In October 2009, the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors approved recommendations for a set of new rules governing recruiting in men's basketball. As part of those reforms, the board made clear that if a coach or school violated them, the board would "[e]ndorse and strongly encourage the use of suspensions of a head men's basketball and/or assistant men's basketball coach by the enforcement staff, in the case of secondary infractions, or the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions, in the case of secondary or major infractions, from coaching in NCAA tournament games or regular season games."
You'll notice that the word "secondary" appears not once but twice, even though a secondary violation typically merits nothing stronger than a letter of reprimand. The message was clear: If you run even a little afoul of these new regulations, you're going to pay -- no matter who you are, no matter what your intent.
So it was that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who is arguably the most well-liked and well-respected man in his profession, found himself sitting at home Saturday while his top assistant, Mark Montgomery, coached the Spartans to a 90-51 win over Prairie View A&M. Izzo was serving an NCAA-mandated one-game suspension because last June he employed at his basketball camp a man who had a relationship with an elite prospect whom Izzo was recruiting. The man is not a high school or AAU coach, but his connection with the player was strong enough that the NCAA defined him as an "individual associated with a prospect." That meant his employment at Izzo's camp violated the new rules, plain and simple.
"It's pretty well spelled out what the prescribed penalty is," Bob Williams, the NCAA's vice president of communications, told me. "We obviously have some leeway on the interpretation when we're deciding whether the action falls into that category, but in this case it was clear that the action fell into the category."
Still, applying a rule is not always as plain and simple as writing it. From the public's point of view, either Izzo is not as clean as we all thought, or the NCAA has foolishly punished a good man while letting the likes of Cam Newton get off scot free. Either way, the game loses.
Personally, I don't feel those two notions have to be mutually exclusive. You can believe Izzo, as I do, when he says he misinterpreted the rules and made an honest mistake. But you can also believe, as I do, that the NCAA did the right thing in suspending him. Because this issue is about something much bigger than Tom Izzo.
The NCAA passed this package of reforms because some very unseemly yet technically allowable things were happening in the underworld of college basketball recruiting. One of those was an increasingly common practice of hiring AAU coaches, high school coaches, handlers, buddies, cousins, uncles and the like to work at camps for the sole purpose of winning their influence over a recruit. In many cases, these men -- who often had no real expertise in the game -- had their travel expenses covered, and they were paid a fee far above what other counselors were getting.
Even most coaches acknowledged this practice was wrong, so they clamored for change. The NCAA responded accordingly. Not only did the member schools pass these new rules, but the NCAA staff also went to great lengths to inform people what the rules entailed. Those outreach efforts included flying out to league meetings to brief coaches on the new landscape. That includes the Big Ten, where Izzo was present when an NCAA staff addressed all the league's coaches.
Somewhere along the way, Izzo, who is also the current chairman of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, developed a misunderstanding of what the rule governing camps was meant to accomplish. In his mind, the sole purpose was to curb truly egregious behavior. "The intent of the rule is, from what I understood it, to make sure we're not paying exorbitant amounts of money to people for bringing prospective student-athletes here [to a camp]," Izzo said at his press conference last Friday night. "It's my total fault for not understanding every bit of the rule and ... I've got nobody but myself to blame on that."
Izzo's misinterpretation was abetted by the fact that the camp in question was for middle school kids, the individual was paid the same amount ($475 for five days) as every other counselor, and the man had no contact with the prospect during the course of the week. On the other hand, Williams said "this was clearly not a case where Michigan State didn't know this guy was tied to a prospect." And while the prospect's name has not been made public, I am told by a qualified source that he eventually committed to Michigan State.
"If you read the rule, it clearly does not limit things to an elite camp," Williams said. "It doesn't make a differentiation between whether they're paid an exorbitant amount of money or not. It simply addresses individuals associated with a recruitable prospect."
Izzo and his athletic director, Mark Hollis, were also incorrect in their assertion that it's unprecedented for a coach to be suspended for a secondary violation. That has happened on several occasions, usually because the coach allowed an ineligible player to compete. Still, given the circumstances, and given that this is Tom Izzo we're talking about, couldn't the NCAA have issued a penalty short of suspension? "Are you saying that we should not have applied [the rule] here but applied it elsewhere? I just don't know about that," Williams said.
Izzo was inclined to appeal the NCAA's decision, but when it became apparent he was fighting an uphill battle, he dropped it. Michigan State plays Texas this week before beginning Big Ten play, and Izzo did not want to take a chance at being suspended down the line. He took his medicine, but he wasn't happy about it.
