For the sake of justice, it always was important that the members of the NCAA infractions appeals committee remove the one-year ban on postseason play installed earlier this month against the Oklahoma State basketball program.
Now, for the sake of those who follow the game, it’s essential.
“Now more than ever, I’m committed. I’m loyal and true,” Cade Cunningham said in a video posted Monday to his Twitter account. “Stillwater: Let’s work.”
The No. 1 player in the 2020 recruiting class, Cunningham signed with the Cowboys last autumn but had plenty of options once it was announced that the NCAA infractions committee had slapped a one-year postseason ban on the basketball program for violations associated with former assistant coach Lamont Evans.
He could have sought a release from his letter of intent and looked for another college willing to add him to its roster. He’d have had no problem there. He could have sought to enter the NBA G League Pathway program, and wouldn’t that have been taking the path of least resistance? No real games to worry about, no pressure to win or compete for playing time, a nice six-figure payment for his efforts.
Instead, Cunningham chose to honor his commitment to play at O.K. State. There is a good chance that will mean playing only in the regular season and being excluded from not only the NCAAs but also the Big 12 Tournament, as Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman reported Tuesday. The conference will not permit a postseason-ineligible team to compete in its championship, whose champion receives an automatic bid to the national championship.
Oklahoma State has informed the NCAA of its intent to appeal the postseason ban, and the school has until late July to file. The committee that will decide on this request comprises four representatives from member schools and one who is unaffiliated.
The NCAA Tournament was not played in 2020, but if it had been, none of the top five players in the 247 Sports rankings for the 2019 recruiting class would have been involved. No. 1 James Wiseman had NCAA eligibility issues that precipitated his decision to abandon the season. No. 5 RJ Hampton played professionally in Australia. In between, Anthony Edwards, Isaiah Stewart and Cole Anthony chose to play for schools that wound up having subpar seasons.
If O.K. State is excluded this coming season, it will guarantee that the top two players from the 2020 class will not be involved. Jalen Green of California’s Prolific Prep has chosen not to play Division I basketball, instead becoming the first high schooler to choose the Pathway program.
This is not a reason for the appeals committee to vacate the postseason ban, but it is one of the consequences for failing to get this right.
The NCAA’s punishment does not fit this offense. The case against Oklahoma State involved Evans accepting cash payments in exchange for attempting to convince players on the Cowboys roster to hire particular financial managers upon turning professional. In January 2019, Evans pleaded guilty in federal court to accepting bribes and apologized for his conduct.
The NCAA also considers such conduct to be a violation of its bylaws. It’s great that there is a rule to cover actions such as this, because they have no place in college sports.
However, it is not “cheating,” in the competitive sense. Oklahoma State drew no benefit from these activities. None of the other Big 12 teams or O.K. State opponents was slighted on the court because of this circumstance. To punish head coach Mike Boynton or the current Cowboys for Evans’ actions has no merit.
ESPN analyst and Naismith Hall of Famer Dick Vitale said he, too, believes the Cowboys’ postseason ban should be overturned.
“Why punish innocent kids?” he said in a Twitter video.
But it’s more than that. Why punish the university? Evans was handed a 10-year show-cause penalty by the infractions committee. That’s the proper course of action. Put the school on probation because they were, after all, the ones who hired him? Fine. That’s just a decoration and a warning. To ban the Cowboys from the 2021 postseason, though, is like burning down a bank because the branch manager was embezzling.
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