Too much focus on court, not classroom?

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski boasts a team

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski boasts a team with an impressive graduation rate, but one in five of the 65 NCAA Tournament teams graduate fewer than 40 percent of their players. (Feb. 25, 2010) (Credit: MCT)

John Jeansonne

Newsday columnist John Jeansonne. John Jeansonne

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since

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If you take the student out of the student-athlete for college basketball's delightful Spring Psychosis, there need not be any player (or team) left behind. But if the NCAA were to adopt a proposal by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan - that "teams failing to graduate 40 percent of their players should be ineligible for post-season play," virtually every bracket already would be busted.

Applying Duncan's rubric, championship co-favorite Kentucky never would have made it to tip-off for Thursday night's easy victory over East Tennessee State. Three other first-round winners - Baylor, Tennessee and Washington - also would have been eliminated even before the hoo-hah of Selection Sunday.

Plus, eight others (in order of worst to nearly-as-bad graduation rates) would not have met the Duncan requirement, based on statistics compiled by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, or TIDES, at the University of Central Florida: Maryland, Cal, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, New Mexico State, Missouri, Clemson, Louisville, Georgia Tech. (Yet eight other teams had graduation percentages only in the 40s, meaning that 20 of the tournament's 64 teams don't graduate even half of their players.)

"When one in five men's teams graduate less than 40 percent of their players," Duncan said in his tournament-eve conference call, "how serious is the institution and coach about academic success?"

These are, after all, "college" teams. Duncan acknowledged reforms by the late NCAA president, Myles Brand, that have caused the graduation rates of college football and basketball teams to rise during the past decade. Under Brand, the NCAA created the APR - Academic Progress Rate - in 2004 to track classroom progress of each team's players.

But the annual exercise by TIDES and its director, Richard Lapchick, has found a widening gap between graduation rates of black and white athletes. Lapchick, Duncan and NAACP director Benjamin Jealous all expressed a "growing concern" that schools and coaches too often find talented players from poor, urban areas merely to serve as stars on the basketball court, with no emphasis on educating them.

Of the 12 NCAA tournament teams that failed to reach a 40-percent graduation rate, six of them nevertheless graduated 100 percent of their white players, the TIDES report found. Jealous, in enthusiastically backing the Duncan idea, contended, "Student-athletes rise to the expectations of the coach. What you see [with low graduation rates] is where the coach doesn't set the bar high enough."

Duncan said, "We're trying to prepare students for life, not for W's on the court. Myles Brand was a hero of mine in leading the NCAA. But [previous reforms] don't go far enough. The issue is that some institutions are committed to graduate their athletes; others are not."

A player who transfers or leaves school early in search of a pro career does not count against the graduation rate in the TIDES report - as long as he departs in good academic standing. And, to any defender of the status quo, tempted to cast Duncan as a pointed-headed intellectual antagonistic toward big-time sports, Duncan reminded that "both my sister and I were lucky enough to play college basketball" and his father served as faculty representative to the NCAA at the University of Chicago.

On his way to graduating magna cum laude with a sociology degree in 1987, Duncan was Harvard's basketball co-captain, an Academic All-American who outscored Duke star Danny Ferry, 20-15, when their teams met. Duncan raved about the "discipline, selflessness and courage that all will be on display" during March Madness, but argued that "intercollegiate athletics and education have to go hand in hand."

He made it clear that the 40-percent proposal simply is that - "a proposal to the NCAA. This is not a federal mandate. I grew up with players who struggled because they never got an education. The question I have is, 'Why do we tolerate those situations?' This is all about integrity. When you raise expectations, people will respond to that. I'm convinced, if you set a clear bar, the graduation rate will rise [and lead to] closing the gap between racial outcomes."

There is, not surprisingly, a claim among some bracketologists out there that cracking down on graduation rates would rob the tournament of its top basketball talent, downgrading the Big Dance to some badly choreographed, two-left-feet stumble. But the daily on-line publication, Inside Higher Ed, contradicts that reasoning with its current Academic Performance Tournament, which advances teams through its unique NCAA bracket based solely on classroom performance.

This year's championship final, Inside Higher Ed figures, will match Kansas against Duke, two No. 1 seeds with team graduation rates of 73 and 92 percent. No educational malpractice in that.