Column: Final Four matchup as much about scandals as baskets
Coming to Houston this week with hopes of another national championship is North Carolina, a school embroiled in one of the biggest NCAA academic scandals ever for enrolling athletes in sham classes and having tutors write their papers to keep them eligible.
There to meet them will be the scrappy team from Syracuse, fresh off a postseason ban and coaching suspension for breaking a smorgasbord of NCAA rules.
The oddsmakers favor North Carolina, which seems fitting. There are some people, cynical as they might be, who believe the university found a way to delay upcoming NCAA penalties because the Tar Heels were loaded with talent this year and had a good chance to make the Final Four.
Don't sell Syracuse short, though. If the Orange aren't on a mission, their coach seems to be as he tries to stick it to the same NCAA that he believes unfairly forced him to watch on TV as his team played nearly a third of its games without him this season.
Not since the NCAA had to deal uncomfortably with UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian in two back-to-back Final Fours have we seen one like this. About the only thing that will be missing in Houston is Louisville and its retinue of strippers and hookers.
The NCAA had to tolerate Tarkanian when he coached the Runnin' Rebels to the national semifinals in 1990 and 1991, winning the first and getting upset by Duke in the second. It wasn't long, though, before investigators bent on catching the towel-chewing coach doing something, anything, that was against the rules ended a potential dynasty in the desert by forcing him out.
This one is a bit different because they already had the goods on Jim Boeheim, who in a scathing NCAA report last year was hit with a number of violations that resulted in a nine-game coaching suspension, the loss of scholarships and the vacating of 108 wins. The report cited academic misconduct, payment to athletes for ''volunteer'' work at a YMCA and violations of the university's drug-testing policy.
At the time, Boeheim protested that the penalties were ''unduly harsh,'' especially since Syracuse had already voluntarily imposed a one season postseason ban for the basketball program. The longtime coach modified his words some on Monday, but still seems to believe he was singled out for punishment for things he had no control over.
''There's certain words that I object to. `Clean' is one of them,'' Boeheim said Monday. ''Things can happen in a program. That doesn't mean it's something dirty. It just means something happened that shouldn't have happened, and you try to correct it. You face your punishment and you move on. That's what you do.''
The coaches, it seems, never know. Not Boeheim, or Rick Pitino at Louisville.
And certainly not Roy Williams.
The Carolina coach will tell anyone who will listen that the basketball program is clean, and that most of the problems with the sham classes over a span of 18 years were with football and other athletic programs.
''There were mistakes made. We said that freely,'' Williams said in what he surely hopes will be the last comments on the subject this week. ''We're discouraged about it, sad about it. You can put any description there you want. I don't think my integrity and credibility should have been in need of validating.''
Left unsaid by Williams was that a university investigation showed 167 enrollments by basketball players into the African and Afro-American Studies program at the center of the scandal since he was named coach in 2003.
Players didn't need to go to classes in most cases because there weren't any. All they had to do was write a paper - or have someone write a paper for them - to get credits to remain eligible.
Former player Rashad McCants is on record saying he took a number of the classes in his three years at Chapel Hill, including four during the 2005 national championship season. McCants said tutors wrote his papers for him, and claimed Williams was ''100 percent aware of the `paper class' system,'' something the coach denies.
Some might say the NCAA is committing a violation itself by hosting a tournament that brings in some $800 million while giving athletes little more than tuition and room and board. But this is the system Boeheim and Williams coach under, the same system that allows them to make millions of dollars a year on the backs of their teenage charges.
One of their teams may win the national championship. Indeed, the Tar Heels are the odds-on favorite to cut down the nets Monday night.
For those who care about real student-athletes, though, it just won't feel right to celebrate.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg