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Week of Scandals

March 10, 2003 Columns No Comments


The Week of Scandals

by Phil Kasiecki

Last week was not a good one for college basketball. To many, the recent negative stories are not shocking, and this writer is among those not shocked. But it doesn’t make them any less disheartening.

Academic fraud at Fresno State during the Jerry Tarkanian years surprises almost no one; we saw how it was a home for wayward boys during those years, and thus the butt of many jokes regarding players with a checkered past and their future destinations. The story at Georgia that is still developing may not surprise those who know that Jim Harrick has a checkered past, and one that may still have some skeletons to reveal as a past employer investigates allegations against him. Most recently, Villanova suspended 12 players for allegedly making unauthorized phone calls. And the story at St. Bonaventure of a university president admitting a player to his school with a welding certificate is on one hand comical and on the other hand terrible.

Those of us who love the game of college basketball can’t look the other way at these stories. Any violation of rules is simply wrong, and those who violate the rules should suffer the consequences. If found to be part of more improprieties at Georgia, Jim Harrick should be fired, and no school should hire him as their head coach given his track record. Thankfully, St. Bonaventure’s president was led to resign, and head coach Jan van Breda Kolff should be fired soon as well. To make the kids on that team suffer as they have – ending their season early – is a disgrace by people who are supposed to be role models given their position.

The events at St. Bonaventure are perhaps saddest of all because there are multiple facets and because the kids are the ones who ultimately lose out the most. There is the act of admitting a student with a welding certificate, thinking that the NCAA would not eventually catch it. It has been established that this is a colossal wrongdoing on the part of the university president. But the players simply quitting because they were barred from the Atlantic Ten Tournament is an unfortunate decision as well. Granted, a conference barring a team from tournament play for having an ineligible player is harsh and unprecedented – usually, the team simply cannot have the ineligible player on its team – so the move might have been a sort of boycott of the conference. (Ironically, rumor has it the Atlantic Ten may discuss booting the university from the conference in April.) Ultimately, I don’t blame the players for this, because this did not come about from anything they did. But to just mail it in like that is a bad move on the part of the players and on the head coach and athletic administration for letting that decision stand, as opposed to getting any people who would play to represent the university.

This also does not just impact the Bonnies. Their final two opponents, Massachusetts and Dayton, were denied another game in their careers, and it also impacts the Atlantic Ten Tournament. Fortunately, neither of their final two opponents missed its chance to give their seniors the proper send-off – the Minutemen closed the home slate on Saturday and Dayton finished theirs last weekend.

One also hopes that others will learn from what happened at Villanova. To get a sense, think about this: every player is allowed 4 tickets for family and friends at each game. On Sunday, the suspended Villanova players had to leave a ticket for themselves just to get into the First Union Center for the regular season finale against Pittsburgh. That alone should be humbling enough for players to see what the consequences feel like, but senior Gary Buchanan basically said it all in commenting on that, as well as the possibility of not being able to travel to the Big East Tournament this week.

“I’m sorry about the whole situation,” he commented. “I feel like I let my team down.

While we can’t look the other way at these events, we can look past them and remember what is good about the college game. As we are in the throes of Championship Week, there are many things that are great about college basketball that keep us coming back for more, and should keep everyone interested despite the scandals that invariably break out.

• The senior season and career of Boston College guard Troy Bell. Bell has carried the Eagles by averaging over 30 points in the last 13 games, as they finish the regular season as co-champions of the East Division in the Big East and went from being a borderline postseason team to a likely NCAA Tournament team. On top of that, Bell is an All-American young man.

• Connecticut sophomore Emeka Okafor. The definition of a student-athlete, the big man remains a terror on the post defensively and has demonstrated his offensive skills. His work in the classroom has been well-documented, and despite being a potential lottery pick if he were to leave school early, there is talk that he will be a four-year player.

• The great turnaround of Rhode Island under former St. Bonaventure head coach Jim Baron. The Rams should at least get an NIT bid, putting together a nice opening season in the new Ryan Center in front of big, lively crowds. Baron has once again done a terrific job, getting this team where it is without a great frontcourt.

• Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun. One of the real great men in the coaching profession, Calhoun left the team in early February to turn his attention to prostate cancer. Within three weeks, he was back on the bench coaching again, and the Huskies look solid again.

• Syracuse freshman Carmelo Anthony. He is the nation’s top freshman and one of its better players, but what doesn’t get mentioned enough is that he’s a great kid by all accounts and reportedly loves the school. Reports are mixed on whether or not he returns after this season, but let’s at least enjoy him while we still have him.

• Kentucky senior swingman Keith Bogans. Here’s one player who backed out of the NBA Draft as an early entrant and will emerge as a better prospect when it’s all said and done. After a slump year in his junior season, Bogans has been a great senior leader and the primary reason the Wildcats went undefeated in the very tough SEC.

• The resurgence of the Atlantic Ten Conference. In the mid-90s, the Atlantic Ten seemed on the verge of ranking with the Big Six on a consistent basis. Then Massachusetts and Rhode Island went downhill for a few years, and the other schools didn’t pick it up. Now, the conference is about to send three teams to the NCAA Tournament – all of which have been ranked at one time or another – and Rhode Island and Richmond look like good NIT bets. Additionally, teams like LaSalle and George Washington are on the rise again.

• The Pacific Ten teams in the Bay Area. With all their personnel losses, including the sudden late summer transfer of veteran point guard Shantay Legans, California projected to finish in the second division of a weakened Pacific Ten. Projections were similar for Stanford after they lost two starters as early entrants to the NBA Draft. With the losses and several injuries, Mike Montgomery’s team finished second in the Pac Ten, and Joe Shipp has had an All-America-caliber season in leading the Golden Bears to third place in the Pac Ten.

• Weber State’s undefeated run in the Big Sky Conference. It’s not often a team runs the table in conference play, especially one where the teams tend to beat up on each other as in the Big Sky, but the Wildcats became the second team in the history of the Big Sky to go undefeated and just might snatch an at-large NCAA Tournament bid if they don’t win the conference tournament.

• The Ivy League. Pennsylvania is the champion again, but Brown made a good run and Princeton has had another good season. The Tigers have a good nucleus, and senior-laden Pennsylvania will continue to bring in talent for head coach Fran Dunphy to work his magic with. Even the teams at the bottom have been worth watching, as they show signs of hope for future seasons. The Ivy League has not been immune to disheartening stories – two of its best players were declared academically ineligible last month – but it still brings a great brand of basketball to watch.

• Mid-major conference tournaments. Teams play at higher levels, fighting for their lives as they go for their conference’s only NCAA Tournament bid in most cases. Every year brings its share of surprises, and this is one of the things that makes March such a great time of the year.

• Camaraderie. While we’ve seen tempers flare on occasion, by and large we see good kids who respect each other out on the court every game. Time after time, players help up opposing players after a play, embrace after a hard-fought contest, and compete in the spirit of the game. Coaches have been no different, between the tribute to retiring Mt. St. Mary’s head coach Jim Phelan and the actions of coaches like Jim Calhoun and Eddie Sutton congratulating opposing seniors as they finish their college careers.

There’s a lot to love about college basketball; I know I’ve only just scratched the surface. As March Madness has started, let’s remember the good first and foremost, while not ignoring the bad. Remember why we go to the arenas and watch CBS and ESPN in the first place.

     

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