UNC, Syracuse Investigations Cast Pall Over ACC and College Basketball

Posted by Lathan Wells on November 4th, 2014

It was omnipresent at the ACC’s Operation Basketball media day in Charlotte last week. It has dominated college hoops headlines on all the major sports networks. It was the foremost topic for Commissioner John Swofford to touch on during his “State of the Union” speech. The ongoing NCAA investigations of North Carolina and Syracuse — both focused largely on the basketball programs — has thrown a long and foreboding shadow over what should be a thrilling season of hoops in the ACC.

Roy Williams continues to show the strain of another rough off-season. (AP)

Roy Williams continues to show the strain of another rough offseason. (AP)

The now-widely dissected Wainstein report spelled out an unbelievable, almost surreal, number of academic issues in Chapel Hill that lasted over 18 years in duration. That spans the last several years of legendary coach Dean Smith’s tenure with the Tar Heels, caught all of the Bill Guthridge and Matt Doherty eras, and finished as part of current coach Roy Williams‘ time with the program. While none of the current players appear to be affected by the allegations of paper classes and phantom professors at UNC, none can avoid the constant clamoring for answers on the topic from the media. Brice Johnson was the unfortunate soul who was forced to deal with a barrage of non-basketball questions last week in Charlotte, looking weary and uncomfortable in trying to defend practices that started before he was born and of which he had no influence.

Williams went on ESPN last week and spoke as only he can about his concerns that the investigation will forever tarnish the names of himself and his alma mater. He has been quite vocal in his assertion that he had zero knowledge that any of his players were being steered to fraudulent classes. He’s spoken of his character and track record at length, and has shown visible emotion in his interviews. Just like his employer, which recently shelled out a million dollars in public relations fees to get ahead of the story, Williams has tackled the questions with defiance. The question is how a North Carolina team that just got past the summer of P.J. Hairston controversy can continue to focus on basketball with the threat of significant sanctions hanging over the program? Williams did an admirable job taking a team with clear limitations and pushing it to the brink of a Sweet Sixteen appearance last season. How will a team with national title aspirations this season focus among this latest crisis?

Jim Boeheim, of course, has been through this sort of thing before at Syracuse. In 1992 his program was hit with two years probation (and a one-year postseason ban) for giving improper gifts to athletes on the basketball team. He also dealt with Fab Melo academic eligibility issues in 2012, just one of the items that the NCAA used to jumpstart its current investigation. The latest scrutiny focuses again on improprieties within the program, including allegations of academic fraud, extra benefits, and failure to adhere to the school drug policy. Boeheim, unlike Williams, has been toeing the party line of “no comment” throughout the latest ordeal, and he was visibly angry with the questions posed to him at Operation Basketball. While Williams pleads for everyone to keep an open mind and understand the rich history of integrity at North Carolina, Boeheim seems content to let the public debate the matter while he stays mum on the subject. Perhaps experience has taught him that less is more when it comes to communicating about such things.

Jim Boeheim continues to stay silent on the topic of investigations surround Syracuse (syracuse.com)

Jim Boeheim continues to stay silent on the topic of investigations surrounding Syracuse (syracuse.com)

Boeheim’s job was going to be tougher than those in recent years anyway, with a significant loss of talent from the roster — gone are Tyler Ennis, C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant from last year’s 28-6 team. Instead, the Orange are banking heavily on the immediate stardom of freshman Kaleb Joseph at the point guard position and the development of sharpshooter Trevor Cooney. Boeheim now faces a winter with the possibility of NCAA sanctions to come, possibly putting his excellent upcoming recruiting class in jeopardy as well. Expectations are relatively low for his team this year — inasmuch as a #23 national ranking is low — but an investigation into his program will only make Boeheim’s job coalescing the remaining players that much harder.

Regardless of what went awry at both programs and what sorts of punishments might be heading their way, both teams will have to try to put their minds on basketball and forget the outside noise. There will be plenty of victims at these two universities, and presumably more heads will roll when the NCAA makes its rulings on each. One group of victims not talked about enough, though, is fans of the sport. The college basketball landscape with a sanctioned Syracuse and/or North Carolina program just isn’t the same. Even rival fan bases would have to admit that their rivalries with these programs would be greatly diminished if those teams have little to play for. There are several sad facets of these stories — from kids earning a tainted education to adults putting sports ahead of doing what’s best for them — but the pall these investigations cast on the ACC, and college basketball as a whole, is just as disheartening.

Lathan Wells (77 Posts)

A 30-year old unabashed college basketball fan, I currently reside in Richmond, Virginia. I especially enjoy following the ACC and the local teams, VCU and the University of Richmond. I hope to continue my journalistic pursuits in the sports arena full-time in the future, but in the meantime I am really enjoying covering the greatest sport there is for RTC. Follow me on Twitter @prohibitivefav.

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