What's the goal?

Latest score raises issue about academic priorities

On Maryland men's basketball

May 07, 2008|By RICK MAESE

The alarmist can only wag his finger.

The Maryland men's basketball team has the worst academic score of any Atlantic Coast Conference school. It's also the worst of any of Maryland's 27 sports teams.

The realist can only shake his head.

In all, men's basketball teams from 124 Division I schools posted insufficient grades in the NCAA's latest report card - its annual Academic Progress Rate report.

The basketball fan can only shrug his shoulders.

What does it all mean? Either basketball players are dumb as rocks for taking a free education for granted, college coaches are sleazeballs for pretending they care, or everyone else is naive for thinking grades still matter.

Or maybe all three.

Let's not pretend there's anything simple about these APR scores or the nature of men's basketball. It's complex, as we'll get into in a bit, and brushing over the topic with a wide brush is dangerous.

Maryland coach Gary Williams likes to defend his program by explaining that basketball players have a short window to earn money playing the sport they love, so it's understandable they might leave school early. And that's fair. And that makes sense.

And that's exactly why we have a big problem here.

Williams gets no free pass on the matter. The problems he faces graduating players are not unique to Maryland. He doesn't have exceptional athletes who leave after three years for NBA stardom. Yet he graduates fewer players than any other ACC school.

The APR, regarded as a real-time snapshot of academic progress, has established a cutoff score of 925, a number intended to equate to a 60 percent graduation rate. Only two ACC schools are below that figure - Maryland (906) and Clemson (920). It's shameful. The fact that Williams (and other coaches) would rather focus on the landscape speaks to the degeneration of men's basketball in the college environment.

If you can peacefully go to sleep at night with your kids leaving school early, then you've either forgotten the greater mission (cough, cough - higher education - cough) or you simply don't care. You might as well coach Amateur Athletic Union basketball or an NBA Development League team.

Overall Maryland posted many successes. Twenty-one of the 27 sports teams were above the public school average, and 26 of the 27 finished above the cut score. "Our goal would be all 27," athletics director Debbie Yow says. (Maryland officials point out that scores will improve soon. Last year's team graduated four of six seniors; this year's will graduate all three; and next year the Terps will surely graduate Dave Neal, who will be the lone senior.)

The intention here isn't to totally dismiss Williams' defense. His reasoning speaks to the complexity of the challenges men's basketball coaches face. In fact, the average APR score among men's teams is 918, well below the cut score. There's something wrong with the entire culture surrounding the men's game right now.

The NCAA realizes this, which is why it convened a special task force to study the problems dragging down men's basketball graduation rates. The 27-member panel includes everyone from Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim to Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive and Yow. The group is expected to forward recommendations to the Division I Board of Directors by the end of the year. Anything is possible, from expanding summer-school opportunities to tinkering with practice times to adding a year of "academic readiness" that could allow some players to spend time in the classroom before their eligibility starts ticking away.

Maryland associate AD Anton Goff says the key is piling up credit hours early in a player's career so that by time he's a senior he "can see the light at the end of tunnel, and they'll want to graduate rather than just leave early for a professional career." Maryland also tries to recruit former players back to school. Keith Gatlin, who left school in 1988, graduated in December with a bachelor's in African-American studies.

It'd be great if every player saw the need to return to school, but that's a seed that needs to be planted early. The culture of the college game might encourage players to leave school, but the culture around a specific program could encourage them to come back. Or to simply finish on time (something seniors James Gist and Bambale Osby are expected to do later this month).

Williams can't change the landscape alone, and that's OK because he doesn't have to. He has enough problems in his backyard. Selling recruits on a pro basketball career and continually justifying your low graduation scores is all part of a culture that de-emphasizes degrees. Until the Terps have a roster full of lottery picks, all capable of bolting after their junior seasons, Williams cannot rationalize such low graduation rates. Not while other programs do such a better job.

Call me alarmist, call me an elitist, call me an obscenity. We should still subscribe to the crazy notion that the basketball team is a part of the university. As complex as the challenges might be and confusing as the numbers might seem, it all really boils down to this: Graduating players is important. Or it's not.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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