Hampered by the limits of its authority, the NCAA found no violations in Lance Thomas case

The NCAA's investigation into ex-Duke forward Lance Thomas ended Tuesday afternoon in the most predictable way possible.

Unable to prove Thomas accepted extra benefits in order to purchase nearly $100,000 of jewelry from a New York jeweler in Dec. 2009, the NCAA wrapped up its inquiry and moved on to other cases. Duke associate athletic director Jon Jackson sent out a press a release Tuesday indicating no evidence of wrongdoing was found and the NCAA now considers the matter closed.

A lawsuit filed by Manhattan-based Rafaello & Co. in Sept. 2012 brought attention to the purchase by Thomas because it raised eyebrows that a college senior from a single-parent home would attempt to purchase $97,800 in diamond necklaces, watches and earrings. The infractions case was especially noteworthy because it had the potential to jeopardize Duke's 2010 national championship that Thomas helped win.

Thomas forked over $30,000 for a down payment for the jewelry and initially agreed to pay the rest within 15 days, but Rafaello & Co. eventually sued him almost three years later because it did not receive the money. If Rafaello & Co. awarded Thomas a loan based on future earnings he could make as a professional either in the NBA or overseas, that would violate NCAA rules prohibiting such transactions.

Once Thomas and Rafaello & Co. reached a settlement last September, however, the NCAA's hopes of proving the Duke forward did anything wrong instantly became remote. Since a confidentiality agreement was likely part of the settlement and the NCAA lacks subpoena power, investigators would have needed to make their case without any input from either Thomas or the jeweler.

In addition to not cooperating with NCAA investigators, Thomas spoke publicly about the infamous jewelry purchase only once, and he did not shed any light on where he acquired the money for the down payment.

Asked at New Orleans Hornets media day in October whether he violated NCAA rules, Thomas told the Durham Herald Sun, "No. I don't think so." Thomas then declined to elaborate further, adding only that "everything will unfold once everything is taken care of the right way."

That the NCAA was unable to find reason to punish Duke will surely anger those who believe Mike Krzyzewski's program receives preferential treatment. They'll compare this to the infamous Corey Maggette case when the elite recruit received cash payments from his summer basketball coach while still in high school yet still was eligible to help lead Duke to the 1999 Final Four.

The truth is the NCAA was powerless here. They could neither force Thomas or the jeweler to talk, nor could they punish Duke simply because a transaction merely looked suspicious and nobody would explain it.

Just because the NCAA found no wrongdoing, however, doesn't mean the perception that Duke got away with one won't exist. The only person who can end that is Thomas.

If Thomas comes forward publicly and offers a plausible explanation for the jewelry, then all this can be put to rest for good. If not, it will always be a question mark hanging over an otherwise brilliant championship season from the Blue Devils.

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