Cagers Retain Scholarships -- For Now

With the release of the NCAA's annual Academic Progress Report, the Ohio State men's basketball team again found itself short of the cutoff point. Although the program avoided losing a scholarship this season, doing so in the future might become more difficult for a variety of reasons.

The Ohio State men's basketball team will not face the loss of a scholarship this season, but that could change next year.

With Tuesday's release of the NCAA Annual Progress Report (APR), the Buckeyes again find themselves below the target score of 925 out of 100 – roughly a 60-percent graduation rate. The team posted a mark of 909, which is a composite score reflecting the last four years.

If not for an academic improvement plan submitted by the program and approved by the NCAA, the Buckeyes would be subject to the loss of a scholarship this year.

However, there are signs of improvement. After having a score of 909 during the 2005-06 school year, the men's basketball APR score was 932 for 2006-07. Of the 36 sports at OSU, the men's cagers are the only ones who could potentially find themselves facing sanctions. Last year, the Buckeyes found themselves able to be sanctioned due to two factors: the team's APR score was below 925 for the year and they also failed to retain a player who was ineligible when he left the university.

The latter situation, known in APR jargon as an "0 for 2," automatically triggers a review of the school's situation. To counter the potential loss of scholarship, the university submitted an academic plan that was conditionally approved by the NCAA.

"Yes, we have some challenges in basketball, but we have a great plan in place," said John Bruno, Ohio State athletics faculty representative. "We think we're moving in the right direction with respect to that sport."

The plan submitted to the NCAA calls for more support to be made available to the men's basketball players. The university has hired another learning specialist to work with the team, and the athletes will also have one that travels with the team and organizes study tables and such. There will be an enhanced focus on tutoring and mentoring via individualized learning plans for each student-athlete as well.

In addition, the basketball team requires all its players to remain in the residence halls and no longer allows them to play in summer leagues in order to help them better focus on their coursework. Each player is tracked on a day-by-day basis, while the coaches have weekly meetings with the support staff.

However, the plan does not have a specific timeline for completion, and specific benchmark goals have not been made available to the public. Bruno said OSU head coach Thad Matta is fully on board with the added responsibilities his staff will take on.

OSU's struggles to meet the benchmark score in men's basketball are not exclusive ones. NCAA president Miles Brand told reporters that the problem is widespread within the sport and that a committee is looking into the situation. He expects serious recommendations to be made when the report is finalized this fall.

In all, 120 schools submitted waiver requests in regards to facing sanctions in all sports, and 66 were approved.

The scores for the men's basketball team have been hurt for a number of reasons. Players such as Brayden Bell and Sylvester Mayes have transferred out of the program, while others such as Greg Oden have dropped out of classes to enter the NBA.

"In general, students who are academically eligible and who leave to go to the NBA do not create an 0 for 2 situation," said Walter Harrison, the chair of the NCAA Committee on Academic Performance. "Fifty of the 90 players in men's basketball who tried out for the pros … did earn the retention point (for remaining academically eligible)."

Not every student who transfers out of the program or leaves early creates a negative impact. If a student transfers to another four-year institution and has a grade-point average higher that 2.6, the school is not penalized. In addition, schools are not penalized for students who leave while in good academic standing to play professionally.

But not every student that transfers into the program winds up helping out, either. Students transferring from a two-year institution are statistically less likely to graduate, which would hurt a school's score. Those students often replace others who transfer out of the program on less-than-satisfactory academic standing, further compounding the problem.

OSU operates on a quarter academic system that makes it difficult for players considering heading to the professional levels to attend tryout camps and continue their coursework. That factor is not considered in the APR and likely will not be, according to Brand.

"I'm not sure that it's correct to say that the quarter schools are at a disadvantage in this regard," he said.

However, according to Bruno, the current system makes it nearly impossible for schools on the quarter system to allow their players the ability to test the professional waters while maintaining their eligibility.

"There is no doubt that the quarter system discriminates against athletes," he said.

Students at OSU would not have the possibility of simply not taking courses during spring quarter because of a Big Ten rule that requires student-athletes to maintain full-time student status in the spring in order to be eligible to compete during the fall, Bruno said. The conference also requires all freshmen to take 12 credit hours in each quarter of their freshman year. Online classes would not be an adequate situation due to the limited number of classes of that nature offered by the university, he said.

In addition, the university is considering switching to the semester system, Bruno said.

Having students graduate early from high school and enroll in spring classes prior to their freshman seasons would not help the situation either. However, Bruno said there is dialogue between the Big Ten and its member schools discussing an amendment to that rule.

What the future will hold for the OSU men's basketball program – and programs within the sport around the country as well – remains to be seen. Next season, the Buckeyes will be dealing with the loss of freshman Kosta Koufos, who withdrew from classes in mid-spring quarter and will count against the team's score, and the loss of classmate Eric Wallace, who will finish out the quarter before transferring elsewhere.

"We could reach the score of 925," Bruno said. "It's a long-shot, but it's doable."

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