It was fitting that the most significant vote in the recent history of the NCAA was taken on a Saturday, when most fans were too busy tracking more than 140 basketball games to notice. This is as it should be. The games should always matter most.
Yet, make no mistake: What happened on Saturday at the NCAA’s convention just outside of Washington D.C., was seismic. Using the so-called autonomy structure that was put into place last summer, representatives from the five most powerful conferences passed a rule that will allow them to put between $2,000 and $4,000 (depending on the school) directly into the pockets of their athletes to meet the full cost of attending college. Beginning in August, there will be no more woeful tales about players who are unable to take their girlfriend to the movies while they generate millions for their schools. Most of them will have the opportunity to graduate without any debt, which is something that a majority of their classmates can’t say.
Even though only five conferences passed this rule, it applies to the NCAA’s entire Division I membership. No one is required to provide this money, but no one is prevented from doing so, either. When I spoke to Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby by phone on Sunday, he conceded that the new rule and the structure which enabled it had been “aided somewhat by the courts,” but he recognized that the changes were overdue. “This was a first step on what will be a long path,” he said. “There are a lot of things that are right about college athletics, but there are a lot of things that need to be fixed.”
Of even greater significance was the fact that, for the first time, real live student-athletes were not only heard, but counted. The 80-member voting panel included three student-athletes from each of the five leagues. The votes from the kids counted the same as the ones cast by the grown-ups, and they made compelling arguments to support their positions. “They were outspoken and they were engaged and they cast their ballots as they saw fit,” Bowlsby said.
The student representatives felt that historic responsibility. They came to Washington prepared to make their cases. “There was probably some hesitation as to whether we knew what we were talking about, but it was clear that the athletes who spoke were educated and informed,” said Ty Darlington, a center on Oklahoma’s football team who represented the Big 12. “We didn’t just know the gist or the rules. We really got into the details. I would like to think we proved ourselves as equals.”
Surprisingly, Darlington was one of many of student-athletes who opposed the other major reform that passed, a rule which prevents coaches from declining to renew one-year scholarships purely for athletic reasons. Many people, including myself, have derided the act of non-renewing as patently unfair, but Darlington was one of several students who said they liked being held accountable to their athletic performance. “I feel like a coach should be able to remove an athlete off the team if that person is not qualified,” Darlington told me.
Autonomy became necessary four years ago, when the NCAA’s schools voted down legislation that would have allowed them to provide for cost of attendance. Most of the 350 or so schools in Division I are financially strapped and didn’t want to be put at a competitive disadvantage. However, that tied the hands of the schools that could afford to pay that money -- the same schools that also happen to face the most legal exposure. So the power five made their position clear: Pass autonomy, or we’re going to break off from the NCAA entirely.
Last weekend was the first glimmer of the potential for real and necessary change. There were other much-needed reforms passed, as well, including protocols to treat concussions and a discretionary fund that will permit student-athletes to borrow against future earnings to purchase insurance in case they get hurt. There are lots more issues to address in the near future, such as the outbreak of transfers (and the capricious waivers that enable them), mental and physical health, initial eligibility standards and, stickiest of all, enforcement. As of now, there is no momentum toward opening up restrictions on endorsements and ancillary marketing opportunities, but at least there is a structure in place that would allow those things to be explored, especially if the NCAA keeps getting trounced in court.
Thanks to autonomy, we got the welcome news two weeks ago that the four schools whose teams were participating in the College Football Playoff could provide travel expenses for the players’ families. (Again, no one was required to pay those expenses, but schools are incentivized to do so because they compete for the top recruits.) The same provision will be in place for the men's and women's basketball Final Fours.
In other words, we are officially in the era of common sense. Believe it or not, most of the people who run the NCAA really do understand that the system is way out of whack. They have always wanted to make things better. Now, for the first time, they can.
Other Hoop Thoughts
• Man was I bummed to hear that Michigan junior forward Caris LeVert is done for the season because of a foot injury. LeVert is one of the great stories in college hoops. He originally committed to Ohio, but when John Groce left to take the Illinois job, LeVert re-opened his recruitment. He was considered too skinny by most high majors, but John Beilein took a chance on him. Through sheer hard work and determination, LeVert converted himself into an all-conference caliber player and a projected NBA first-round pick. This injury sucks, but I have no doubt that LeVert will fight through this and have a very prosperous professional career.
