Inside College Hoops: Unheralded player stuck in eligibility limbo

Perry Ellis (USATSI)
Kansas coach Bill Self is confident Jayhawks forward Perry Ellis will have a solid season. (USATSI)

Jeremiah Worthem is a person you’ve likely never heard of, and there’s a decent chance you’ll never read his name again once you’re done with this column, unless, of course, I write about him again someday in some form.

He doesn’t go to North Carolina.

Or North Carolina State.

Or even Charlotte.

He attends North Carolina Central — a historically black university in Durham that competes in the MEAC. So his quest to become eligible doesn’t matter as much to most people as, say, Cheick Diallo’s quest to gain eligibility matters to college basketball fans, specifically Kansas fans who want a high-motor freshman big on the boards in the Big 12. But Worthem’s story matters to him. And it’s just as interesting. So I want to share it with you.

Jeremiah Worthem is a former three-star prospect from the toughest parts of Philadelphia who enrolled at Robert Morris out of high school and averaged 8.9 points and 4.1 rebounds as a freshman before being suspended from school after 19 games in the 2013-14 season. The 6-foot-6 forward then transferred to Indian Hills Community College, where he played until withdrawing from school last January so that he could return home to Philadelphia.

Next up?

Online classes at Hutchinson Community College.

That’s how Worthem decided to continue his education, and he did enough to reach a point where he was only one class short of receiving his associate degree. He just needed a speech class. So he enrolled in an online speech class at BYU and passed it with a B.

“But BYU has refused to release his transcript to his junior college so that he can get his associate degree,” said North Carolina Central coach LeVelle Moton. “And he can’t be eligible to play basketball again until he gets that associate degree.”

If this story sounds familiar, perhaps that’s because a Texas football player — a lineman named Desmond Harrison — went through this exact thing two years ago. He, like Worthem, took an online class at BYU to earn his associate degree. But BYU — after being used by several student-athletes to gain college eligibility, most notably Michael Oher of “The Blind Side” fame — had earlier banned student-athletes from taking its online classes. So the school initially declined to give Harrison his transcript — though, it’s important to note, Texas eventually appealed to the NCAA, and the NCAA subsequently cleared Harrison to play.

That’s what makes Worthem hopeful.

The NCAA has handled a situation like his favorably before.

But, beyond that, he’s not even sure why appealing to the NCAA is necessary because, he argues, he wasn’t a student-athlete when he took the BYU class, and he’s not a student-athlete now. Technically speaking, Worthem was a non-athlete at Hutchinson when he took the online class at BYU, and, at this moment, he’s a non-athlete at North Carolina Central.

“BYU took his money, let him take the class and gave him a B after he did the work … but they won’t send the grade so he can get his associate degree,” Moton said. “It’s messed up. Kid comes from nothing. And he worked his ass off. It’s wrong, what they’re doing to him.”

Again, there is precedent for the NCAA to rule in favor of Worthem no matter if BYU continues to be difficult thanks to the situation at Texas two years ago, and that’s why North Carolina Central officials are expected to appeal to the NCAA next week. But I probably don’t have to tell you that Texas football, and all of its lawyers on speed dial, are infinitely more powerful than North Carolina Central basketball. So nothing is guaranteed.

But it should be, shouldn’t it?

Listen, I’m not going to sit here and tell you Worthem is an angel who hasn’t created many of his own problems. He was suspended from his first school. He withdrew from his second. So he bears some responsibility here. Hopefully he’s learned from his mistakes.

Regardless, he’s a young man who grew up poor and was raised without much parental guidance, and yet he’s on track to be the first person in his family to graduate college. So who benefits from putting another hurdle in front of him? Why is he worth fighting against?

With that grade from BYU, Worthem can accept a scholarship and continue school.

Without it, who knows?

So here’s hoping the adults with the power to do what’s right do what’s right.

Because it would be embarrassingly wrong to do anything else.

