Commentary

NCAA again tackles academic reform

Originally Published: April 17, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

Editor's Note: The NCAA is also set to raise eligibility standards for junior college transfers, which will likely have a major effect on college basketball. For more on that, click here.

Never one to back down from a fight, John Chaney went toe to toe with the NCAA nearly 20 years ago, arguing loudly and frequently that Prop 48 was more than unfair; it was discriminatory.

Eventually the former Temple coach won a small victory, with the NCAA replacing the hard academic requirements of a 2.0 grade point average and 700 SAT score with a sliding scale.

[+] EnlargeBen McLemore
Kelly KlineESPNU 100 recruit Ben McLemore was a rare exception in a time when most freshman "find a way" to become eligible.

Ever since, it seems like the number of initial academic casualties gets smaller and smaller. In fact, when Kansas' Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor were declared academically ineligible before last season, people were downright shocked because that almost never happens anymore.

Why? That's a potentially tricky question with all sorts of theories and no concrete answers.

"Everyone has become much more sophisticated," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "You go to recruit a kid and someone always says, 'Don't worry. He'll get the number.' Well, what does that mean? How does every kid make it? I don't have the answer to that, but maybe the NCAA is looking at it and asking the same question."

It would appear so.

Beginning in 2015, future Division I athletes will have to tackle far more stringent eligibility standards:

• Complete 16 core courses (four years in English, three years in math at an Algebra I level or higher, two years in natural or physical science, two years social science, one year of additional English/math/natural science and four years additional from those listed or foreign language, philosophy or comparative religion).

• Of those 16 core courses, 10 must be completed before the beginning of an athlete's senior year and grades from those core courses are "locked in" for computing a GPA once the seventh semester begins. In other words, there are no more emergency summer sessions in the senior year to rectify failing grades.

• Must have a minimum GPA of 2.3 in those 16 core courses (up from 2.0) with accompanying sliding scale SAT/ACT score. An athlete with a minimum GPA of 2.0 is considered an "academic redshirt." He or she may practice with but not compete for his/her team for the first semester. Additionally, beginning this year, junior college transfers will need to have a 2.5 GPA (up from 2.0) in their transferrable credits.

The goal, of course, is to ensure athletes are better prepared for the rigors of college academics and that those enrolling actually merit the spot in the class.

As with many NCAA rules, though, the goals and the execution could end up a good country mile apart.

There isn't a college basketball coach around who is against more difficult entry requirements. Coaches, after all, are the ones left to pick up the pieces when a recruit comes in ill-prepared for the rigors of college academia.

Still, these changes are met with as much concern and reluctance as they are excitement and approval.

Here's a rundown of what coaches see as the biggest stumbling blocks for the new academic reform package:

Letting high school players know about the changes

The biggest worry, and it's a legit one, is that the NCAA will mandate new academic standards but just how quickly will the information be trickled down to the front lines? Namely, the guidance offices and coaches offices at various high schools?

The NCAA delayed the changes until 2015, or the next high school freshmen-to-be class, to allow schools time to catch up.

But information does not always flow quickly or freely.

"We've got to come together, have a plan in place to get the information out there to the high schools," Missouri coach Frank Haith said. "We are constantly sending out info to kids we are recruiting, but are they reading it? I don't know. The responsibility is left to the high schools and they need to be given the information."

By NCAA rule, coaches aren't allowed to contact future athletes until after July 1 of their junior year. That doesn't leave a lot of time for the people with the information to disseminate it.

"I know what needs to be done, but I don't know what can be done to help," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "The group that is currently going from eighth grade to ninth, they need to be told what's going on. It's a big jump and they need to have awareness, but I'm not sure how we get that information to them if we can't contact them."

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Rick Osentoski/US PresswireSyracuse's Jim Boeheim is one of several prominent coaches with questions about the proposed NCAA reform.

Will certain players be left behind?

In recruiting parlance, they call it "blowing up." A high school player previously unknown or off the radar suddenly sprouts six inches late in high school or finds his footing and goes from unheralded to superstar.

So what happens to the athlete who "blows up" before his junior year, or worse, in his senior season?

If his grades are already locked in and his course work set, it makes it difficult -- if not altogether impossible -- to meet the requirements as a senior.

"A lot of kids, they don't become really good until they're juniors," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "By that time they may realize that they're way behind and now, I don't know if they can catch up."

The apples to oranges debate

This one is age old and without a solution but there is a real beef: Is a core course at High School A the same as a core course at High School B?

Plenty of admissions offices are able to discern the difference, valuing high schools based on their academic reputations. Calhoun said at UConn, "We look at one 3.0 entirely different than another 3.0."

The NCAA cannot and does not do that.

"The standards at high schools are very different, yet we have to make blanket rules," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "You just worry that some kids who deserve a chance are going to be left out."

Will this really create change or merely foster an already growing cottage industry?

Coaches are many things. They are realists. And they are not naive. Most have lived through plenty of academic reform and NCAA rule changes and seen little, if any, true change.

Kids get eligible. That's not to say that all or even most are doing anything nefarious, but there is no denying that they simply find a way.

One of the most popular paths right now is to switch schools, to leave a bigger and perhaps less personal public school for the cocoon of a private, prep or charter school.

Again, most are above board, but without state requirements and mandates, the situation is ripe for growing schools that are not entirely above board.

The NCAA already went through an era of red-flagging questionable schools, putting the kibosh on so-called diploma mills.

Could higher standards encourage the growth of schools dedicated to eligibility instead of education?

"You see more and more when kids struggle as freshmen and sophomores they move to a different place, a more structured environment," Donovan said. "I don't know if that's entirely a bad thing. There are some great schools that do a great job, but obviously there are some that are just some kind of a building with one classroom where you go to solely get eligible. I think the NCAA is on top of that a little more, of what's a good school and what isn't right now."

Dana O'Neil | email

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