Eight months after discovering starting center Mohamed Fall might be ineligible to play Division I basketball his senior year, Montana State coach Brad Huse remained optimistic common sense would prevail.
He chose not to honor Fall prior to the last home game of his junior season last month even though he knew it potentially was the 24-year-old Senegalese-born big man's final chance to play in front of Montana State's home crowd.
Alas, as too often is the case, the NCAA favored a strict interpretation of an obscure rule over a more logical or compassionate penalty. Fall lost his entire final year of Division I eligibility because he played in two showcase exhibition games four years ago when he was trying to catch the eye of a coach with a scholarship to offer him.
According to NCAA rules, "any participation in organized sports competition during each 12-month period after your 21st birthday and before initial full-time enrollment in a collegiate institution shall count as one year of varsity competition." Montana State sought a waiver and filed an appeal seeking a shorter suspension after discovering the issue last summer, but both have been denied even though Fall didn't know the rule existed at the time he played in the showcase games.
"Mohamed always thought this would be rectified, so there's a realization that has hit now that has made this more difficult for him," Huse said. "He's not an individual that will show you how upset he is, but we've had some lengthy talks and I know he's really disappointed on a lot of levels. He doesn't want to move. He likes where he's at. He knows he could have a big year here and finish his education here."
Montana State will honor Fall's scholarship during the 2012-13 school year should he want to finish his degree in agricultural business, but that would mean that the 6-foot-9 senior would not be able to play basketball. As a result, Fall is searching for a lower-level program likely in the NAIA where he can finish his degree and pursue his dreams of one day playing professional hoops.
What's especially frustrating for Huse about the NCAA's decision is that Fall does not fit the profile of the type of kid the rule is aimed at keeping out of college athletics.
The purpose of the rule is to prevent an athlete from playing a few extra years of semi-pro football or club baseball and then use that extra experience and physical maturity to gain an advantage in college athletics.
Fall, by contrast, had virtually no organized basketball experience in Senegal and learned the basics of the game in his home country by watching YouTube clips. He came to the U.S. from Senegal to pursue his education and realized quickly that a basketball scholarship would be his most affordable means to do so.
"I understand why the rule exists and what it stands for, but it just probably doesn't fit with Mohamed that well," Huse said. "He's not a seasoned basketball player. He didn't play on a national team or play much organized basketball to speak of before he got to the United States."
Despite his lack of experience in the sport, Fall improved rapidly, showing enough potential at Cloud County Community College in Kansas to earn a scholarship from Montana State. As a junior with the Bobcats, Fall started 26 of 28 games, averaged 7.2 points and 5.4 rebounds, and anchored the paint with his athleticism and shot blocking.
Barring an unexpected change of heart from the NCAA, Fall won't have the opportunity to improve on those numbers at Montana State next season.
"I really liked playing at Montana State and enjoyed the university and the community," he said in a statement. "Everyone treated me so well and I really appreciated the opportunity to be here."
It's a shame NCAA officials couldn't have found a way to bend the rules to allow Fall the opportunity to remain at Montana State.
Notre Dame's Tim Abromaitis received a four-game suspension to start last season for participating in two exhibition games before deciding to redshirt the 2008-09 season. Rather than take away an entire season from Fall, a punishment like that would have been far more just.
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