College Basketball Nation: Culver Academy

That's the word from the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein, who reported Monday that Northwestern has secured an oral commitment from 7-foot-2 center Chier Ajou, a Sudanese-born prospect who could at the very least give the Wildcats the kind of interior size they've frequently lacked in recent years.

There's only one problem, according to Greenstein's report -- whether Ajou will be eligible to play:
A source confirmed Ajou has been admitted to Northwestern but the NCAA has yet to rule on his eligibility. Ajou moved from South Sudan to the U.S. in December 2008, making the early years of his transcript a challenge to interpret. If he is ineligible as a freshman, he is slated to redshirt. [...]

Ajou gave New Mexico coach Steve Alford an oral commitment in the fall of 2010. The source said he was not certain why Ajou re-opened his recruitment but that he "absolutely" could handle the rigors of Big Ten basketball next season.
Chier Ajou
Mike Fish/ESPNSeven-foot-2 Chier Ajou has given Northwestern an oral commitment after doing the same with New Mexico State in 2010.
If you're wondering why Ajou might be facing eligibility hurdles, look no further than last May's ESPN Outside the Lines report on African Hoop Opportunities Providing an Education (A-HOPE), the Indiana-based nonprofit organization run by Indiana Elite AAU coach Mark Adams. Ajou was actually the subject of one of Fish's five stories on the organization and its various implications -- some decidedly positive, some not so -- and his story was to that point a success. Ajou had been taken in by Culver Academy, a prestigious Indiana boarding school led by a headmaster who told Fish he clashed with Adams and others tugging on Ajou to make various decisions regarding his eligibility. From the story:
Buxton, caretaker of the Culver brand, quickly interjects that his school shouldn't be mentioned with basketball mills that seem to be cropping up with alarming regularity. Rather, Buxton portrays himself and Culver as watchdogs ensuring Ajou is properly educated, that he isn't just coldly passed through the system and manipulated by a subculture of summer league coaches and handlers and private schools driven by a basketball-first mentality.

"Chier might not have a perspective on this, and I wouldn't want to tell him the harsh reality of the fact that the B-pluses and A-minuses he was getting at this little Christian school in Birmingham weren't worth the paper they were written on," Buxton says after the Sudanese teenager has left the room. "He may have been going to class and working hard, but he just didn't have the skill set to be achieving at that level in courses like math.

"We get a transcript that said he took geometry and he got a B-plus, and we get him here and realize in Africa they don't even do [rigorous] math. The kid could no more do geometry, but they pass him along. And if it doesn't work there, they go to the next school."

Later in the story, Buxton discussed the school's late 2010 decision to reclassify Ajou, a decision that would delay his ability to join New Mexico last May:
Culver officials didn't budge in December, either, when challenged on their decision that Ajou wouldn't be able to fulfill the academic requirements to graduate this spring. The ramifications proved huge. Ajou fretted that without graduation his plans to go home this summer would be squelched. It also meant he couldn't enroll at New Mexico in the fall and technically would reopen Ajou's recruitment.

"That was a hot button," Buxton says. "When we said we're going to reclassify the kid, it was timeout. Nobody wanted to play at that point. We said, 'We don't really care about you at New Mexico. We don't care about you in the AAU world. This is the right thing for this kid.'

"You admit a kid, you take care of him in all ways. So he'll be a senior [again] next year. He won't be able to play because he won't have any eligibility, but he will be at our school. He'll get the support he needs academically so that when he gets to New Mexico he'll actually be able to go to class and do things."

Buxton told Fish he received blowback on that academic decision from Adams, who said he could find a school that would graudate Ajou in time to enroll at New Mexico last fall, before Adams eventually came around. Adams denied that version of events, telling Fish in an email that "the schools he inquired of also couldn't graduate Ajou this year and that he in fact encouraged Ajou to stick it out at Culver," according to the story.

In any case, Ajou eventually left Culver and enrolled in a postgraduate year at the school (St. Thomas More School, formerly the home of NBA prospect Andre Drummond) in the town (Oakdale, Conn.) listed on his ESPN Recruiting profile.

What does all this mean? We're not sure. The NCAA may approve Ajou to play at Northwestern, or it may not; the Wildcats will eagerly await the NCAA clearinghouse's eventual decision.

One thing's for sure: As is so often the case with foreign prospects and those with non-traditional backgrounds, the NCAA has much to untangle. If you're wondering why the NCAA will surely take its time in determining Ajou's academic eligibility, Ajou's former headmaster's on-the-record quotes -- that the prospect's first high school-level grades in the United States "weren't worth the paper they were written on" -- are a pretty obvious place to start.

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