On Probation vs. Under Investigation: Final Four marred by schools with scandals

The Final Four matchups are now set. In one national semifinal, we have Villanova vs. Oklahoma. In the other, we have On Probation vs. Under Investigation.

Also known as the Outside Counsel Billable Hours Invitational, underwritten by Bond, Schoeneck & King. Also known as Questions 1 through 30 for NCAA president Mark Emmert, should he have his annual meeting with the media in Houston. Also known as Syracuse vs. North Carolina.

In college sports’ ongoing game of scandal Russian Roulette, the chamber was destined to come up loaded at some point. And so we have this: a Final Four contest matching a team that played nine games without its coach this season as part of NCAA sanctions, against a program that has been under interminable investigation after what the school itself admits was systemic academic fraud that went on for nearly two decades.

If you buy the credo that makes college administrators cringe – "If You Ain't Cheatin’, You Ain't Tryin' " – then you believe that a lot of stuff goes on at a lot of places. And by stuff I mean things that are not in line with the Amateurism Model, or the Do Honest Schoolwork Model, or the No Strippers In The Dorm Model. And eventually stuff gets discovered. And major programs are plunged into the NCAA investigative cycle.

Some of the scandal-scarred are big-time programs that can overcome turbulent times and still manage to make it into the marquee events. Thus we have the Orange and the Tar Heels, who punched their tickets to the Final Four on Sunday.

Roy Williams reacts to a call during North Carolina's win over Notre Dame on Sunday. (AP)
Roy Williams reacts to a call during North Carolina's win over Notre Dame on Sunday. (AP)

They also have engaged in some savvy navigation of the NCAA waters to help make this possible. They beat four teams each to make it to Houston, and you could argue they also beat the system.

In mid-August, North Carolina went Four Corners on the NCAA and delayed its endlessly ongoing academic fraud case until after this promising season was complete. Dean Smith would have been proud of the stall ball: The school announced that it found additional violations in women’s basketball and men’s soccer that would delay its response to a Notice of Allegations and thus extend the timetable for the entire case.

There is no assertion that the discovery of the violations was bogus, or that this was a ruse concocted by the school. But as negative announcements go, this one was fortuitously timed. It meant that this promising basketball season – North Carolina would start No. 1 in the AP poll – would not be compromised in any way by a Committee On Infractions ruling.

Carolina was free to play, and to play well. It won the ACC title, won the conference tournament and Sunday night cut down the nets in Philadelphia after winning the East Regional. The Tar Heels have not yet been pushed to the point of feeling their tournament mortality, and have to be considered the favorite to win it all in Houston.

Now they will play not just a conference member, but a fellow traveler through the NCAA scandal labyrinth.

Syracuse emerged from an almost endless investigation in 2015 with significant sanctions for a panoply of violations. It self-imposed a postseason ban last season – its first savvy move, because that team wasn’t as good as this team – and coach Jim Boeheim had 108 victories vacated and was hit with the nine-game suspension. The school successfully appealed to get the suspension moved up in the schedule – the second savvy move – and he missed only three Atlantic Coast Conference games instead of nine.

Having Boeheim tangibly improved the team, and having him for most of the ACC slate helped the Orange squeak into the tournament as a No. 10 seed. That’s despite losing five of their last six, and finishing tied for ninth in the league.

But if you have a spot in the bracket, you have a chance. And if you have a zone defense that can befuddle unfamiliar teams, you have a better chance. And lo and behold, the ‘Cuse mowed down Dayton and Middle Tennessee State to reach the Sweet 16.

Then it was time for the comeback in the final minutes to beat Gonzaga, followed by the Sunday night miracle comeback against Virginia. Here, Boeheim reminded everyone of his bench prowess – even if it was a desperation move.

Down 15 midway through the second half against a Virginia team that specializes in strangling opponents with methodical play, Boeheim threw a full-court press at the Cavaliers. And they fell apart so spectacularly that it merits a few paragraphs of explanation.

Virginia is so rigid stylistically that it simply could not function at the pace dictated to it by Syracuse’s press. The Cavaliers frequently broke the press, but instead of pulling the ball back and playing to their strength, they attacked immediately. The couple of baskets scored that way were fool’s gold, outweighed by turnovers and missed shots and the defensive collapse at the other end.

Jim Boeheim answers a question at a news conference on March 26. (AP)
Jim Boeheim answers a question at a news conference on March 26. (AP)

When the game got fast and the Cavaliers were sucked into it, they imploded at both ends of the court. From leading 54-39 with 9:33 to go to leading 58-57 with 5:51 to go, Tony Bennett’s team gave away the game and the Final Four.

For the season, Virginia’s average offensive possession lasts 20.1 seconds, which is 348th fastest out of 351 teams. During The Stretch That Will Live In Infamy: 10.3 seconds.

Virginia’s average defensive possession lasts 18.7 seconds, also 348th fastest. During The Stretch That Will Live In Infamy: 12.5 seconds.

From the sideline, Bennett looked like a guy watching his 5-year-old ride a bike for the first time without training wheels and going too fast – the crash was inevitable. Folding his arms across his chest a little more tightly with each rushed possession didn’t seem to help. This was the Northern Iowa implosion over a longer time span – not as dramatic, but perpetrated by a much better team.

And, to be sure, Syracuse made more plays than Texas A&M had to against UNI. Freshman Malachi Richardson was brilliant, taking over the game for a key stretch. The Orange took the game away every bit as much as Virginia gave it away.

Thus a rather awkward Final Four matchup is set – at least it’s awkward for those who want to believe that NCAA crime doesn’t pay. None of the current players were involved in any of the shenanigans at either Syracuse or North Carolina – but both coaches were on the scene when stuff happened. They haven’t enjoyed the trip through the enforcement labyrinth, but it hasn’t stopped them, either.

Roy Williams and Jim Boeheim may have a chuckle about it all at midcourt before the game Saturday night. Two scandal-scarred Hall of Famers who beat a messy system to once again reach the pinnacle of their sport.

This is the inevitable game College Sports Inc. had coming. It was just a matter of time.

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