recreation, sport and tourism program, and hopes to play professionally before possibly coaching.
“It definitely was not an easy thing to do and I did not take the decision lightly at all,” said Maniscalco, who averages nine points in 27 minutes. “It was something I put a lot of thought into. And then you have to go through the whole adjustment of a new coaching staff, new teammates, a new city, new fans.
“For just one year. Almost like a free agent type of thing.”
Illini coach Bruce Weber is glad to have Maniscalco, but he shares some of Izzo’s concerns.
“I’m not sure if I like the rule,” Weber said. “I know if I was at a mid-major or a low major, I wouldn’t like it at all.”