Low-budget schools again get the short end of the APR’s measuring stick

Unlike last season when UConn's poor performance in the classroom prevented it from participating in the postseason, Tuesday's release of the NCAA's new Academic Progress Rate numbers will have minimal impact on next season's overall landscape.

None of the six Division I basketball programs who received postseason bans as a result of failing to meet the NCAA's minimum APR standards hail from major conferences or even top mid-major leagues.

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The most high-profile of the six is Florida International, which is still suffering from former coach Isiah Thomas' incredible knack for wrecking everything he touches. Another is the University of New Orleans, which is still digging itself out from under budget woes caused both by Hurricane Katrina and by the school's aborted dalliance with the idea of dropping down from Division I.

That the other four schools -- Alabama State, Grambling State, Mississippi Valley State and Arkansas-Pine Bluff -- all hail from the cash-poor SWAC has already reignited debate about the merits of the APR system. Critics of the APR note that it is inherently biased against low-budget schools from the nation's poorest conferences because it judges every Division I school by the same standards.

Whereas the nation's wealthiest programs have state-of-the-art computer labs, academic support staffers and tutors who travel to road games, cash-poor programs can't afford to provide the same assistance and often rely on their head coaches to fill those roles. Worse yet, SWAC schools typically raise money by playing exclusively road games in non-league play, which keeps basketball players away from campus throughout November and December and surely only exacerbates the situation.

The NCAA has tried to address this inequity by introducing an academic grant program in which six schools among the poorest 10 percent of Division I schools can receive up to $300,000 a year for three years to strengthen their academic support systems. That will surely help the situation a bit in the long run, but for now it leaves plenty of programs still scrambling to find a way to keep their teams postseason eligible.

With the NCAA increasing the minimum four-year APR score from 900 to 930 by the end of the 2013-2014 school year, the pressure is on small-conference schools to improve in a hurry. The NCAA has approved a gradual progression to achieve that standard for schools with limited resources, but still expect to see the number of academic-related postseason bans skyrocket in the SWAC, MEAC and other lower-level conferences.

Prairie View A&M was the only SWAC school to score above a 930 in the APR scores released Tuesday from the 2011-12 season. Bethune Cookman, Hampton and Delaware State were the only three of the 13 MEAC programs that scored 930 or above. Even in the slightly wealthier Southland Conference, six programs scored below a 930 and two others were flirting with that margin.

By contrast, only six schools from all six major conferences scored below a 930 during the 2011-12 school year. Those six were Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Providence, Cincinnati, Oregon and LSU.

That discrepancy doesn't suggest athletes from major-conference schools are smarter or more hard-working than their small-conference counterparts. It instead implies that those schools are able to do more to keep their athletes eligible and their teams out of APR penalty range.

The APR is a well-intentioned system, but it has become less of a measuring stick and more of a police baton. Its black-and-white formula doesn't take into account nearly enough of the gray areas that exist in Division I athletics.

Wealthy schools are able to get around the system by sending a half dozen academic support staffers scrambling every time an athlete raises his hand for help. The poorest schools don't have that luxury, and they're suffering because of it.

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