NCAA makes example out of Izzo, UConn women's streak and more
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was suspended for violating a recruiting rule
North Carolina coach Roy Williams needs to start Kendall Marshall at point guard
Why ND and Gonzaga are in my Top 25, while BYU and Memphis dropped out
In October 2009, the NCAA's Division I Board of Directors approved recommendations for a set of new rules governing recruiting in men's basketball. As part of those reforms, the board made clear that if a coach or school violated them, the board would "[e]ndorse and strongly encourage the use of suspensions of a head men's basketball and/or assistant men's basketball coach by the enforcement staff, in the case of secondary infractions, or the NCAA Division I Committee on Infractions, in the case of secondary or major infractions, from coaching in NCAA tournament games or regular season games."
You'll notice that the word "secondary" appears not once but twice, even though a secondary violation typically merits nothing stronger than a letter of reprimand. The message was clear: If you run even a little afoul of these new regulations, you're going to pay -- no matter who you are, no matter what your intent.
So it was that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who is arguably the most well-liked and well-respected man in his profession, found himself sitting at home Saturday while his top assistant, Mark Montgomery, coached the Spartans to a 90-51 win over Prairie View A&M. Izzo was serving an NCAA-mandated one-game suspension because last June he employed at his basketball camp a man who had a relationship with an elite prospect whom Izzo was recruiting. The man is not a high school or AAU coach, but his connection with the player was strong enough that the NCAA defined him as an "individual associated with a prospect." That meant his employment at Izzo's camp violated the new rules, plain and simple.
"It's pretty well spelled out what the prescribed penalty is," Bob Williams, the NCAA's vice president of communications, told me. "We obviously have some leeway on the interpretation when we're deciding whether the action falls into that category, but in this case it was clear that the action fell into the category."
Still, applying a rule is not always as plain and simple as writing it. From the public's point of view, either Izzo is not as clean as we all thought, or the NCAA has foolishly punished a good man while letting the likes of Cam Newton get off scot free. Either way, the game loses.
Personally, I don't feel those two notions have to be mutually exclusive. You can believe Izzo, as I do, when he says he misinterpreted the rules and made an honest mistake. But you can also believe, as I do, that the NCAA did the right thing in suspending him. Because this issue is about something much bigger than Tom Izzo.
The NCAA passed this package of reforms because some very unseemly yet technically allowable things were happening in the underworld of college basketball recruiting. One of those was an increasingly common practice of hiring AAU coaches, high school coaches, handlers, buddies, cousins, uncles and the like to work at camps for the sole purpose of winning their influence over a recruit. In many cases, these men -- who often had no real expertise in the game -- had their travel expenses covered, and they were paid a fee far above what other counselors were getting.
Even most coaches acknowledged this practice was wrong, so they clamored for change. The NCAA responded accordingly. Not only did the member schools pass these new rules, but the NCAA staff also went to great lengths to inform people what the rules entailed. Those outreach efforts included flying out to league meetings to brief coaches on the new landscape. That includes the Big Ten, where Izzo was present when an NCAA staff addressed all the league's coaches.
Somewhere along the way, Izzo, who is also the current chairman of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, developed a misunderstanding of what the rule governing camps was meant to accomplish. In his mind, the sole purpose was to curb truly egregious behavior. "The intent of the rule is, from what I understood it, to make sure we're not paying exorbitant amounts of money to people for bringing prospective student-athletes here [to a camp]," Izzo said at his press conference last Friday night. "It's my total fault for not understanding every bit of the rule and ... I've got nobody but myself to blame on that."
Izzo's misinterpretation was abetted by the fact that the camp in question was for middle school kids, the individual was paid the same amount ($475 for five days) as every other counselor, and the man had no contact with the prospect during the course of the week. On the other hand, Williams said "this was clearly not a case where Michigan State didn't know this guy was tied to a prospect." And while the prospect's name has not been made public, I am told by a qualified source that he eventually committed to Michigan State.
"If you read the rule, it clearly does not limit things to an elite camp," Williams said. "It doesn't make a differentiation between whether they're paid an exorbitant amount of money or not. It simply addresses individuals associated with a recruitable prospect."
Izzo and his athletic director, Mark Hollis, were also incorrect in their assertion that it's unprecedented for a coach to be suspended for a secondary violation. That has happened on several occasions, usually because the coach allowed an ineligible player to compete. Still, given the circumstances, and given that this is Tom Izzo we're talking about, couldn't the NCAA have issued a penalty short of suspension? "Are you saying that we should not have applied [the rule] here but applied it elsewhere? I just don't know about that," Williams said.
Izzo was inclined to appeal the NCAA's decision, but when it became apparent he was fighting an uphill battle, he dropped it. Michigan State plays Texas this week before beginning Big Ten play, and Izzo did not want to take a chance at being suspended down the line. He took his medicine, but he wasn't happy about it.
"We've got a good sport, and it makes a lot of money for a lot of people, including the NCAA. It would be a shame if we keep throwing gas on a little fire to make it a big fire," he said. "I think the perception of college basketball has taken a dive, but if this helps make people understand where it's at, and if it helps cure the problems we have, then I'm all for it."
It's a shame that Izzo was the one who was caught in the NCAA's crosshairs, but that's what makes the impact of the suspension so powerful. If the NCAA wanted to send a message, it couldn't have chosen a better messenger.
Jared Sullinger for national player of the year, anyone?
I'm sure Jayhawks fans are still feeling tickled about their team's dramatic Josh Selby-aided victory over USC. Let's not forget, though, that KU gave up two 14-point leads at home and allowed USC to shoot 45 percent from the floor and 47 percent from three-point range. They've got a lot of work to do.
By the way, USC junior point guard Jio Fontan, a midseason transfer from Fordham a year ago, had a pretty good season debut himself, finishing with 15 points and two assists in 35 minutes. Remember, USC spanked Texas at home without Fontan, whom Kevin O'Neill says is the Trojans' best player. Watch out for this bunch.
Everyone agrees that UConn women's coach Geno Auriemma deserves huge props for coaching his 88th consecutive victory on Sunday. However, not everyone agrees whether it is fair to compare his achievement with John Wooden's 88-game win streak at UCLA from 1971-74. I say it is. Why would anyone argue that it was harder for Wooden to win 88 straight games while coaching men against men than it has been for Auriemma while coaching women against women? If we're going to qualify these things, we must also point out that Wooden concluded his streak long before there was the broad parity that we now see in the men's college game. Excellence is excellence, and it is paying Auriemma the ultimate compliment to call his achievement Woodenesque. Because that's what it is.
I realize it hasn't come against top competition, but Michigan sophomore point guard Darius Morris has had a nice recent stretch. In the seven games since he laid an egg in a loss to Syracuse, Morris is averaging 16.3 points and 6.7 assists. He had 18 and five in Saturday's win over Oakland.
When I met with Bruce Pearl last week in Knoxville, I asked him how his team lost an exhibition game to a Division II school yet still beat Villanova and Pitt. "The way we play requires a lot of energy," he said. It's obvious Tennessee didn't have that energy last week in losses to a very good Oakland team at home and a not-very-good Charlotte team on the road. The basic answer to why good teams lose such games is that they are played by college kids, not robots. Exhibit A is Scotty Hopson, who shot a combined 7-for-26 from the floor in the losses.