"We've got a good sport, and it makes a lot of money for a lot of people, including the NCAA. It would be a shame if we keep throwing gas on a little fire to make it a big fire," he said. "I think the perception of college basketball has taken a dive, but if this helps make people understand where it's at, and if it helps cure the problems we have, then I'm all for it."
It's a shame that Izzo was the one who was caught in the NCAA's crosshairs, but that's what makes the impact of the suspension so powerful. If the NCAA wanted to send a message, it couldn't have chosen a better messenger.
• Jared Sullinger for national player of the year, anyone?
• I'm sure Jayhawks fans are still feeling tickled about their team's dramatic Josh Selby-aided victory over USC. Let's not forget, though, that KU gave up two 14-point leads at home and allowed USC to shoot 45 percent from the floor and 47 percent from three-point range. They've got a lot of work to do.
• By the way, USC junior point guard Jio Fontan, a midseason transfer from Fordham a year ago, had a pretty good season debut himself, finishing with 15 points and two assists in 35 minutes. Remember, USC spanked Texas at home without Fontan, whom Kevin O'Neill says is the Trojans' best player. Watch out for this bunch.
• Everyone agrees that UConn women's coach Geno Auriemma deserves huge props for coaching his 88th consecutive victory on Sunday. However, not everyone agrees whether it is fair to compare his achievement with John Wooden's 88-game win streak at UCLA from 1971-74. I say it is. Why would anyone argue that it was harder for Wooden to win 88 straight games while coaching men against men than it has been for Auriemma while coaching women against women? If we're going to qualify these things, we must also point out that Wooden concluded his streak long before there was the broad parity that we now see in the men's college game. Excellence is excellence, and it is paying Auriemma the ultimate compliment to call his achievement Woodenesque. Because that's what it is.
• I realize it hasn't come against top competition, but Michigan sophomore point guard Darius Morris has had a nice recent stretch. In the seven games since he laid an egg in a loss to Syracuse, Morris is averaging 16.3 points and 6.7 assists. He had 18 and five in Saturday's win over Oakland.
• When I met with Bruce Pearl last week in Knoxville, I asked him how his team lost an exhibition game to a Division II school yet still beat Villanova and Pitt. "The way we play requires a lot of energy," he said. It's obvious Tennessee didn't have that energy last week in losses to a very good Oakland team at home and a not-very-good Charlotte team on the road. The basic answer to why good teams lose such games is that they are played by college kids, not robots. Exhibit A is Scotty Hopson, who shot a combined 7-for-26 from the floor in the losses.
• I'm sorry, but it's long past time for North Carolina coach Roy Williams to rip off the Band-Aid and install freshman Kendall Marshall as his starting point guard. Marshall is simply a better player than junior Larry Drew II, and the team runs better with him at the helm. To wit, Marshall played 15 minutes in Saturday's loss to Texas. He had seven points, three assists and one turnover. Contrast that with Drew, who played 25 minutes and had two points (on zero field goals), three assists and four turnovers.
• It's hard to imagine a more psychologically uplifting win than Florida's 57-44 pasting of Kansas State. The Gators failed to score a point in the game's first seven minutes before blowing the Wildcats away. Maybe they'll start playing with more toughness from here on out. And I gotta give kudos to my man Erving Walker, who finally attempted more free throws (seven) than three-pointers (three).
• Butler still scares me offensively, but the Bulldogs have gotten a nice (and surprising) lift out of sophomore center Andrew Smith, whom Brad Stevens promoted to the starting lineup six games ago.
• Imagine how good UCLA would be if Malcolm Lee got it going. Lee had seven assists in Saturday's big win over BYU, but he was 3-for-11 from the floor (0-for-4 from three) and had nine points in 33 minutes. The 6-foot-5 junior's numbers are down across the board from last season.
• Memphis has now had two close shaves at home in overtime against bad teams -- Arkansas State and last week against Austin Peay. In the last couple of weeks the Tigers have lost two players to injury and a third (Angel Garcia) to a professional opportunity in Spain. Sounds like the wheels are getting a little wobbly down there.
• Auburn lost at home to Presbyterian over the weekend. Just making sure you knew.
• Good news for Minnesota: Senior point guard Al Nolen is expected to play Thursday against South Dakota State after missing the last five games because of a stress fracture in his foot. Nolen is not a big scorer, but he provides this team with a great deal of toughness and leadership. The Gophers really missed him in that home loss to Virginia.
• Seems to me UNLV's lack of a post presence is catching up with it. It puts too much pressure on the guards to score, and those guys are not great shooters.
