North Carolina vs. Syracuse in the Final Four is a headache for the NCAA

PHILADELPHIA — The punchlines have already come. More scrutiny awaits North Carolina and Syracuse next week for the Academic Fraud semifinal, where infractions reports will get discussed as much as scouting reports.

Roy Williams tried to head it off Sunday night after the Tar Heels’ impressive run through the NCAA Tournament got extended by reaching their first Final Four since 2009. A six-year drought without a Final Four is like dog years in Chapel Hill, especially given years of media reports about fake classes that a disproportionate number of athletes took to help stay eligible. It’s arguably the most embarrassing academic scandal in NCAA history.

“I don’t think (reaching the Final Four) validates anything,” Williams said. “We had a problem. We’re embarrassed, we’re mad, we’re ticked off about what happened. We know men’s basketball had nothing to do with it and we’re very proud about that.

“As I said the other day, my integrity has never been questioned and some people — particularly some media people — took their chances and I didn’t like that at all. I’ll never get over that. But the bottom line is I was able to go to practice every day, and my team made it a heck of a lot of fun. I’d like that to be the story instead of the other junk. That other junk’s gotten a million times more publicity than I care to think about.”

Given the state of college sports, North Carolina-Syracuse is quite possibly the most fitting Final Four game ever. The NCAA will dread a whole week on the topic.

We all get to remember Syracuse’s self-imposed postseason ban; Jim Boeheim’s nine-game suspension this year for failing to monitor his program; a report that North Carolina’s 2005 championship team had players accounting for 35 enrollments in classes that didn’t meet and produced easy, high grades; and the NCAA dragging its feet for years about truly investigating North Carolina until it had virtually no choice.

North Carolina-Syracuse gives more media members a timely and important reason to dig deeply into how pockets of college athletes get passed through the system without being educated. No matter what fans and coaches of North Carolina and Syracuse say, that’s a good thing to scrutinize education instead of buying into the NCAA propaganda.

Having said all of that, it’s important to point out these are different Syracuse and North Carolina players. They get to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience and understandably don’t give a damn about questions from the past.

For North Carolina, the only No. 1 seed that survived this NCAA Tournament, Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige, Joel Berry II and company earned this Final Four trip. They faced their own scrutiny this year about whether they’re tough enough to make a deep run. In the process, they gave Williams something to cling to amid the scrutiny.

“The biggest regret I’ve had my whole life is not getting the ’97 (Kansas) team in the Final Four,” Williams said. “These kids have meant so much to me. I didn’t want to have that feeling.”

Paige, the Tar Heels’ academic All-American guard who finally found his shot in the postseason, could sense how much the NCAA investigation has worn on Williams.

“It’s been especially hard on him because he’s had to deal with most of it,” Paige said. “But we’ve had kind of the residual effects of it, dealing with questions and stuff that don’t really apply to us. That stuff happened all before us so we were all frustrated like, why are we talking about this when we have all the new academic standards put in place and we’re going to tutoring sessions and meeting with academic advisers all the time and they’re checking every single thing we do? Like why are we getting questioned about all of this? So that was frustrating.”

Last May, the NCAA gave North Carolina a notice of allegations that included a charge of lack of institutional control for poor oversight of an African and Afro-American Studies class and the counselors who advised the athletes. A former U.S. Justice Department official found that the fake classes occurred between 1993 and 2011.

How strange has this academic fraud scandal been? North Carolina wasn’t even charged by the NCAA with academic fraud. Because of how the NCAA interpreted its bylaws, the association instead charged North Carolina with “impermissible benefits,” a term more commonly used for gaining something of monetary value, not free academic grades. The NCAA is in the process of redefining the definition of academic misconduct.

North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham said the university is “still in the middle of the investigation. We’re expecting an amended notice anytime.”

Is it awkward to be waiting for an NCAA verdict while celebrating a Final Four? Cunningham shrugged his shoulders as he watched Tar Heels players cut down the nets.

“It’s been going on for four years,” Cunningham said. “At some point you just have to deal with it and say that’s going to be this category and participation for our students is in a different category.”

The lengthy NCAA investigation impacted North Carolina’s recruiting. Instead of a team with young stars, the Tar Heels’ best players are seniors. Williams told reporters earlier this year he’s not sure he ever recruited a player longer or harder than he did Brandon Ingram.

Ingram, possibly the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick this summer, signed with Duke. He has said he thinks he would have signed with North Carolina if not for the investigation. Ingram’s dad told The Raleigh News & Observer that the family wanted answers to questions that couldn’t be answered yet, such as any possible NCAA penalties against the basketball program.

So rather than building around a ridiculous one-and-done talent like Ingram, the Tar Heels won with veteran leadership. This Final Four was four years in the making as players like Paige and Johnson developed and productively handled their own share of criticism that came their way.

Putting aside the question of when the NCAA would act on North Carolina, there was a while this Final Four trip seemed unlikely for the Tar Heels based on how they played. Despite how talented they are — and make no mistake, this team is loaded with talented depth and should be the favorite in Houston — the Tar Heels didn’t do enough of the little things for most of the regular season.

“I think (Williams) saw their potential before they did and really tried to draw it out of them, and I think he did a masterful job of doing that,” Cunningham said.

With a net draped over his head in the locker room, Paige reflected Sunday on how far this team has come.

“When we started losing a couple games (this year), people started questioning us,” he said. “Basically saying it was the same team as last year. They don’t have what it takes. Don’t get too excited. They were overrated to start the season. And to kind of fight that, to fight all the toughness remarks … it’s been a special ride, especially for the senior class.”

Williams, who has endured the deaths of several close friends in recent years, has particularly enjoyed this team. He wore his hat sideways again Sunday during the celebration, just as he did after the ACC tournament championship.

These players remind Williams of how few chances a person gets in life to experience the feeling of climbing toward the top. These players distract Williams from the never-ending investigation and the criticisms, fair or unfair, of his integrity.

“It’s healed every day that I coach these players and that’s what’s been so good,” Williams said. “This doesn’t change anything except I said this — and it’s more than I ever meant anything: I wanted to get to Houston for these guys. Not for me, for these guys.”

A week of rehashing the past awaits North Carolina and Syracuse. Meanwhile, they’ll try to turn the present into history.

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North Carolina is making a 19th trip to the Final Four.(USATSI)
North Carolina is making a 19th trip to the Final Four amid off-the-court issues. (USATSI)


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