ATLANTA – According to all of the official NCAA material here, Ohio State is making its first Final Four appearance since 1968.
This is interesting because I officially recall seeing the Buckeyes, their band, their cheerleaders and their Scoonie Penn at the 1999 Final Four in Florida. I believe "Brutus Buckeye," the school's nut-headed mascot even was there, although the NCAA and CBS (which gladly repeats all the propaganda) have now clouded my memory.
The NCAA vacated Ohio State's tournament run that year – not to mention 2000, 2001 and 2002 – because of major rules violations that included payments to a player.
Not that this is anything new, the NCAA has abolished 53 NCAA tournament appearances since 1980 alone.
In fact, 12 Final Four teams (although never a champion) have been deleted, which makes March Madness a unique part of the sports landscape. In no other major American sporting pursuit are teams later crossed out of the record book for rules infractions.
There may be an entire movement to banish Barry Bonds’ individual records from baseball due to performance enhancing drug use, but no one ever argues that his San Francisco Giants didn't appear in the 2002 World Series.
It makes the Final Four a weekend where what you see may turn out to be not what you saw.
Three times an NCAA tourney has had five teams get wiped from the record book for violations that later came to light.
Then there was the legendary 1996 tourney when six clubs got the historical ax, including Final Four participant Massachusetts. Scholars refer to it as the "Field of 58."
Everyone would like to think this is a Final Four that will stand the test of time, not to mention NCAA investigators, but who really knows? That 1999 Buckeyes team sure didn't seem very menacing at the time.
Just Friday the New York Times reported Georgetown had a player this year, Marc Egerson, who as a prep player in Delaware had flunked 13 classes in high school securing a 1.3 GPA.
Then he transferred to a "diploma mill" high school in Philadelphia and magically earned near straight A's to become eligible for the Hoyas. The NCAA no longer accepts transcripts from this "high school." (Egerson transferred from GU to Delaware at midseason.)
It is just another sign that even prestigious Georgetown has to look the other way at times. Or, as the athletic director at Binghamton told the Times, "Georgetown University accepted a kid like that? Wow. There's just no place for that at Binghamton. We just don't want to win that badly."
Which is one reason why Binghamton isn't in the Final Four. Egerson's academic handiwork is no surprise – just about every major team takes guys like that. That's college hoops. Nothing happens by accident. And in a multibillion dollar industry populated by highly competitive people, rules are often taken as suggestions.
Most likely nothing will come of Egerson, but it has to give any Hoya fan a bit of pause. They'd like to believe, 100 percent, that everything is going to work out fine but, then again, so did the fans of those other 53 teams.
At this Final Four we have a breathtaking gathering of future NBA talent. Every team has more than one future pro, led by three Florida players who returned to defend their title and an Ohio State contingent that includes ready-to-star Greg Oden, the sure-bet No. 1 pick in June's NBA draft.
That kind of talent makes the games better and more exciting. But it also increases the exposure of each school to potential scandal. No one was worried about pro sports agents dropping cash on the George Mason roster last year, but with this collection of talent?
On Wednesday, a Yahoo! Sports reporter was at the Tennessee home of Corey Brewer where a coffee table had two information packages from sports agents on it. That isn't against NCAA rules but shows the difficulties of a faraway college coach knowing everything happening back home.
Perhaps none of these players have taken a dime. But all of them (and their circle of family and friends) have been offered a dime, or a quarter, or an Escalade.
Even a school that actually is trying to follow the rules – which is fairly rare – can get whacked by stuff it can't prevent. All schools employ a comprehensive education process to try to keep the kids and their parents out of trouble, but it mostly is out of their control.
"It really is," said Ohio State coach Thad Matta. "You know, the perception is we're with these kids 24 hours a day. We're not."
Of course, increasingly the shadowy figures that can get programs wiped from the record books aren't in the shadows. Everything is right up front. In Matta's case, the agent most likely to wind up representing three of his freshmen – Oden, Daequan Cook and Mike Conley Jr. – is someone he had to recruit to sign them in the first place.
Mike Conley Sr., the dad of his namesake son and AAU coach of all three players, recently filed paperwork to become a sports agent. He may get all of them into June's draft – Oden and Cook are all but gone and NBA sources say if Conley Jr. gets a first-round guarantee he'll follow.
This either is a good thing – Conley Sr. is a former Olympic gold medalist whom Matta says he "has the utmost respect for" – or a little bit frightening. If the situation were different, though, there probably aren't too many schools comfortable with "AAU coach turned agent" hanging around the program.
So, perhaps, the Buckeyes can breathe easy or at least as easy as possible. When it comes to college basketball, no one is truly safe, no matter how much the fans want to believe their program is uniquely moral.
The reality is that while just reaching the Final Four is an incredible accomplishment, getting to stay in it forever is even tougher. Just ask Scoonie Penn. If he actually ever existed.
- Ohio State