Syracuse has no business being part of the Final Four.
It’s not because Jim Boeheim’s team didn’t merit a 10th seed and not because the Orange (23-13) isn’t good enough. It settled those questions on the floor and just might give North Carolina (31-6) a rough time Saturday night, as it did during the ACC season.
No, Syracuse, as an institution, did not deserve to be admitted to the NCAA Tournament field because of egregious rule-breaking over more than 10 years that led to sanctions handed down last March by the NCAA Committee on Infractions. The violations detailed in the 94-page report included improper benefits to student-athletes, failure to enforce the school’s drug-testing policy and misconduct that involved the production of papers written by support staffers and submitted under athletes’ names.
It’s called academic fraud.
But Syracuse moved in a pre-emptive way that has become common when big-time schools are caught breaking the rules. The school “self-imposed” its own sanctions on the basketball program, including banning last season’s so-so 18-13 team from the NCAA Tournament.
Boeheim still had to forfeit 101 wins and serve a nine-game suspension at the start of the ACC season. The NCAA’s original penalty of losing 12 scholarships over four years was reduced on appeal to eight scholarships over that period. But the NCAA accepted Syracuse’s one-year postseason ban, making the Orange eligible this season. It sent a message that despite the serious, long-term nature of the violations, the program could get off with a relative wrist slap.
“I understand why, optically, people have a lot of questions around all that,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said Thursday. “The university dealt with those sanctions, and this group of young men that are playing right now had nothing to do with any of those violations.”
Emmert also maintained that “postseason bans can serve as an effective deterrent.” Yet in this case, the punishment didn’t fit the severity of the crime. If there was concern about innocent athletes being affected, let them all be free to transfer immediately without restrictions.
Boeheim had a different view in response to the only question he received Thursday about the sanctions. The 40-year head- coaching veteran offered a long, thoughtful answer when asked to evaluate the sanctions. He said “the punishments are real” and they hurt.
Losing victories off his record, he said, was “most irritating” because others committing similar violations did not receive that penalty. He called the nine games he sat out a “severe punishment” that only a coach could understand.
To a degree, he assumed some responsibility. “Things can happen in your program,” he said. “You have to take responsibility for them . . . Yeah, you know, that’s something I regret, I’m not happy about.”
Boeheim disputed the notion that he’s a cheater, an interpretation that relies on an NCAA finding that placed blame on his director of operations. “When you say ‘cheating,’ that’s not true,” he said. “Rules being broken is a lot different. Cheating is intentionally doing something . . . to gain an edge in recruiting.
“If something happens that you’re not aware of, I don’t look at it the same way. It’s a violation. When rules are violated, there should be a punishment.”
When Boeheim’s interpretation was repeated to Emmert, he said, “I’ll let Coach Boeheim define that how he wants to, but the committee determined these are clear violations of the rules that warranted some pretty significant sanctions.”
Did they go far enough? No. One year later, Syracuse is enjoying all of the benefits of big-time basketball on the NCAA’s biggest stage.