The University of Connecticut men's basketball team won the NCAA championship last year, but was knocked out of the tournament on Thursday in its first game. The Huskies won't have a chance to play in next year's tournament, unless they win an appeal, because their academic performance has been deemed sub-par.
The "Big Dance" won’t be the same without UConn, which also won the national title in 2004 and 1999. This year's tournament has been impacted by school work as well, with Syracuse University losing freshman center Fab Melo on the eve of its first game. He was deemed ineligible for academic reasons, putting a dent in the Orange's championship hopes.
Players have faced academic suspensions for years, but the move to sanction entire teams is relatively new. HBCUs have been disproportionately affected. They represent about 7 percent of the schools evaluated in the NCAA's annual report on Academic Progress Rates (APRs), but received 29 of the 58 harshest penalties last year.
There's actually some good news this year: According to an annual report by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES), the disparity between graduation rates of black and white players in the men's tournament has narrowed. The difference remains troubling — 88 percent for white players and 60 percent for black players. But the latter group's number rose by one point while the other number fell by three points.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan debated through the media this week on the issue of athletic academic reform.
Duncan has advocated for tougher standards and sanctions, telling reporters on Wednesday that "basketball powerhouses in the tournament like UConn, Syracuse and Florida State and Indiana all have APRs below 930." (Teams need to be at 930 — roughly the equivalent of graduating half of their players — in order to qualify for postseason play next season.)
"I'm actually confident that you will see dramatic improvements in the coming years," Duncan said. "If they don't improve, you just simply won't see them in the tournament."
But in his press conference after Syracuse defeated UNC-Asheville on Thursday, Boeheim refuted Duncan's numbers, stating that the Orange's APR is above 930. More importantly, he pointed out some of the problems with the methodology, which can penalize teams for players who transfer or leave school to pursue pro careers.
"If two guys sign with an agent and leave, 'cause the agent says, 'We got to go to Chicago and work out,' those two guys leave and they're ineligible because they don't finish the semester, you lose two points for each guy,’" Boeheim said. "That means of your 10 players, the other eight can be A students. You know what your APR is? Thirty-six out of 40 points. That school is ineligible for the tournament."
Schools can't force players to study hard and attend class any more than parents can. So the NCAA has to find the right balance in encouraging higher academic standards, realizing that some athletes will realize the benefits of their college experience at a later date.
"I don't think Harvard was punished when Bill Gates left early," Boeheim said. "We've also had five or six guys who left early, went to the NBA, played, and came back and graduated. We helped them graduate. We have two or three right now that are very close to graduating who are done playing with their NBA careers."
Many college athletes will respond favorably once expectations are raised. But there also has to be room for case-by-case analysis. Entire teams shouldn't always be punished for poor choices by several members.