• Kentucky won a pair of conference games last week by a combined 71 points. Just so we’re clear, they are the only team in the country that is capable of doing that.
• I am still shocked that Coach K played zone for an entire game against Louisville. The guy is almost 68 years old, he has won almost 1,000 games, yet he is still open-minded enough to try something that is a radical departure of everything he has done before. And it’s the perfect defense for this team, because it masks their guards’ inability to stop dribble penetration, and it prevents Jahlil Okafor from having to defend a screen-and-roll 18 feet from the basket.
• One fly in the ointment for Duke: All five starters played at least 31 minutes in the win. I feel like we go through this every season. Duke starts out with some depth, and then Coach K loses faith in his reserves and shortens his bench. It usually happens later than this, though.
• And I loved Rick Pitino saying afterward that his guys were open but just couldn’t make shots. There’s a reason they were so open.
• If you want to tell me that Villanova’s 6-foot-11 junior forward Daniel Ochefu is the most improved player in America, I won’t try to talk you out of it. He has developed in a way that Mouphtaou Yarou never did.
• Arizona thrashed Utah, which is great for them. What’s better is the reason they pulled away in the second half: Stanley Johnson scored all 18 of his points after intermission. Johnson is an immensely talented scorer, but he has been too deferential of late. It’s nice that senior point guard T.J. McConnell can pick up the slack, but that is not Arizona’s best recipe for success. It’s a long season and it’s understandable that a freshman would get mentally and physically worn down, but when Johnson is hunting his offense, the Wildcats are playing their A game.
• Frankly, I’m a little worried about Utah’s confidence after that beatdown. The Utes are going to have to learn to play rugged, physical basketball if they’re going to beat good teams away from home.
• I love the way Iowa State's pieces fit together. This team is full of versatile, skilled athletes who share the ball. The final piece is Jameel McKay, the 6-9 juco transfer who became eligible four weeks ago and had three blocks and 11 points in the big win over the Jayhawks on Saturday.
• And did you notice that Iowa State fans did not rush the court after that win? Iowa State fans, you complete me.
• Speaking of Kansas, I have to say that I am shocked that Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk is still a non-factor at this point of the season. I get that he’s a 17-year-old Ukranian playing in America for the first time, but I still thought he could be of some help. The Jayhawks sure could use some more offensive pop heading down the stretch.
• Indiana has now won two games since it lost its only serviceable big man, Hanner Mosquera-Perea, to a knee injury. Sure, the wins came over non-tournament teams (home vs Penn State, at Illinois Sunday), but it shows that this team is more resilient than a lot of people realized. It also shows that sometimes, going smaller can make a team better because it means also becoming quicker.
• Dayton is another example of a team proving that smaller can be better. When the school dismissed the team’s starting center, Devon Scott, and his backup, Jalen Robinson, in December because of a campus investigation into thefts, that left Miller with six scholarship players, none of whom are taller than 6-6. And yet, the Flyers have won every single game since, eight in a row and counting. They’re 5-0 in the Atlantic 10, and while those wins have come against the bottom teams in the league, it is still remarkable. Archie Miller deserves a ton of credit for what he has done with this group.
• Notre Dame really caught a break getting 6-10 junior forward Zach Auguste back from academic limbo. Auguste only missed one game and played just nine minutes off the bench in the win over Miami, but the Irish, which are the best halfcourt offensive team in the country, would really have missed his physical presence on the defensive end.
• I admit it. I’ve got a man crush on Melo Trimble. Deal with it.
• Two other notes on Maryland: First, I think it’s awesome that the school is turning Cole Field House into a football practice facility. It’s a shame people won’t play basketball in there anymore, but that building is too important and magical to go unused. (Among other things, Cole Field House hosted the historic 1966 NCAA final between UTEP and Kentucky.)
Second, check out this Baltimore Sun story about how Maryland assistant Juan Dixon, who is still my all-time favorite college player. Dixon, who serves as a special assistant to Mark Turgeon and aspires to be a college coach, has been helping the teams student managers beat their Big Ten counterparts. He is the ultimate ringer.
