The Eligibility of Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammad: Much Ado About Nothing?Posted by Chris Johnson on August 23rd, 2012
Christopher Johnson is an RTC columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
On the first day of college basketball’s spring signing period, the two highest-ranked recruits in the Class of 2012 went public with their decisions. First, Bishop Gorman product Shabazz Muhammad confirmed most every pre-commitment prediction by pledging to Ben Howland at UCLA. Then Nerlens Noel, a 6’ 10’’ shot-blocking force from the Tilton School (NH), kept his top three suitors (Kentucky, Syracuse and Georgetown) on their toes by tweeting one day earlier that he was “Gon shock the World!!” before ultimately – and not at all unpredictably – announcing his intention to join the Wildcats. Noel and Muhammad marked two momentous pickups for each program, a pair of one-and-done talents who over the next 365 days could dominate Division I competition, garner huge amounts of national attention, and rise to rarefied status within their respective fan bases before joining the professional ranks as lottery picks in the NBA Draft. That’s the narrative most everyone expects, and rightly so: From Anthony Davis to Kevin Love to Derrick Rose, truly elite high school prospects use the college game as a one-year springboard for their professional futures. Only it now seems Muhammad and Noel’s paths to NBA stardom may not proceed quite as smoothly.
In the months since making their commitments, both players’ recruitments have come under NCAA scrutiny. CBSSports.com reported in February that the NCAA had begun looking into Muhammad’s recruitment, with a specific emphasis on his relationship with financial advisers Ken Kavanagh and Benjamin Lincoln. The issue was put to rest – at least temporarily – before word leaked last week that Muhammad had not yet been cleared by the NCAA to travel with UCLA on its summer exhibition tour to China. The eligibility spotlight shifted its focus yesterday to Noel, when SI.com’s Pete Thamel brought to light recent developments on the NCAA’s ongoing probe over Noel’s recruitment. According to Thamel, NCAA enforcement officials, including UK chief compliance officer Sandy Bell, traveled to Tilton in early August to ask questions that “focused on the cast of characters that surrounded Noel’s recruitment and how Noel paid for his unofficial visits.” A former NCAA investigator indicated that Noel’s case appears to be more than a simple background check, citing the presence of Bell and two NCAA enforcement officials as signs pointing to further investigation. Neither player has been implicated in any wrongdoing, so UCLA and UK fans can hold their breath – for now. The ongoing queries have yet to produce any truly damaging implications, but the continual speculation dampens the excitement level for two teams with designs on deep NCAA Tournament runs in the upcoming season. For two players expected to have prominent roles within their teams’ offensive and defensive game plans, the ongoing uncertainty – even at this early stage – counts as a legitimate concern. Noel is faced with the unfortunate challenge of replacing one of college hoops’ most dominant defensive players of recent memory, Anthony Davis, while Muhammad is expected to ignite Ben Howland’s trudgy half-court system with perimeter scoring punch and dribble penetration. Even for players as talented as Muhammad and Noel, the high school-to-college leap requires an adjustment period, and any missed practice time could stall their development.
The suspect recruiting processes may be unsettling for college hoops fans who just six months ago witnessed Kentucky win its eighth national championship largely on the backs of precocious true freshmen talent. Muhammad and Noel could very well lead their teams on similarly successful trajectories, and it would seem awfully unfair if two potentially transcendent players were forced to skip out on the college game altogether. It’s far too early to begin thinking about missed game time, but the prospect of these sorts of eligibility holdups should come as no surprise. The process of recruiting top high school prospects is a several year-long endeavor, one inextricably attached to financial representation and shoe companies and other vices deemed NCAA evils. With the way these prized freshman prospects have impacted the national championship race in recent years, the potential rewards for landing top prospects, if only for one season, have risen dramatically. As the stakes rise, the more mischievous and crooked the recruiting process becomes.
I’m in no position to implicate UCLA or Kentucky in their pursuits of Muhammad and Noel; the NCAA has yet to find any specific reprehensible actions on behalf of either program. But there’s no denying the perception exists, and it’s not just among college hoops fans at large. Coaches, too, sense there’s at least some measure of under-the-table dealings involved in both cases. Over the past few weeks the Eye on College Basketball bloggers over at CBS have been running a daily “Critical Coaches” poll featuring hot-button questions with anonymous replies from various head coaches. It just so happens that two of their most intriguing questions – “Which player’s recruitment is perceived the dirtiest of the past decade?” and “Who is perceived to be the biggest cheater in the sport?” – dovetail perfectly with these high-profile NCAA probes. Muhammad took the top spot in the first category by receiving 15 percent of the overall vote. The latter went to Calipari, who claimed 36 percent of the ballot.
With no substantive evidence of wrongdoing, speculation is the only logical course of action. The investigations could very well prove unfounded, and Noel and Muhammad may in fact carry impeccable recruiting backgrounds into their collegiate destinations. Until the NCAA cracks down on either player, it’s hard to draw too many conclusions. The point is that the continual uncertainty casts more doubt over the cleanliness of both of their recruitments. Suspicions already existed, among fans and coaches; the NCAA’s involvement in the matter shows the sport’s governing body shares that sentiment.