• Renardo Sidney's official debut for Mississippi State wasn't much better than his exhibition tuneup. The 6-11 sophomore fouled out in just 25 minutes against Virginia Tech, and he finished with 12 points and five rebounds. Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News made a great point when he stated that Sidney had 20 months to get himself into shape, and this is what he came up with? Sidney is so far behind (he sat out all of last season and the first nine games this year for NCAA violations) that I don't see him really catching up until at least next season.
•You won't see too many performances that are more dominating than what Purdue's JaJuan Johnson did against Indiana State on Saturday. Johnson scored the Boilermakers' first 17 points en route to a career-high 31. Now let's see him do it against a good team.
• UConn has added 7-1 German center Enosch Wolf to the roster. Wolf recently graduated high school in his native country and took prep school courses in Massachusetts to get eligible. It will be nice to have another big body around, but to those who think a midseason addition by a foreign player will make a big difference, I have two words for you: Ater Majok.
• A big key to success is recognizing who you are, where you coach, and what you can use to your advantage. So credit Notre Dame coach Mike Brey for figuring out that one advantage his team can always have over the rest of his league is experience. Besides recruiting players who will stay for four years (more by necessity than choice), Brey looks for quality transfers like Ben Hansbrough (who came from Mississippi State) and Scott Martin (Purdue). The Irish's starting lineup features five seniors, a true rarity in today's game. This is also the best defensive team Brey has had in South Bend, though let's face it, that's not saying a whole lot.
• Here's a sign you're not good: Oklahoma's starters played all but 14 minutes against Cincinnati, and they lost by 10 at home.
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Duke (1)2. Kansas (2)3. Ohio State (3)4. Syracuse (6)5. Pitt (7)6. Villanova (8)7. Connecticut (10)8. Michigan State (11)9. Kentucky (12)10. San Diego State (14)11. Georgetown (15)12. Washington (16)13. Texas (17)14. Illinois (9)15. Kansas State (5)16. Minnesota (19)17. Purdue (20)18. Missouri (21)19. Vanderbilt (23)20. Tennessee (4)21. North Carolina (24)22. Notre Dame (NR)23. Gonzaga (NR)24. Baylor (13)25. UCF (NR)
Dropped out: BYU (17), Memphis (22), Louisville (25).
The big decisions this week were what to do with Tennessee, Illinois and Kansas State. I'm willing to give a half-mulligan to the Illini for their loss to Illinois-Chicago. They played a pretty good rival that was hyped up to beat them, and they couldn't make shots. Stuff happens. I might have given Tennessee the same merciful treatment for losing to a very good Oakland team (even at home), but for the Vols to follow that up with a loss at Charlotte is harder to forgive. And yet, we can't just overlook those wins over Villanova and Pittsburgh, can we?
Kansas State lost to Florida in a road-neutral game. The Gators aren't great, but they're far from terrible. I split the difference and dropped K-State to 15th.
Elsewhere, allow me to offer a hearty welcome back to Gonzaga after a one-week stint in my penalty box. I was a lone voice in the wilderness sticking by Gonzaga for a while, primarily because the Zags were losing to teams ranked higher than them. But I couldn't overlook a 22-point loss at Washington State, so I dropped them out. The Zags redeemed themselves -- and me -- by beating No. 9 Baylor in Dallas on Saturday. That win was especially impressive considering Gonzaga's best player, Steven Gray, missed the second half with back spasms, and its third-best player, Elias Harris, fouled out with six minutes to go.
I was inclined to rank Notre Dame this week anyway, but Gonzaga's win over Baylor lent added credibility to the Irish's win over the Zags last week.
If you recall, last week I ranked BYU for the first time. I had been among the last to board the Cougars' bandwagon, but it appears my initial instincts were right. BYU suffered its first loss of the season on Saturday to UCLA. The Cougars' best wins came over Arizona, Saint Mary's (by a point) and South Florida (in double overtime). Sorry, that's not a top 25 team to me. The Cougars won't have a chance to get back on my ballot until they face San Diego State at home on Jan. 26. (Circle your calendar for that one, by the way.)
I noted Memphis's problems above. It might not seem fair to drop the Tigers out of the rankings after a win, but when you have to squeak out an overtime victory over Austin Peay at home, you're not a top 25 team. I thought it was poetic justice that in the same week I dropped Memphis, I ranked UCF for the first time. The Knights, having beaten Florida at home and Miami in a road-neutral game, now look like the team to beat in Conference USA.
Finally, it looks like I'm an outlier when it comes to North Carolina. In this week's AP poll, the Heels are unranked and stand in "others receiving votes." After watching North Carolina take Texas to the buzzer on Saturday, I feel confident my faith in the Tar Heels will soon be vindicated.