• Meanwhile, it was noteworthy to see Michigan State freshman Javon Bess make his first start on Saturday at Maryland. Tom Izzo wanted to start Bess from the first game, but the 6-5 swingman from Columbus missed the first 10 games because of foot injury. Izzo prefers to bring Bryn Forbes off the bench, because if he doesn’t then there are no good offensive players he can turn to outside the starting five. So even though Michigan State got throttled, I expect Izzo to stick with this rotation for the foreseeable future.
• For much the same reason, Billy Donovan shook up his starting lineup after the Gators lost back-to-back games to Florida State and UConn by bringing Michael Frazier off the bench. Frazier led the SEC in three-point percentage last year at 45.5, but he is making just 38.3 percent this season. The Gators won three straight with the new rotation, but they lost at Georgia by 12 on Saturday.
• Very nice (and much-needed) win for Texas at home over West Virginia, but sophomore point guard Isaiah Taylor still ain’t right. In the four games he has played since returning from his shoulder injury, Taylor has averaged 8.3 points, has made just 10 of his 40 shot attempts, and has committed 11 turnovers to 13 assists. Of course, it’s not surprising that he’s rusty. If anything, it should give Texas fans hope that this team will get better as Taylor gets back into game shape.
• That was painful watching Wyoming forward Larry Nance Jr. missed two free throws with the score tied and 0.5 seconds left in double overtime at Fresno State late on Saturday night. The Cowboys won the game in the third extra session, but you’ve gotta believe that if Nance, a 77 percent free throw shooter, is ever in that situation again, he’s going to remember what happened.
• So is it officially time to start taking DePaul seriously? The Blue Demons, which have won a grand total of nine Big East games in Oliver Purnell’s four previous seasons, beat St. John’s at home on Sunday to improve to 4-2 in the league. DePaul beat Stanford by 15 points back in November, but it also lost six straight games last month. That’s going to make it hard to get to the NCAA tournament as an at-large, but we can no longer laugh off the possibility.
• One reason San Diego State has had such scoring problems is that freshman guard Trey Kell is having a hard time with the transition to college. Kell scored 14 points in a loss to Arizona in November and he put up 12 points (including nine from the foul line) in a big win at Wyoming last week. But those have been the exceptions. At the start of the season, Steve Fisher was hoping Kell might be able to become his starting point guard, but Kell was not ready for that, so Aqueel Quinn, a fifth-year senior, has assumed that responsibility. Kell is going to be a really good player in the Mountain West someday, but it's healthy reminder that when you see a freshman come into college right away, that is the exception, not the rule.
• We need to start acknowledging the possibility that UConn is not going to make the NCAA tournament. The Huskies lost at Stanford on Saturday to fall to 9-7 on the season. Ryan Boatright is really struggling with his three-point shooting, having made just 7 of his last 24 attempts. When a team only has one consistent perimeter weapon, it becomes very easy to scout.
• I don’t mean to take away from Robert Upshaw’s accomplishment of setting a single-season blocks record at Washington, but it’s quite clear there isn’t a great pantheon of shot blockers who have come through that program. When’s the last time you saw a player set a single-season record in January?
• Seton Hall is a classic case of a team getting better because of an injury. Freshman guard Isaiah Whitehead, the Big East’s preseason rookie of the year, broke his foot in late December, and he won’t be back for another two weeks. In his absence, 6-2 junior guard Sterling Gibbs has become a more aggressive scorer (four 20-plus performances in his last five outings) and another freshman, 6-3 guard Khadeen Carrington, has provided some valuable help off the bench. (He had 17 points in the big win over Villanova two weeks ago.) When Whitehead comes back, he will be joining a team that is more equipped to win, and he will have plenty of time to get up to speed himself for the NCAA tournament.
• Finally, my hearty congratulations to Belmont coach Rick Byrd for getting his 700th career win on Saturday. Byrd has been at Belmont for 29 of his 34 seasons as a head coach, and he joins Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Bob Huggins, Roy Williams, Bo Ryan and Rick Pitino as the only active Division I coaches with that many wins. Pretty good company, I’d say.
Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week
* Weekend games not included
Kansas State at Iowa State, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Kansas State did a marvelous job coming back to beat Baylor on Saturday, but doing that at home is a lot different than pulling off a win in Hilton Coliseum. The Cyclones are riding high after their win over Kansas, and the Wildcats are not good enough to take them down.
Iowa State 75, Kansas State 64
Dayton at Davidson, Tuesday, 7:30 p.m., CBS Sports Network
As noted above, Archie Miller has done a remarkable job of holding his team together, but this will be by far the Flyers’ toughest test in conference play. I think Davidson, spurred by its outstanding sophomore point guard Jack Gibbs, will make sure they fail it.
Davidson 72, Dayton 68
Saint Mary’s at Gonzaga, Thursday, 11 p.m., ESPNU
I feel like we’ve seen this movie before. Saint Mary’s looks like a borderline top 25 team until it has to play Gonzaga, and then it’s back to reality.
Gonzaga 78, Saint Mary’s 64
Arizona at Stanford, Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN2
I would normally lean toward a home team that needs a win, but I’ve got a feeling Arizona really broke through with that drubbing over Utah. I like this team’s mindset right now.
Arizona 68, Stanford 65
Maryland at Indiana, Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPNU
I’d say the Terps are handling their first turn through the Big Ten pretty well, wouldn’t you? Because of its size, defense and ability to get to the foul line, this team is built to win on the road as well as at home. Indiana is capable of shooting lights-out from three, but I think Maryland's maturity will be the difference.
Maryland 71, Indiana 66
This Week's AP Ballot
* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kentucky (1)
2. Virginia (2)
3. Wisconsin (6)
4. Villanova (8)
5. Duke (3)
6. Gonzaga (4)
7. Maryland (13)
8. Notre Dame (9)
9. Arizona (10)
10. VCU (12)
11. Iowa State (15)
12. North Carolina (11)
13. Utah (7)
14. Miami (NR)
15. Louisville (5)
16. Kansas (14)
17. Texas (20)
18. Wichita State (17)
19. West Virginia (18)
20. Northern Iowa (21)
21. Michigan State (19)
22. Indiana (22)
23. Oklahoma (16)
24. Providence (NR)
25. Georgetown (NR)
Dropped out: Wyoming (23), Arkansas (24), Seton Hall (25)
We are getting to the time of the season when the eye test gets increasingly important. I don’t just look at results, I watch a lot of games, so in light of so many results I have to trust what I see.
For example, Duke was a conundrum this week. On the one hand, the Blue Devils got routed at home by an unranked team (at least it was that night). On the other hand, Duke went into Louisville and embarrassed a top-10 team (at least it was that afternoon). What’s a voter to do? Split the difference on Duke, elevate Miami, and punish Louisville. Eye test.
We also have to consider three midmajor schools that are still undefeated in their leagues -- Gonzaga, VCU and Wichita State. Do I keep moving them up simply because their competitors are losing to better teams than the ones they are playing? In some years, I do. This year, I haven’t so far. I ask myself: If Gonzaga and Duke played each other on a neutral court, what team would win? I believe the answer is Duke, although it sure would be a great game.
Wisconsin is another tough one. Just a week ago, the Badgers lost at lowly Rutgers, but now that they are prepared to play without Traevon Jackson, I think they are entitled to some benefit of the doubt. Then again, Wisconsin only played one game last week, so we need a bigger sample size.
Maryland is another good example of a team benefiting from the eye test. The Terps absolutely dominated a pretty good Michigan State team on Saturday. Utah, on the other hand, fell six spots because of that dismal performance at Arizona. I usually don’t penalize teams too badly for losing league games on the road, especially against a higher-ranked team, but in this case the Utes looked really bad doing it.
For the last couple of spots, you can basically flip a coin to decide between Georgetown and Providence, so I felt they should both be ranked. That left out the best group of tied-for-26th teams that I’ve had so far this season. Among the almost famous were Kansas State, which is tied in the loss column for first in the Big 12 and travels to Iowa State Tuesday night; Iowa, which won two games last week and has a huge game at Wisconsin on Tuesday; and Saint Mary’s, which is undefeated in the WCC and has that big game at Gonzaga on Thursday.
San Diego State is back on my radar after winning three straight, including a road game at Wyoming. The Aztecs have a big week coming up as they hit the road again to play Air Force and Colorado State. If they win those two, it will be hard to keep them out.
I also took a long gander at Dayton, Stanford, Old Dominion, Baylor, Butler, Tulsa, Oklahoma State, Seton Hall and Louisiana Tech. You know the rules about my ballot, boys: You’ve got to win to get in.