By Alex Norman
The best event in the NCAA is the men’s basketball tournament. For three weeks, the nation is captivated by the established powers and the underdogs, all put in the same 68 team bubble, until one squad reigns supreme.
Even with the academic sham that is the “one and done” era, this event rarely fails to bring forth multiple “shining moments.” We had the MTSU upset of Michigan State in the first round, Texas A&M’s miracle comeback against Iowa State, and Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield carrying this team to the Final Four.
But then we get to the Final Four itself and we dive right back into the muck.
Oklahoma was to face off with Villanova in one semifinal. In the other it was a matchup between Syracuse, a team that is currently on probation, against North Carolina, a team that likely will end up on probation, or worse…
Let’s start with Syracuse. An eight year investigation into the program revealed wide spread academic fraud, drug policy violations, and improper payments to players. The NCAA ruled that Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim failed to monitor his program.
Syracuse pulled off a pre-emptive strike in February 2015 with a self-imposed ban on postseason play.
The cynic looks at that moving as a self-serving affair on the part of the Orange. Syracuse was in rebuilding mode during the 2014-2015 season, and likely not equipped to get deep into the NCAA tournament, if at all.
The NCAA ended up not punishing Syracuse in that regard, but did lay down penalties including scholarship reductions and recruiting limitations. Boeheim was also stripped of 108 career victories (but for some reason the 2003 national title stays with Boeheim/Syracuse).
However, the NCAA also shifted a nine game Boeheim suspension away from ACC play, and the NCAA committee decided Syracuse’s bid should be considered based on only the games Boeheim coached. The Orange went 4-5 without Boeheim on the sidelines, and suddenly their 18-13 record and 70+ RPI didn’t look nearly as bad.
So what happened? Syracuse got into the tournament, got a few breaks, and then upset Virginia in the Regional Final to earn a spot in the Final Four.
Last week before the NCAA semifinals were played, Boeheim addressed the media. And in the way that only Boeheim could, explained why cheating is not the same as violating the rules.
“It’s something I regret,” Boeheim said. “I’m not happy about that. I don’t think we gained any competitive advantage at any time in this whole case that we’ve been through for 10 years. I think it weighed on us for 10 years and affected recruiting for 10 years. That’s just part of the punishment. But when they say ‘cheating,’ that’s not true. Rules being broken is a lot different. Cheating to me is intentionally doing something, like you wanted to get this recruit so you arranged a job for him, or you went to see him when you shouldn’t. You called him when you shouldn’t to gain an edge in recruiting to get a really good player. That’s cheating.”
North Carolina’s situation, as hard as it may be to believe, is actually worse than Syracuse’s. For close to two decades, thousands of UNC students, including many men’s basketball players, got credit for taking classes in the African studies department that required no attendance, nor any significant work, and they weren’t supervised by a professor.
In typical North Carolina fashion, the school went “four corners.” They stalled the NCAA investigation so successfully that the final notice of allegations won’t be complete until next month. The fact that the investigation, which has taken years, still is not complete allowed the Tar Heels to play in this tournament.
Kids, the moral to this story is that cheating pays off… at least in the Syracuse and North Carolina cases.
For Louisville, it didn’t pay off because Louisville self-imposed a postseason ban for this season in which they had a really good team. Syracuse got a boost in their chances for that NCAA bid. Both are ACC schools, and it might have been tougher for the selection committee to add yet another team from that conference.
For Tennessee, it didn’t pay off when Bruce Pearl went back to the NCAA and told them he wasn’t telling the truth about the infamous BBQ. If Pearl had stalled or refused to answer the NCAA’s questions until he could confer with legal counsel, he might still be the coach at Tennessee today.
This is sad, but it is also the college sports world we live in.
Syracuse and North Carolina haven’t won morally.
But they have won games.