Hoop Thoughts: Answering lingering questions in the Syracuse case, more
Welcome to the latest Bohemian rhapsody.
This one occurred on Saturday afternoon following Syracuse’s 83-77 loss at Pittsburgh. Not surprisingly, Orange coach Jim Boeheim was asked about the school’s announcement on Wednesday that it was banning itself from the 2014 postseason as part of the NCAA’s ongoing investigation into the school’s basketball and football programs. The violations reportedly center on alleged academic fraud, irregularities with regard to drug testing and a suspicious relationship with a man who used to work at a nearby YMCA.
At first, when Boeheim was asked if he would like to respond to people who have been accusing him of running a dirty program, he declined to answer. A moment later, he turned back to his questioner and sniped, “I don’t give a s--- what those people think. I know what I’ve done and I know what we do, and I’m proud of it.”
His lyrics told one story, the music quite another. Of course Boeheim cares what people think. Who wouldn’t? Nobody wants to be labeled a cheater.
So there is a lot at stake here for this coach and this university. There is also a lot at stake for the NCAA’s enforcement shop, which has been in a defensive crouch ever since the Miami football investigation blew up two years ago. After spending the weekend making calls, I can shed some light on what has happened, why it happened, and what will happen in the days ahead. And yet, right now we have a lot more questions than answers about the facts of the Syracuse case and what it means for college athletics.
When will the NCAA give its final ruling?
The answer is, any day now. At the latest, it should be handed down by the end of the month, but there’s a chance it will come this week. Syracuse’s hearing before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions occurred on October 31. Normally, the committee is supposed to report its findings between 30 and 60 days, but as you’ll see in the next answer, there were reasons for further delay. Those reasons don’t exist anymore.
Why did Syracuse wait so long to issue the postseason ban?
The school got heavily criticized for the timing of its announcement. If the decision were made, say, last fall, then that would have given the current players a chance to transfer at midseason. Because the hearing before the infractions committee occurred in late October, that would have been difficult, but still plausible. As long as the ban was announced in December, the players would still have had the chance to transfer mid-semester.
The thing you have to keep in mind about this case is that it is antagonistic. Often times, a school reports findings, then the NCAA investigates, and finally the school and the NCAA agree on a set of facts. That is the so-called “cooperative principle” that is supposed to inform this process. If the case is cooperative, the school will usually impose penalties on itself before it gets to the COI hearing. But because Syracuse was challenging the facts, it was not ready to fall on its sword back then.
In addition, I learned over the weekend that over the last few weeks, Syracuse was pressing an appeal that challenged the investigation on procedural grounds. When the appeal was turned down, Syracuse faced a tight window between that moment and the impending day that the committee will hand down its final penalty. Thus the timing of its announcement.
Why did Syracuse decide on a tournament ban for this season instead of next?
The Orange were going to have a hard time making the NCAA tournament this season, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to speculate that that was a factor in this decision. Most of the current team is coming back and Boeheim signed a top-flight recruiting class. Moreover, if Syracuse issued a ban for next year, that would allow the current players to participate in the postseason and then transfer in the spring if they wish, and it would give the incoming recruits the option of backing out of their commitment.
But should we really have expected the school to levy its postseason ban for next year? Would any school really have done that? In the first place, doing it this year gets the pain out of the way. Instead of having a ban hanging overhead for 13 months, the program only has to operate under that specter for five weeks. Second, if a school wants to appeal the NCAA’s ruling, it typically has to appeal the entire penalty. This way, if the NCAA imposes a two-year postseason ban, the school can try to reinstate the second year by arguing that it already served the first. If it doesn’t self-impose now and gets a two-year ban, then it is left to argue that it doesn’t deserve any postseason ban. That is a harder case to make.
Finally, the torrent of criticism is based on the assumption that some players would want to transfer if they were banned from postseason play next season. Do we really know that to be true? Whether a post-season ban was levied for 2015 or 2016, it was going to cause a lot of pain for players who were not involved in this case. I doubt there are many schools that would not have chosen the path of least resistance.
Will Boeheim fall prey to the so-called coach responsibility rule?
This edict was put on the books in August 2013. It allows the NCAA to penalize a head coach directly if any any major violations have been committed by an assistant or another employee. While we do not yet know whether any of these violations were committed by someone in the basketball office, we know that none of the alleged violations occurred after 2012. The coaches’ responsibility rule can not be applied retroactively, so on this front, Boeheim is in the clear.
Why did this case take six years to investigate?
This is an important question for the NCAA to answer. Most cases take one to two years, but this has dragged on. It is unacceptable for the public to be left in the dark for this long. I understand the need to keep some of the more sensitive details under wraps, but the NCAA has to find a better way to inform everyone where things stand.