NOTES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY


KANSAS JAYHAWKS Perry Ellis is tough to gauge

The CBS Sports Preseason National Player of the Year and All-America teams will be released next week, and among the biggest topics of debate for us was what to do with Perry Ellis. He’s a four-year player who has won three straight Big 12 titles at Kansas, and he’s averaged roughly 14 points and seven rebounds each of the past two seasons.

So you could reasonably argue he deserves to be on the First Team.

And yet some of us didn’t even have him on the Third Team.

For whatever reason, folks just don’t love Ellis. He’s the perfect example of a college player whom everyone agrees is really good but almost nobody thinks can be great. Regardless, KU coach Bill Self is predicting great things this season.

“I expect him to be as good as, or better than, any player in the league,” Self said Thursday. “I expect him to play at an All-American-type level. I think he’s capable of doing that. I thought last year, before he got hurt, there was about a six-game stretch where I think he was playing to an All-American level. He seems to be in the best shape of his life. He’s stronger. I don’t mean from a weight standpoint. But you can just tell the way he carries himself, he’s stronger and more confident. I expect him to have a big year.”


MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANSMany expect Miles Bridges to pick Spartans

Five-star forward Miles Bridges is expected to announce his college decision on Saturday. He’s picking between Michigan State, Kentucky and Indiana. And — as I mentioned in this week’s 3-pointer — the sources I’ve spoken with, and the recruiting analysts I trust most, firmly believe he’ll pick the Spartans over the Wildcats and Hoosiers.

That’ll give Tom Izzo four commitments from top-45 national recruits.

Nobody else currently has more than three.

If you’re keeping track, Bridges’ commitment, wherever it’s to, will leave just 19 top-50 prospects available, according to 247Sports. National Signing Day is Nov. 11.


MARYLAND TERRAPINS Terrapins’ Big Ten schedule loaded with tough road games

Maryland is basically everybody’s pick to win the Big Ten, and the Terps will be my pick, too. Love the roster. But if Mark Turgeon‘s team falls short of expectations, the most likely reason, I think, will be the unbalanced league schedule that won’t do Maryland any favors.

“It’s brutal,” Turgeon told me.

Each Big Ten school, I’m sure you know, plays nine road games in the league. Maryland’s nine are against Wisconsin, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern and Nebraska. That means the Terrapins have road games against seven of the eight teams immediately picked after them in the Big Ten standings by, among other publications, Athlon. They do not get road games against Illinois, Penn State or Rutgers — the schools Athlon picked 10th, 11th and 14th in the Big Ten.

FINAL THOUGHT

The NCAA’s announcement of the results of its investigation into SMU‘s men’s basketball program dominated the college basketball conversation this week, and there are so many interesting and confusing aspects to it. Like, why wasn’t SMU coach Larry Brown given an unethical conduct charge for allegedly lying to the NCAA when Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, a few years back, was given an unethical conduct charge for lying to the NCAA?

Either way, the most confusing thing, to me, was how lots and lots of people used it as a launching pad to criticize the NCAA for letting North Carolina off the so-called hook.

To those people, I ask: You guys realize UNC’s case remains in progress, right?

If you want to argue the NCAA has mishandled allegations of academic misconduct concerning UNC student-athletes, including men’s basketball players, hey, I’m with you. But the NCAA has, in the spirit of better-late-than-never, sent a Notice of Allegations to the school, and UNC will appear before the Committee on Infractions at some point in 2016. And then the punishment phase will eventually arrive.

Will UNC be punished significantly?

I have no idea.

As I’ve said time and time again, the way the NCAA levies punishments is unpredictable, and it often varies wildly from one case to the next. So I have little interest in guessing for you. What I will do, instead, is just wait for the punishment to be announced before I criticize the NCAA for going soft, and I suggest everybody else do the same. If the eventual punishment doesn’t fit what I believe to be the crime, I promise, I’ll scream right with you — and loudly. But, for now, we’re all stuck in a waiting game, and it’s just nonsensical to bemoan an assumed punishment before the actual punishment is announced.

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