Commentary

College basketball doesn't pass the test

Originally Published: May 21, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Scooter Berry has been a regular on the West Virginia defensive line since his freshman year, a big-body talent that earned Big East honors in his second season in Morgantown. When the Mountaineers lined up against Florida State for the Gator Bowl in January, Berry wasn't there.

Anthony McCoy, a one-time Super Prep All-American, earned a starting spot at tight end in his sophomore season at USC and was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks after his junior year.

When the Trojans took on Boston College in December's Emerald Bowl, McCoy wasn't with the team.

The two were among the dozen or so players on the college football naughty list, players who failed to meet their academic requirements in the fall semester and therefore missed the reward and exposure of a bowl game.

Fast-forward three months and here's the list of academic casualties for the NCAA tournament: (insert crickets chirping).

In fact, if you Google the words "academically ineligible college basketball," the first name that pops up is that of Ken Mink, the 73-year-old deemed ineligible at Roane State, a community college in Tennessee.

Yet by the time a spring semester closes, a select group of basketball players will have showcased their skills and improved their draft stock via March Madness without coming close to finishing their classes.

[+] EnlargeKevin Love
AP Photo/ Mark J. TerrilOne-and-done Kevin Love brought a Final Four to UCLA, but hit the road not long after.

For players who decide to leave college early for the NBA -- and even more for freshmen that know before September they'll be bolting school after one year -- there is little incentive to pass or complete a class after the fall semester ends.

"For Kevin, he kept going to class, kept it cool if he had to return," said Stan Love, father of UCLA's big man, Kevin, who left in 2008 after one season at Westwood. "Once he found out for sure he'd be a top-five pick [in mid-April], he got an agent and withdrew. You go to school to get a good job. He got a good job."

The truth is, Love did nothing wrong. He completed his fall semester, played into the spring and then left for Los Angeles to train for the NBA draft.

He was perfectly eligible under NCAA requirements, and while he might have shortchanged the classroom, he didn't shortchange the system.

No one, not even academics, find fault with the players.

Instead, they point to a fallible system that offers a gaping loophole for freshmen and no clear solution for upperclassmen.

"Don't put the blame on the basketball player," said Kadence Otto, a professor at Western Carolina and president of the Drake Group, a faculty watchdog organization. "He didn't want to be a student anyway, so there's no way you can put the responsibility on him. He's trying to increase his draft status, and the only way to do it at this time is to go to college."

Six years ago, the NCAA created the Academic Progress Report (APR) as a system of checks and balances. It holds schools accountable for both their graduation rates and academic success. Teams that score below a 925 can lose up to 10 percent of their scholarships, and teams that score below 900 for three consecutive years could face additional penalties.

Almost everyone agrees it's a good start, and the NCAA even has decided that coaches will now carry their APR and graduation rates with them should they change schools.

The catch is, the people being punished are the ones left behind. Besides doing the right thing by their school, there is neither positive nor punitive incentive for a player leaving early to actually finish up his classes.

"It matters because it's the principle of the thing and you know it's important to the coaches, but what choice do you have?" said former Villanova guard Kyle Lowry, who left after his sophomore season but said he finished his classes in advance. "I think it's our responsibility to do our best, don't make it a joke. But for guys who are going to be pros, they're 80 percent basketball players, 20 percent students to begin with. The schools are using the players, but they're using the schools right back."


Earlier this month, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported that the University of Kentucky basketball team had compiled its worst GPA in eight years and the worst among the school's varsity sports during the fall semester. Included in the stark academic reality was the fact that two players finished with GPAs of 1.667 and 1.765 in their fall semester.

And yet no one was ineligible for the spring.

It doesn't sound possible, yet it's entirely aboveboard.

Under NCAA rules, players in their first year of college need only to pass six credits in their first semester to continue to play. It's not until they complete their entire freshman year that the minimum GPA kicks in.

[+] EnlargeNCAA logo and basketball
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicCollege hoops players need only to pass six hours in the fall to remain eligible for the second half.

In other words, a one-and-done player could conceivably be a none-and-done player: Play an entire season, bolt for the NBA and have all of six credits to show for the effort.

Aside from the APR stain he leaves behind, there is nothing from an NCAA standpoint to compel a freshman leaving early to attend a single second-semester class.

(Which makes John Wall not just an exceptional basketball player, but also apparently an exceptional student. He recently told ESPN.com's Andy Katz that he recorded a 3.5 in the spring, despite his status as the likely No. 1 pick).

"That's a gap that needs attention and needs some fixing," said Dr. Jack Evans, the University of North Carolina faculty athletics representative who serves on both the Basketball Academic Reform Committee and the NCAA Committee on Academic Performance. "The structure of the system provides the benefit of the doubt for the freshmen, and unfortunately that's being exploited."