To be fair to the NCAA, they are hamstrung by legislation written and passed by member schools like Syracuse. Believe me, those enforcement folks in Indianapolis would love to explain what is going on, and president Mark Emmert has been advocating greater transparency for a while now. But the schools would rather keep the information private so they can hire lawyers to blast “the NCAA” for dragging its feet. Can't have it both ways.
No doubt Syracuse’s adversarial stance was a factor in this case taking so long as well. From what I hear, at the very beginning Syracuse presented a set of findings and then later tried to rescind some of them. It also did not help that the NCAA’s enforcement division has been in such disarray the last few years, as I address in the next question. At any rate, once the COI issues its final ruling, the NCAA needs to answer this question -- and then bring a lot more transparency to this process.
Does this mean that the NCAA’s enforcement division is back in business?
In a word, yes.
Much of the enforcement division’s activity ground to a halt in January, 2013, when Emmert revealed that some disturbing tactics had been used during the NCAA’s investigation into Miami’s football program. Besides inducing everyone to lawyer up, that episode caused the director of enforcement, Julie Roe Lach, to lose her job. The managing director of enforcement, Rachel Newman Baker, later left for Kentucky. Several other investigators and other top personnel departed or were forced out. The desks were empty, and the morale was low.
The task of rebuilding fell to John Duncan, a Kansas City attorney who had served as the NCAA’s outside legal counsel for many years. At first, Duncan was brought in on an interim basis, but last April he was tapped to be NCAA’s permanent vice president of enforcement. Duncan has been busy hiring and restructuring over the last year, but in the meantime many people in college sports were openly complaining that enforcement was too lax. You’ll recall that Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby made that very observation at the league’s football media day last fall. When I spoke to Duncan on Saturday, he rejected the narrative that enforcement had been rendered impotent (my word) by the Miami miasma, but he acknowledged that “we’ve emerged from a period of external reform and internal rebuilding, and we’re firing on all cylinders right now.”
So where are the NCAA’s gumshoes setting their sights?
Recruiting, agents and renegade boosters will always be staples of these investigations, but you can expect a lot more academic fraud cases to be brought in the coming years. (Yes, that includes the North Carolina basketball case, which has been quiet for a while but won’t be for much longer.) One of the major changes implemented under Duncan’s watch has been the establishment of an academic integrity unit. Duncan told me that his group is processing nearly two dozen academic fraud cases right now.
This is a growing area for three reasons. First, academic standards have increased over the last decade. Second, the advent of online courses has opened a new and easy way for students to skirt the rules to become eligible. And third, because so much information is transferred electronically, investigators can simply follow the electronic footprint using meta data, IP addresses and other resources to root out violators.
What did Jim Boeheim know, and when did he know it?
In the end, this is the only question that really matters.
Boeheim is one of the most successful coaches in the history of the game, yet this is the second time his program has been visited by a postseason ban. The first came in 1992, when the NCAA discovered violations committed by some boosters. I understand everyone is anxious to pass a harsh judgment, but let’s at least be fair and wait until we have all the information before we render our verdict. Yes, in the abstract the head coach is ultimately responsible for the program, but it is a cop-out to use that as a heavy cudgel against Boeheim's legacy. If there's a smoking gun, let's see it.
There has been no shortage of questions about what has happened here. After six years, we are finally about to get some real answers. Stay tuned.
Other Hoop Thoughts
• Oklahoma State has defeated Kansas at home in four of the last six meetings in Stillwater. Yet, when the Cowboys won on Saturday for the second straight year, the fans stormed the court. That is just bad form, people.
• And yet, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Le’Bryan Nash, Oklahoma State’s 6-foot-7 senior forward who is putting up the best numbers of his career (16.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg). Nash was one of those quote-unquote highly rated recruits coming out of high school. In our microwave culture, players like him are meant to feel like failures if they don’t turn pro within their first two years. Nash fought through that garbage, resisted the temptation to enter the draft, and he has emerged as a productive, mature player. I have no idea if he will play in the NBA, and frankly I don’t care. If he maintains this attitude moving forward, he’ll be successful no matter what happens to him.
• Imagine: Kentucky was able to squeeze out a win at Florida by shooting 21-for-22 from the foul line. That’s one of the many reasons why I think that was the Wildcats’ most impressive win of the season. I know how badly they beat Kansas and UCLA, and winning at Louisville wasn’t easy. But when you consider that freshman forward Trey Lyles was out with an illness, freshman guard Devin Booker was hobbled by cramps, and the Wildcats were playing an inspired team in a hostile environment and trailed for much of the game ... and yet, they still pulled it out by pounding the glass and making their free throws? That’s championship character, my friends.
