The rules of the game are simple enough: win a lot of games, preferably against respectable competition, then wait for your school’s name to be placed into the NCAA Tournament field in March. If that is all it takes for Missouri, the Tigers likely will be among the most prominent teams in the bracket. But the rules still could change for them.
Since September, the program has been the subject of an NCAA inquiry that could be completed this month. The university has been at it even longer, sifting through allegations regarding possible extra benefits and academic shenanigans involving former guard Ricky Clemons. Ordinarily, the most pressing aspects of these investigations are what violations might be uncovered, if any, and what punishment might be administered by the NCAA.
But the recent movement among universities to self-impose penalties when their athletic programs color outside the lines might put the Tigers’ promising season in jeopardy. Attempting to scrub the stain of the Fab Five era from its record, Michigan took itself out of postseason play before the 2002-03 season. Georgia and Fresno State did the same toward the close of last season, though both sets of Bulldogs were in excellent shape to get NCAA bids. When the NCAA infractions committee adjudicated the Fresno State case last summer, chairman Thomas Yeager praised the university for removing the basketball team from postseason competition — making it all the more inviting for Missouri to do the same if serious problems are uncovered.
This would undermine a team featuring two excellent seniors, center Arthur Johnson and small forward Rickey Paulding, who could have followed the multitudes into the NBA draft but instead chose to pursue Missouri degrees and another season of college basketball. These are the kinds of players who have become rare: gifted, selfless, committed to collective goals. They have earned better treatment. Those two were implicated by Clemons in his allegations that he received payments from Missouri assistant coaches, but both issued statements proclaiming their innocence, and both have been interviewed by officials who deemed the duo clear of intial wrongdoing.
A self-imposed postseason ban does not appear to be a particular fear among the Tigers at the moment. There is a sense around the program that the investigation may not turn out to be as damaging as initially feared, back when Clemons’ former girlfriend was granting media interviews as readily as Britney Spears and charging he was given gifts and grades.
If Missouri merits a postseason ban, however, it should not be imposed until 2004-05. The NCAA doesn’t need another regulation jammed into a rulebook that already weighs as much as Warren Sapp. Except for this: Once the academic year begins, no program should have its eligibility for postseason competition removed. The NCAA typically applies penalties to future teams, but those exercising self-flagellation do not. This is as dishonest as any rules violation committed by a player, booster or coach.
When Fresno State president John Welty knocked last year’s Bulldogs out of the postseason, it was for offenses that involved players no longer with the program under a coach who since had retired. Welty changed the rules on first-year coach Ray Lopes and his team near the end of the game. It was like outlawing the dribble with 4 minutes on the clock.
NCAA bylaws allow a player whose program is hit with postseason sanctions that cover the remainder of his career to transfer and compete immediately at his new school. But if his senior season starts and the ban comes later, he’s stuck. That’s not justice in any realm.
This is not the same as discovering the use of an ineligible player and requiring his team to forfeit games, which might impact its qualification for tournament play. It’s unfortunate when this happens, but fair. Clemons, though, is not part of the Missouri team. Johnson and Paulding are. If they construct a sufficient regular-season record, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be celebrating Selection Sunday.
Duke coach said that after winning his second gold medal in men's basketball would be his Team USA finale. That may not be the case anymore.
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