COLUMBIA – Damontre Harris’ high school coach said South Carolina will let Harris transfer wherever he wants, with the exception of North Carolina State — a decision the coach strongly criticized Tuesday, a day after USC gave Harris permission to explore a transfer.

Harris, a 6-9 sophomore and the highest-rated recruit on USC’s basketball roster, definitely will not return to USC to play for new coach Frank Martin, said Heath Vandevender, who coached Harris at Trinity Christian School in Fayetteville, N.C.

Harris’ decision to transfer stemmed largely from point guard Bruce Ellington choosing to play football for the second straight year, which will result in him missing the start of the season, and freshman power forward Anthony Gill deciding to transfer. Harris, Ellington and Gill all started last season, when USC went 10-21 — its third straight losing season.

“I know they struggled last year, but there’s a chance for them to struggle even more,” Vandevender said while explaining why Harris wants to transfer to a program that seems more likely to win immediately.

Harris hasn’t decided where he wants to transfer, and hasn’t even set up any visits to schools, Vandevender said. But USC athletic director Eric Hyman is trying to prevent Harris from transferring to N.C. State, which is located 60 miles away from his hometown. Vandevender said that if Martin had his way, Harris would be unconditionally released from his scholarship and could transfer wherever he wanted.

“Frank told Tre that Eric Hyman would not release him to N.C. State,” Vandevender said.

Vandevender said he believes Hyman is taking this stance because Hyman thinks N.C. State assistant coach Orlando Early, a former USC assistant, prematurely spoke to Harris about possibly transferring.

“My opinion would be that Eric feels that Orlando tampered in some way with Tre,” Vandevender said. “That’s just simply not true. If that’s his reasoning, then that’s not very good. ... I just think that whole thing is ridiculous.”

Hyman did not respond directly to the allegations, or confirm the N.C. State transfer restriction for Harris. But USC’s announcement about Harris being given permission to seek a transfer did not specifically say the permission was unrestricted, as was the case with USC’s announcement of Gill being given permission to transfer.

“As a general rule, the University of South Carolina does not have an issue releasing a student-athlete to any other institution, provided proper protocol has been followed,” USC spokesman Steve Fink wrote in an email.

Early worked at USC for one season, 2010-11, when Harris was a freshman. Before that, Early was the head coach at Louisiana-Monroe, so he was not involved in Harris’ recruitment to USC. But Vandevender said Early and Harris became close during Harris’ freshman year. Harris also developed a friendship with graduate assistant Trey Brown, who became a full-time assistant at High Point after last season. Both Early and Brown kept in touch with Harris through this season. “A lot of NCAA coaches do that,” Vandevender said. “That does not mean that they’re recruiting (former players) or they’re asking them to transfer. At no time did any of those guys have conversations with Tre saying that he needs to leave South Carolina and come to High Point or leave South Carolina and come to N.C. State. It’s not uncommon for those college coaches to take different jobs and still stay in contact with those kids.”

Vandevender said the schools that have contacted him about Harris’ services include Virginia, Virginia Tech, Clemson, N.C. State, Florida, Georgia, Kansas and Virginia Commonwealth. Florida heavily recruited Harris out of high school, when he was the No. 68 overall recruit in his class, according to Rivals.com.

Wherever Harris transfers, he will have to sit out next year because of NCAA rules. Vandevender emphasized that Harris has made no decisions. But if he wants to play at N.C. State, Vandevender is adamant about making the transfer work, even if it means Harris paying his own tuition as a non-scholarship walk-on next season, which he would have to do if USC doesn’t release him from his scholarship.

“What I would hope is (USC) would realize there was nothing wrong there and finally release him if that’s where he wanted to go,” Vandevender said. “If that’s where he wanted to go, then that’s where he’s going to go. He could take out a loan, or we could try to fight it.”