• Sigh, another week, another bummer of an injury to talk about. This one was a broken finger suffered by Virginia’s leading scorer, 6-6 junior guard Justin Anderson, in the second half of the Cavaliers’ win over Louisville Saturday night. The injury requires surgery, and the team is hoping to get Anderson back in time for the NCAA tournament.
• Three people achieved impressive milestones on Saturday. Division II Philadelphia University coach Herb Magee won his 1,000th career game. BYU junior guard Kyle Collinsworth set an NCAA record with his fifth triple double of the season (23 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists in a win at Loyola Marymount). And Wisconsin senior guard Josh Gasser set a school record with his 127th career start. That’s quite a trifecta for one day.
• I realize it’s still early, but you can see the benefits of Mike Krzyzewski’s decision to jettision Rasheed Sulaimon from the Duke program. The biggest beneficiary is Matt Jones, a 6-5 sopomore guard who came off the bench to score a career-high 17 points (on 3-for-5 three-point shooting) in Saturday’s shellacking of Notre Dame. It’s a lot easier to knock down shots when you don’t have to worry about someone taking your minutes.
• Seton Hall has had a crazy ride this season, but right now the team is going straight downhill. At one point, the Pirates were 12-2 and ranked in the top 25, but on Saturday, they lost at home on Saturday to a Marquette team that was 2-8 in the Big East and was missing its leading scorer. That dropped the Pirates to 5-6 in the conference. Their next game is at home against Georgetown, and then they hit the road to play Providence, Villanova and St. John’s. Next to time you look up, the Pirates could be 5-10 in the league with a mighty steep climb back into the NCAA tournament picture.
• As you all know, I’ve been pining for more scoring, but I am not a fan of the NBA’s rule that allows a team to inbound the ball at halfcourt following a time out. Just strikes me as a cheap trick.
• It’s interesting the way perceptions work. For the last few years, Scott Drew has brought in highly rated recruiting classes to Baylor, and as a result we’ve heard a lot about how his teams supposedly underachieved. (That was a stupid perception considering the guy has been to three Sweet 16s and two Elite Eights in the last five years.) Now that he has a team with no heralded recruits, people like his team. There was certainly a lot to like on Saturday when Baylor went into Morgantown and shredded West Virginia’s supposedly vaunted fullcourt press. The Bears have had a solid season but had lacked a signature road win. Now they have one.
• Incidentally, this is the time of year we follow the dominos, so Baylor’s recent surge is helping Illinois’ cause. The Illini beat Baylor in Las Vegas back on Nov. 28, and on Saturday Illinois earned a signature road win itself at Michigan State. Illinois has been playing without two of their top guards, Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby, who have been injured and are now healed, but they are currently suspended. I spoke with John Groce over the weekend, and he told me both players have been medically cleared and have been participating in full contact practices. Groce would not give me a timetable for their return, but don’t be surprised if it happens this week.
• I almost never see a college coach try a two-for-one possession in the final minute of a half, and I really don’t know why.
• North Carolina picked up a nice road win at Boston College, but Marcus Paige was just 1-for-5 from three-point range. This kid can barely practice because he has plantar fasciitis in one foot and a sprained ankle above the other. The Tar Heels have won a lot of games, but they are ripe to be plucked in the tournament.
• I just love what I’m seeing out of Butler these days. This team has that familiar blend of toughness and skill that always characterized Brad Stevens’ teams.
• One of my favorite Dean Smith quotes: “I don’t need outside shooters, I need outside makers.”
• Please try to remember: There’s a big difference between a wrong call and a bad call.
• It’s the second week of February, and there is a seven-way tie for first place in the Big South. Never seen anything like it.
• Michigan State’s problem isn’t that it’s a poor free throw shooting team, it’s that the teams best shooters don’t get to the line nearly enough. In the loss to Illinois, Denzel Valentine didn’t attempt a free throw, and Travis Trice was 1-for-3. Been this way all season.
• Ten years ago, you rarely saw a ball screen in college basketball. Now, most every team uses ball multiple screens most every possession. How long until the pendulum swings back?
• I’m already dreading the tortured does-Gonzaga-deserve-a-number-one-seed debate. It’s going to sound a lot like last year’s Wichita State debate and probably end up the same way. The reality is, if this team does not lose a game between now and Selection Sunday, it will almost certainly be a No. 1 seed. Arizona’s loss at Arizona State helped buttress Gonzaga’s cause. The Wildcats, who right now are the Zags’ top competitor for the No. 1 spot in the West, have now lost three games to teams that will probably not be in the NCAA tournament -- UNLV, Oregon State and Arizona State.