In 2004, when the NCAA was putting together the APR, it considered a mid-semester grade check before the NCAA tournament -- one that would keep players honest at least midway through the spring semester and offer a very real punishment for those who ignored the "student" portion of the student-athlete tag.

But they elected to go without it, arguing that with professors having different grade criteria -- some, for example, might offer just a final exam -- and institutions running on different semester/quarter schedules, it would be too complicated.

"I'm just not quite sure how we could do that in March," said Kevin Lennon, the NCAA's vice president for membership services. "It would be problematic on a number of fronts from a national legislation perspective."

The schools are using the players, but they're using the schools right back.

-- Former Villanova guard Kyle Lowry

Instead, the onus falls on individual institutions and, more often, individual coaches to push their players to finish.

Lennon insisted that the system is working, that the "vast majority" of players leaving early earn their eligibility points and honor their spring semester -- and research does show improvement. According to the NCAA's information, in 2003-04 (before the APR), 324 basketball players who left school would not have been academically eligible had they tried to return. By 2008, that number had dropped to 200.

Yet the fact remains that of all the team sports, men's basketball annually ranks lowest on the APR scale. In the most recent numbers, the average men's basketball APR was 933.

"The APR is a Band-Aid," Otto said. "It's a good start, but it's also putting an athletic director under pressure to meet APR guidelines. On a very fundamental level, coaches are now actually forced to hand-hold these students, give them breaks they shouldn't get. We're supposed to be teaching kids life lessons and discipline, but essentially what we're saying is, 'We have to push you through because we need the APR.' It's like the banks. It's a bailout."

In the meantime, college football -- with an APR rate slightly better than basketball, and with no one-and-done freshmen -- has found a way to add teeth to its academic expectations.

In April, the NCAA Board of Directors gave its support to a recommendation from the Football Academic Working Group that would force football players to pass nine credit hours or miss up to four games the following season.

"Through the NCAA, we need to get the appropriate data for fall-semester freshmen and decide what kind of standard to put in place," Evans said. "We don't have the correct one now, and it wouldn't be that difficult to change."


It's unfair and inaccurate to lay the blame entirely at the feet of freshmen. Sophomores leave early and don't finish. Ditto juniors and even seniors.

They, too, fault the system, but it's the NBA-training system they see as the culprit. The new trend in these pre-draft heydays is for future pros to gather at hot spots around the country to train with gurus tabbed as the best in the business, gurus often hired or selected by agents.

Lowry said he left the Villanova campus just two weeks after making his decision official, flying from the Philadelphia suburbs to the IMG Academy in Florida, where he trained until the June draft.

Last season, Blake Griffin left Oklahoma for San Francisco to train with Frank Matrisciano. Connecticut's Jeff Adrien was there as well.

Love stayed in Los Angeles, according to his father, but also flew to various teams for individual workouts, necessitating his withdrawal from UCLA.

[+] EnlargeKyle Lowry
AP Photo/Bradley C BowerKyle Lowry, who walked away from college after his sophomore year, acknowledged how tough it was to focus on academics at the end.

"Some professors will work with you, give you the final exam ahead of time," Lowry said. "Most of the time you'll have to take an incomplete. There's only so much you can do. I mean, it matters, and you know it's important and it's important to the coaches, but what choice do you have? Your job is to get to the NBA, and that means you have to leave to work out."

Or does it?

Few coaches have been bitten harder by players leaving early than Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt.

With the early exits this spring of Derrick Favors and Gani Lawal, Hewitt has waved goodbye to six underclassmen in the past seven years.

Hewitt said he routinely advises his players that they have plenty of time to both finish their schoolwork and get ready for the NBA.

Favors, rated as a top-five pick on virtually every draft board, stayed in Atlanta through the entire semester. He worked out with his team's strength coach and used the university facilities until he finished his classwork.

"They make decisions out of fear of losing something, the fear of the unknown: 'Someone is gaining on me,'" Hewitt said. "They have ample time. Workouts won't start until the third week of May. There's no need to start the first week in April. To me, it's the agents. It's the agents that are afraid of losing the kid, so they get them in isolation, surround them with their people."

Hewitt, who spent time in admissions and counseling before jumping into college coaching, said he tries to explain to his players that there is a long-term vision, not just a short-term goal.

He said he reminds players that eventually they won't have basketball and every class they complete now is one less they have to make up later. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't.

"Some kids don't want to do it," he said. "You give advice, make your points and they don't want to stay in school. You can't stop them."

Lowry said he'd like to get his degree one day, but admits he's done nothing since leaving Villanova in 2006 to make that happen.

"It's important, but you also realize that you're making a ton of money," Lowry said. "I don't need my degree to do my job. My job is basketball. I'll go back someday because it's important to me to get my degree, but do I need it? Not right now."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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