Crime and punishment at Memphis and Minnesota; plus more notes
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Two players, two transgressions, two penalties, two different sets of facts. Yet both situations beg the same question: Did the coach do the right thing?
The answer is also the same: It depends.
Case No. 1: On Jan. 11, Minnesota junior forward Trevor Mbakwe was arrested and briefly jailed for violating a restraining order executed against him at the request of a former girlfriend. This is the same player who sat all of last season while he faced felony battery charges stemming from an incident at his junior college. Mbakwe avoided trial in that case by entering a pretrial program, but he never admitted guilt.
Despite Mbakwe's checkered past, Gophers coach Tubby Smith chose not to suspend him. Smith did keep Mbakwe out of the starting lineup for Minnesota's game at home against Purdue last Thursday, but Mbakwe entered the game at the 16:24 mark of the first half and played 31 minutes in the Gophers' 70-67 win. Mbakwe came off the bench once again on Sunday against Iowa, but he logged 35 minutes with 16 points and 12 rebounds.
Doesn't that seem like a rather light penalty given all these circumstances? "That's your prerogative, that's your opinion," Smith told me on the phone last week. "Until you're in a position to have to make these decisions, you really never know all that goes into it."
Case No. 2: Following Memphis' 64-58 loss at SMU last Wednesday, the Tigers' second-leading scorer, junior forward Wesley Witherspoon, was riding on the team bus back to school from the Memphis airport. There were no coaches on board. At one point Witherspoon grabbed the microphone and playfully imitated one of the assistant coaches. When Memphis coach Josh Pastner heard what Witherspoon had done, he called the player into his office and informed him he was being suspended from all team activities. Indefinitely.
An indefinite suspension for making fun of a coach? Doesn't that seem a little harsh? "I'm a big believer in having consequences for certain behavior," Pastner told me. "If the behavior doesn't change, that means you probably have to change the consequences."
These weren't the first disciplinary cases that Smith and Pastner have faced this season. Earlier this season, Smith suspended junior guard Devoe Joseph for six games for academic and off-court reasons. Joseph was reinstated, but two weeks ago he announced he was transferring. At the beginning of practice this past fall, Pastner booted freshman forward Jelan Kendrick off the team for disrespecting his coaches just a few days after returning from his own brief suspension.
Now, if you look at what Mbakwe did to actually violate that restraining order, you begin to understand why Smith was so lenient. Mbakwe was found to have violated his restraining order because he wrote a message to the woman through her Facebook page. The message seemed rather benign. "I know we haven't talked in forever and trust me I'm not trying to start any drama with nobody in your life or anything," Mbakwe wrote in part. "I just wanted to wish u the best with everything and I hope all has been well with you and your family."
Smith wasn't happy about what happened, but he didn't feel it warranted a heavy hammer. "I told him, I don't appreciate what you did and there's no excuse for it, but there are often two sides to these things, sometimes four sides to them," Smith said. "I have to be the judge who executes the decision. People can take it the way they want to take it."
And if Pastner's suspension of Witherspoon seems harsh, consider that this was not the first time Pastner had warned Witherspoon to act more maturely and show more leadership. He had already removed him from the starting lineup the previous two games for this very reason. Since the Tigers are one of the youngest teams in the country, Pastner, who is just 33 years old and in his second season as head coach, has his eyes trained on the long term. "I will not tolerate anyone making light of losing," he said. "Wesley's a very good kid, but I'm trying to build something here. I have to set the standards early of what's acceptable and what's not."
Coaches have to make these decisions all the time, whether they want to or not. Every situation is different, and part of what they have to weigh is how much of a risk they should take on a particular player. Needless to say, the better the player, the bigger the risk they're willing to take. Kendrick couldn't make it to the first game at Memphis, yet Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy has already accepted him as a transfer. Dana Altman welcomed Joseph to Oregon with open arms. These cases are far from unusual. Tony Woods, a talented 6-foot-11 center, was kicked out of Wake Forest following his arrest on charges of assault against a woman. He's enrolled at a junior college now, and it looks like he could be playing for Louisville next fall.
As for Mbakwe, he has a court hearing in the coming days, but Smith told me that he doesn't expect to discipline Mbakwe any further (absent any more facts, of course). Likewise, Pastner said he plans to meet with Witherspoon to revisit his situation on Monday. Pastner would not commit to anything, but if you read the tea leaves it sounds like Witherspoon will be back in uniform for the Tigers' game at Southern Miss Wednesday night.
So, then: Did these coaches do the right thing? There really is no clear-cut answer. When you're playing coach, judge and jury, you have to do your best with what you know. In the meantime, you better win a lot of games.
A lot of Missouri fans have been asking for an update on Tony Mitchell the last couple of weeks, so here's what I've found out.
It's amazing how little attention this case has drawn compared to those of Enes Kanter and Josh Selby, even though we're talking about an elite recruit for a prominent team. (Mitchell was ranked 12th in the Class of 2010 by Rivals.com.) The 6-8 freshman forward from Dallas has not been academically cleared by the NCAA and has yet to enroll in school.
To cut to the chase: This thing doesn't look good. Mitchell finished his senior year at Pinkston High under some very questionable circumstances, reportedly earning nine course credits in a matter of days shortly before he was supposed to graduate. Complicating matters further is the fact that Mitchell spent his junior year at a Florida prep school that was not accredited. All this has left him well short of the NCAA's requirements regarding core courses. So this was a longshot from the beginning.
From what I'm told, part of the reason this case has dragged on for so long is that Missouri has had a hard time getting information from Mitchell's former school, the Center of Life Academy in Florida. (There may be good reason for that.) Last week, the NCAA informed Missouri that Mitchell will not be declared eligible for the second semester. The school and the NCAA were preparing to make that decision public, but late last week Missouri received a FedEx package from Center of Life Academy which it hopes will help Mitchell's status. The NCAA is reviewing that new information, and we should have a final word by the end of this week.
The stakes for Mitchell are enormous. If he does not enroll at Missouri by Tuesday Jan. 25, he cannot be a student this year. NCAA rules allow a student to make up one core course requirement by the end of what would have been his freshman year of college, but I'm told Mitchell has much more than one course to make up. If he does not get eligible by the end of this spring, Mitchell will never be able to play Division I basketball. He can play in the NAIA or find a junior college. The more likely outcome is that he will have to try to make it somewhere as a professional.
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