• Here’s something you don’t see often: Last Thursday, Iowa forward Aaron White was called for two technical fouls in the Hawkweyes’ win over Michigan, but he did not get ejected. Why? Because his first was for taunting, which is a Class A technical. His second was for hanging on the rim, which is a Class B technical. In order to be ejected, a player needs to be whistled for two Class A technicals, one A and two Bs, or three Bs. Class dismissed.
• Also, with respect to Iowa, I thought Adam Woodbury’s poke in Melo Trimble’s eye Sunday night looked far more incidental than the two pokes he had in the game against Wisconsin. Unlike that game, where Woodbury was trying to bother Nigel Hayes and Frank Kaminsky, he was not guarding Trimble but had only reached in to help. Plus, keep in mind that Woodbury is 7-1, which means he is 11 inches taller than Trimble. So when he reaches out, his hand is already at Trimble’s eye level. That’s why it was so foolish for Fran McCaffery to react so churlishly when he was asked about it at the postgame press conference. Instead of just saying, “I don’t know why it keeps happening to Adam, but it was an accident and I’m just glad Trimble is OK,” the coach snapped at the reporter for not asking an “intelligent question.” So of course that exchange went viral and was aired on all the news shows, which meant exponentially more people saw Woodbury’s poke. Turnover, McCaffery.
• Another unusual call was made in the Illinois-Michigan State game when Illinois guard Jaylon Tate was assessed a technical foul by referee Terry Wymer for excessively boxing out Spartans guard Travis Trice on a free throw Trice had just attempted. Even if you agree Tate’s box out was excessive (which I don’t), this call was still incorrect because, as replays and freeze frame photos illustrated, the ball was still above the rim when Tate made his contact. That meant it was a live ball. A ball is not “dead” until it passes completely through the net. A ref can’t call a personal foul when the ball is dead, so if he sees something, his only option is to call a dead-ball technical.
• San Diego State has had an up and down year, but the Aztecs still have a remarkable streak intact. They have won 137 straight games when leading with five minutes to go.
• Temple has a better at-large resume than you think. The Owls have lost three games in American Conference play, but in two of those (Tulsa and SMU at home), their starting point guard and best free throw shooter, 6-2 senior Will Cummings, was hobbled by a lower leg injury. In the third, a 31-point loss at Cincinnati, Cummings missed the game entirely. I promise you that will enter into the selection committee’s conversations. Also, remember that Temple beat Kansas by 25 points in late December.
• Did St. Bonaventure guard Marcus Posley have a good week or what? On Wednesday night, the 6-1 junior guard made a driving layup at the buzzer to give the Bonnies a 62-61 at Davidson. And then on Saturday, he hit another layup at the buzzer to beat VCU at home, 73-71. Most players go through their entire lives without having one moment like that, much less two that were three days apart.
• Man, Georgia Tech has had a lot of bad breaks this season. Of the Yellow Jackets’ nine ACC losses, six were by five points or fewer, and two were in overtime -- including a one-point OT loss at home to N.C. State that was decided on a buzzer-beating three-pointer.
• Texas managed to win at Kansas State Saturday without 5-11 junior guard Javan Felix and 6-8 senior forward Jonathan Holmes back, who were both out with concussions, but the sooner, the better. After next week’s games at home against TCU and Texas Tech, the Longhorns play five straight games against ranked teams, three of which are on the road. My understanding is that Felix could be back this week, but Holmes, who did not even make the trip to Kansas State, is going to take a while longer.
• Lest anyone ever try to convince you that athletic success does not correlate to a spike in admissions, consider that between 2013 and 2014, Wichita State saw its number of applicants mushroom from 2,874 to 5,120. Think that might have had something to do with the Shockers making the Final Four?
• Finally, we all owe a big thank you to Georgia Tech assistant coach Tom Herrion and Towson head coach Pat Skerry for creating an autism awareness weekend in college basketball for the second straight year. Both men have a child with autism, and their efforts led to dozens of coaches and broadcasters around the country to wear the signature blue puzzle pieces all weekend.
Five Games I'm PSyched To See This Week
* Weekend games not included
Ho hum, just another game between two ranked Big 12 teams. Aside from a 21-point loss at West Virginia four weeks ago, the Sooners have been pretty consistent and are riding a four-game win streak. When teams are this good and this evenly matched, I go with the home team.
Oklahoma 80, Iowa State 76
Kentucky at LSU, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN
The road games at Florida and LSU were supposed to be Kentucky’s biggest tests of the season. The Gators did their part, so now it’s the Tigers’ turn. They have the frontline chops to hang with Kentucky, but their guards could be overwhelmed by UK’s defense. Still, this won’t be an easy turnaround for the Wildcats, so hopefully they will have 6-10 freshman forward Trey Lyles available. He has missed the last three games because of illness.
Kentucky 74, LSU 66
Cincinnati at Temple, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network
First one to 50 wins!
Temple 52, Cincinnati 48
Indiana at Maryland, Wednesday, 9 p.m., Big Ten Network
Maryland freshman guard Melo Trimble finally had a good game at Iowa on Sunday night, scoring 20 points on 7-for-12 shooting. The Terrapins didn’t get the win, but that’s a good sign. Besides, you all know how much I love desperate home teams.
Maryland 77, Indiana 71
The Cardinal is going through a rough patch right now. The team has lost three of its last six games and darn near lost to USC at home on Sunday night. Chasson Randle has not shot the ball well of late, and hitting the road to face Delon Wright and his friends is not the way to get back on track.
Utah 76, Stanford 66
This Week's AP Ballott
* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kentucky (1)
2. Wisconsin (2)
3. Duke (3)
4. Virginia (4)
5. Gonzaga (5)
6. Villanova (9)
7. Kansas (7)
8. Louisville (10)
9. Notre Dame (8)
10. Iowa State (11)
11. North Carolina (12)
12. Arizona (6)
13. Baylor (22)
14. Utah (13)
15. Northern Iowa (14)
16. Ohio State (16)
17. Wichita State (17)
18. Oklahoma (19)
19. Oklahoma State (NR)
20. Butler (NR)
21. Cincinnati (NR)
22. Iowa (NR)
23. Stephen F. Austin (24)
24. Murray State (25)
25. West Virginia (15)
Dropped out: Maryland (18), VCU (20), Georgetown (21), SMU (23)
We are at the time of the season when, despite the mad flurry of games being played, the results have very little impact on the polls. That is always going to be more true for conference road losses. You’ll notice Kansas did not drop at all despite falling at Oklahoma State. The Jayhawks proved their mettle with a convincing win at home over Iowa State earlier in the week. So instead of penalizing Kansas, I rewarded Oklahoma State. That’s what you do in mid-February.
West Virginia, on the other hand, got run out of not one but two gyms last week, including at home against Baylor. I wanted to drop the Mountaineers completely off my ballot, but I couldn’t find a suitable candidate for No. 25. I would have gone with San Diego State, but the Aztecs got manhandled at Boise State on Sunday night. Maybe next week.
Maryland has also played its way off my board, but there are enough quality opponents on its remaining schedule to play its way back in. That includes the Feb. 24 matchup with Wisconsin in College Park.
I hated dropping VCU because the Rams are short handed. Not only did they lose point guard Briante Weber to an ACL, but they have been without Treveon Graham, who has been nursing an ankle injury and did not play last weekend. Still, this team has lost two of its last three games against pretty weak teams (Richmond and St. Bonaventure). I think this is a good team, but since there are no ranked teams in the Atlantic 10, it will be hard for the Rams to climb back in.
I took an especially close look at some SEC teams. The problem is that, aside from beating Kentucky, it’s not easy for teams to notch significant wins. For example, Arkansas is the top candidate, but but the Razorbacks couldn’t quite pull off the road win at Florida two weekends ago. Beating South Carolina and Mississippi State at home last week just didn’t move the needle for me.
I also considered Indiana and Purdue, which are part of that six-team, four-loss pileup behind Wisconsin in the Big Ten standings. Indiana has lost three of its last five, and the two wins were at home over Rutgers and Michigan (and they were hardly dominant wins at that). I couldn’t vote Purdue immediately after it dropped a road game at Minnesota, which was just the Gophers’ fourth Big Ten win this season. Also, keep in mind that Purdue beat Ohio State by two points when the Buckeyes were without Marc Loving, the Big Ten’s best three-point shooter, and they beat the Hawkeyes after their best player, Aaron White, left the game early in the first half because of a shoulder injury.
Other teams I considered voting for included Rhode Island and Dayton, which are chugging along near the top of the Atlantic 10 standings; Saint Mary’s, which is 10-2 in the West Coast Conference; and Wyoming, which lost at Air Force on Saturday night but was playing without leading scorer Larry Nance Jr., who was sick. Wyoming has a huge game at San Diego State on Wednesday night. If the Cowboys win that one and then defeat San Jose State at home over the weekend, there’s a good chance they will have a number next to their name next week.