Kentucky's Final Four chances were dealt a serious blow late Thursday when the NCAA suspended sophomore center Randolph Morris for the entire 2005-06 season.
The ruling, released by the NCAA, came after an appeal was sent to the Student-Athlete Reinstatement Staff, located in Indianapolis.
Morris will also lose a season of eligibility and must repay $7,000 in expenses. He would have two seasons of eligibility remaining, beginning in 2006-07.
"We are extremely disappointed in the ruling on the Randolph Morris case," Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said. "We don't feel the punishment is consistent with the past precedent established by the previous NCAA cases. The NCAA has tried to become a more student-friendly organization and this action is a significant step back from that direction.
"Our intention is to appeal to the Division I student-athlete reinstatement committee immediately," Barnhart said. "That appeal will go in sometime next week and should be heard sometime before the holidays. ... The good news for Randolph, our program and [coach] Tubby [Smith] is that Randolph has been reinstated to play basketball next year. We want to mitigate that and see if we can get him eligible this year. If not, we look forward to seeing him play next year."
Morris declared for the 2005 NBA draft, stayed in the draft, but wasn't drafted. SFX put out a press release on Morris' behalf saying he would stay in the NBA draft.
SFX also paid for a workout in front of NBA scouts in Chicago at the Lakeshore Athletic Club. SFX maintained that it didn't sign Morris to a contract, which does jive with the NCAA's ruling. But SFX was acting as the contact for NBA teams to set up workouts. At least one team, Houston, told ESPN.com that it did pay for Morris' expenses in advance. A year ago, Mississippi State's Lawrence Roberts was suspended for one game for not paying in advance for a workout at Portland.
High school seniors are allowed to have their workouts paid for by NBA teams but the ruling is different for college underclassmen.
NBA spokesperson Tim Frank told ESPN.com that Morris is considered a free agent and can sign with any team because he already went through the NBA draft. Players cannot go through the draft twice.
The NCAA ruled last month that Morris' relationship with the agency during his NBA draft experience last spring was a violation, forcing Kentucky to submit an appeal to reinstate the sophomore. It was then up to the NCAA's reinstatement committee to determine if Morris should be ineligible as a college athlete, or subject to a game penalty.
Morris returned to Kentucky for the fall semester and has been practicing, but not playing with the team. He can still practice this season.
"... I am disappointed ... that this decision didn't turn out better at this point and time," said Smith, who informed Morris of the ruling. "There are other avenues to pursue and I am happy to hear we are to pursue those."
When told of the news, Morris told Smith that at least he could still play college basketball again, according to Scott Stricklin, Kentucky's assistant athletic director in charge of media relations.
No. 15 Kentucky (6-2) has been struggling to score inside without the 6-foot-11 Morris (8.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg as a freshman). The Wildcats have three 7-footers in 7-3 junior Shagari Alleyne (3.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg), 7-foot junior Lukasz Obrzut (2.6 ppg, 1.6 rpg) and 7-2 freshman Jared Carter (1.3 ppg, 1.4 rpg) but none have been consistent this season. The Wildcats have tried more undersized post players in 6-8 JC transfer Rekalin Sims (8.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg) in place of Morris.
The NCAA statement on the ruling read:
"The agency marketed the student-athlete's skills to NBA teams and served as the teams' point of contact for Morris. The agency scheduled, arranged and confirmed workouts with NBA teams and sought feedback from teams on the student-athlete's draft status. The Division I Legislative Review and Interpretation Committee confirmed that these activities represented an implicit agreement with the agency.
"The student-athlete also received more than $7,000 from nine NBA teams for expenses related to tryouts. NCAA legislation clearly states that summer tryouts are permitted, but that student-athletes may not receive expenses or other payment from NBA teams.
"The reinstatement staff did not declare the student-athlete permanently ineligible because there was no explicit written or oral agreement with an agent. However, based on the nature of the Morris family's relationship with the agency and the agency's involvement throughout the draft process, the reinstatement staff determined a significant reinstatement penalty was warranted.
"When deciding to test the professional waters, a student-athlete should work closely with his or her institution to ensure compliance with NCAA rules, steps which Morris did not take.
"The reinstatement staff's decision may be appealed to the Division I Student-Athlete Reinstatement Committee, which has five members from Division I conferences and institutions."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.