NCAA tourney titlist in college degrees? Holy Cross

Here are my winners in the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments.

Holy Cross.

And Holy Cross.

Yes, I understand that no one is predicting the Cross to go deep in either tournament. The Crusaders men's team plays fourth-seeded Southern Illinois in the first round, while the Holy Cross women meet national powerhouse Duke. But I'm not talking about the Crusaders' wins and losses on the court. I'm talking about their academic successes.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida has just published "Keeping Score When It Counts: Graduation Rates for 2007 NCAA Men's and Women's Division I Basketball Tournament Teams." I authored the study along with Marina Bustamante, a graduate assistant in the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program at UCF. We looked at the freshman classes that entered school in the period from 1996-99, and included players who transfer, who enter from junior colleges and who graduate late.

We found a great deal of good news about both the men's and women's teams that made the tournaments, none of it better than the 100 percent graduation rates for both the men and women playing at Holy Cross.

If I could give a combined NCAA men's and women's basketball title for academics, it'd go to the Crusaders.

Unfortunately, the brackets we're all poring over this week don't attach graduation rates along with the team names. For the next few weeks, we'll hear plenty about spectacular freshmen, dream breakers and move makers. But we won't hear much about grade point averages and we won't be told much about areas of study.

Women's teams should have been trumpeting their academic successes for years, because they've had great records in that area. The men, on the other hand, ought to be embarrassed by their past graduation rates. Historically, the NCAA has had no ability to penalize schools for failing to fulfill their missions to educate their student-athletes, a failure that affects African-American players in a much greater ratio than it does their white teammates.

This year's study shows some encouraging signs. The graduation success rates, along with the Academic Progress Rates (APR), have improved. We are doing so well that it's time to raise the goal higher than the 50 percent level that has been in place previously.

Let's look at the No. 1 seeds, the basketball powerhouses in both the men's and women's tournaments. Our study shows that the Florida men and the Tennessee women, both from the SEC, graduated 100 percent of their student-athletes. The grad rates for both the Duke women and the UConn women were 91 percent. North Carolina's teams are seeded No. 1 in both tournaments: the men's team graduated 70 percent of its players, while the women's grad rate was 56 percent. The two worst grad rates among the eight top seeds were for the Ohio State men (38 percent) and the Kansas men (40 percent).

However, graduation rates are an indication of teams' academic performances in the past. The NCAA's APR is designed to measure current student-athlete's academic success as well as improve graduation rates by providing sanctions in the form of lost scholarships when teams fail to meet the NCAA standard for academic performance. Using that barometer, all eight No. 1 seeds have rates that predict at least a 50 percent graduation rate for their current players. Among the men, Kansas and North Carolina are far above the raw score that predicts a 50 percent rate.

That's true for all the top-seeded women's teams, too.

That news is pretty good.

However, we cannot lose sight of the gap between the academic successes of African-Americans and whites on Division I basketball teams in the tournament. Obviously, the goal is to graduate African-Americans and whites at the same rate, and our study shows that NCAA schools are far from reaching it.

The graduation rates for African-American student-athletes on nearly 60 percent of the men's teams and 94 percent of the women's teams in the tournament are above 50 percent. But a persistent gap between African-American and white basketball student-athletes still exists when it comes to getting a degree, and that gap is far more severe among men's players.

One hundred percent of the women's teams and 95 percent of the men's teams in the tournaments graduated at least half of their white basketball student-athletes. By contrast, 93 percent of the women's teams and only 54 percent of the men's teams graduated at least half of their African-American basketball student-athletes. That's a whopping gap of 41 percentage points for the men.

Race, obviously, is a continuing academic issue, especially since 44 percent of Division I female basketball student-athletes and 63 percent of Division I male basketball student-athletes are African-American.

In an e-mail exchange with NCAA President Myles Brand this week, he wrote, "I concur with you that the data point to overall improvement, and I also concur that we continue to have a problem in the grad rates of African-American males, both those who play basketball and those who are in the general student body.

"While it is true that the basketball players are doing better than the general population, the reasons for the low grad rates of African-American males in the general student body are likely affecting the low grad rates for African-American male basketball players. It will be very difficult to totally resolve the problems with grad rates for African-American basketball players without addressing the broader issues."

Still, there are some remarkable positive highlights to point out in the fields for the tournaments this year, using the NCAA's Graduation Success Rates.

• An impressive 98 percent of the women's and 64 percent of the men's teams graduated at least half of their basketball student-athletes.

• Ninety-seven percent of the women's teams and 52 percent of the men's teams graduated at least 60 percent of their players.

• Eighty-three percent of the women's teams graduated at least 70 percent. A respectable 37.5 percent of the men's teams did the same.

This is why I say we can raise our goals above the 50 percent expectation. Brand deserves a lot of credit here for the reforms he proposed and the NCAA approved in 2004. The key is the APR. I believe the APR reforms are more important than any previous attempt to keep the "student" in "student-athlete." When I visit campuses today, I am told straight up that schools are only recruiting athletes who have a good chance to graduate because coaches don't want to lose scholarships. (Of course, shouldn't they always have recruited only those players who have a chance to graduate?)

So who, other than Holy Cross, are the top teams, academically, in the NCAA tournaments this year? In the men's field, Florida, Holy Cross and Weber State graduated 100 percent of their players. In the women's tournament, eight schools (Belmont, Holy Cross, Marquette, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Wisconsin-Green Bay) had a 100 percent graduation rate.

Those are encouraging indications that Brand has made some breakthrough achievements as the head of the NCAA. I look forward to seeing how he continues to address the issue -- not only within athletic departments but at the university president level and across campuses as a whole -- of making students of color more welcome. I hope all presidents, in turn, work within their communities to improve school systems, which are often underfunded and underequipped.

Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 12 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport.