As Selection Sunday for the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament is now two weeks away, a handful of worthy teams have been declared ineligible for the event due to their programs’ violation of some portion of the NCAA’s complex system of rules. In recent years, these bans have included 2013 Final Four participant Syracuse for the 2015 tournament, as well as 2011 and 2014 NCAA champion University of Connecticut, which was barred from participating in the 2013 tournament. For its part, Syracuse’s ban was a self-imposed attempt to get ahead of the NCAA investigation that was ongoing at the time. Usually these punishments are due to recruiting violations, most often involving either payment for player commitments, or for falsifying academic eligibility in order to be either retained or admitted to the university altogether.
This season is no different. Two top contenders anchored by coaching legends have been declared ineligible to participate in the season-ending conference tournaments beginning next week, along with their lack of consideration for the national field of 68 teams. Most notably, 2013 NCAA champion Louisville and its legendary coach Rick Pitino announced a self-imposed tourney ban earlier in the month. Many experts say that this signals not just an admission of guilt, but also an indication that its conduct involving allegations that members of the athletic department paid for strippers and lavish sex parties in order to recruit players is perhaps worse than the headlines have reported to date. Meanwhile in Dallas, Southern Methodist University (SMU) is facing a similar premature end to its 2015-2016 campaign despite, like Louisville, being ranked in the top 25 since the beginning of play this season. SMU’s coach and fellow legend Larry Brown had already served a nine-game suspension to begin the season as part of the NCAA’s September announcement involving SMU’s violations and subsequent post-season ban.
For Louisville, a postseason ban this year will likely be just the beginning of a long and painful disciplinary process. SMU’s Brown on the other hand, has been extremely vocal about the harsh consequences for his program recently telling a panel of Connecticut-based reporters in a conference call, “They punish kids who had nothing to do with it,” Brown said. “When the NCAA says it’s about the student-athletes, they weren’t thinking about SMU.” The NCAA and NBA championship-winning Brown admits that violations were committed, but that the player at the center of the scandal, junior guard Keith Frazier, left the team in January after an investigation discovered that an administrative assistant completed an online course that Frazier needed to pass to retain his eligibility. Despite the investigation finding no other evidence of wrongdoing by any other team members, SMU was given the postseason ban. Brown told reporters at the conference call, that the severity of the penalty “blew us all away.” Despite the NCAA dashing the team’s potential run at a title, SMU still became the last NCAA Division I team to lose a game this season, and is still in the hunt for the American Athletic Conference regular season title.
The justification for Louisville’s postseason sanctions appears to be on much more solid footing, but this is mostly based on a book release, self-admittance, and some degree of speculation. Still the tea leaves do not look good for the institution. The scandal broke after salacious details of the misconduct from 2010-2014 were revealed in the October release of a book penned by self-proclaimed “Escort Queen,” Katrina Powell. At first, Pitino and Louisville administrators denied the allegations, but then the NCAA took notice and launched a formal investigation into the matter. The glacial NCAA investigative process could realistically lack any finite conclusion even a year from now and the organization has yet to release any formal charges of wrongdoing towards the program. Still, the former assistant coach who is at the center of arranging the parties according to Ms. Powell, Andre McGee, abruptly resigned in October from his new position as the head coach of the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) shortly after the release of the book. Even Pitino, who university president Dr. James Ramsey has defended as having no knowledge of the misconduct, admitted in the press conference regarding the self-imposed ban that usually, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
Although the sensational nature of Louisville’s alleged misconduct could easily lend the average sports fan to having little pity for the team, similarities to SMU’s complaints exist. Much like the SMU players who must miss out on what Brown called in a statement, a “once-in-lifetime opportunity,” Louisville’s success this season is largely based on the contributions of two key graduate-transfers (players who have attained their degree elsewhere while having NCAA eligibility remaining), who deliberately chose to attend Louisville in order to achieve their dreams of playing for an NCAA championship. Neither Damion Lee formerly of Drexel University, nor Tre Lewis formerly of Cleveland State, has ever played in an NCAA tournament. The two players have become the unquestioned backbone of the team and both transferred before Powell’s allegations were made public.
While it’s easy to feel sympathy towards these players, unlike the SMU situation, the team is essentially sacrificing the efforts of these players for future gains. Even though the team would have had a chance to compete for a tournament championship this year, the threat of a postseason ban next season or beyond would have severely hampered recruiting efforts. Given that the top freshmen often leave for the NBA after one season, Louisville would have difficulty reloading for the future. Still, the self-serving actions that the university has taken may ultimately backfire, as graduate transfers have become an increasingly sought after commodity. The gamble may fail to pay off anyway, as there is no guarantee that the NCAA will be satisfied with the self-imposed penalty. It would not be surprising if Pitino was suspended for much of next season, similar to how Brown and Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim were for part of this season. It will remain to be seen as well, if a ban of just one postseason will be sufficient for the NCAA’s bloodletting. As it stands now however; the contrast between SMU’s and Louisville’s misconduct appears stark, despite netting the same result come March.