Against the Wall

For the second straight month, Stanford Basketball has lost two players. The impact felt from Black Monday this week, when <b>Evan Moore</b> and <b>Tim Morris</b> both delivered debilitating news to Cardinalmaniacs, will be felt throughout the remainder of this season. It's a rough time right now for this program and team, with choppy waters ahead...

Tonight's game would normally be hailed as the arrival of Pac-10 play to the new Maples Pavilion, with the visiting Sun Devils of Arizona State an exciting opponent after their successful 11-2 start.  Even if the Sun Devils were not off to such a hot start, the challenge of handling Player of the Year candidate Ike Diogu should be a big enough story.  Stanford games against ASU the last few years have been some of the best on the Cardinal's schedule, home and away.  No current Stanford player has ever lost to the team from Tempe.  Etc, etc.

Instead, we look inward toward the rapidly dwindling Stanford roster and their commensurately diminishing post-season prospects.  Coming into this season, the Cardinal had their smallest roster in many years, with just 10 scholarship players.  Help in practices and possibly games would come from the football team and basketball walk-ons, one of which was placed on scholarship in December.  But that month also saw two guards lost from the lineup, as Carlton Weatherby broke his foot and Mark Bradford announced his focus for football.

January is just underway and already has matched, if not exceeded, the carnage of December.  Evan Moore joined Bradford in quitting the basketball team Monday to focus on football, while Tim Morris was on the same day declared academically ineligible for the remainder of the season.  To suffer these losses with an already depleted roster is crushing enough; to weather these blows while reeling with a 6-6 record and 0-2 start to conference play is potentially devastating.

The loss of Evan Moore is hard to compute.  From the outside, you see him quit the team less than two weeks after two-sport teammate Bradford did the same, so you might conclude that the dual-duty dance that Teyo Johnson made fames a few years ago is no longer feasible.  Johnson made waves on the gridiron and on the hardwood under Tyrone Willingham and Mike Montgomery, but the peak success of 2001-02 has not been since duplicated under the leadership of Buddy Teevens and Trent Johnson.  Every head coach wants to see his athletes dedicate themselves year-round and not marginalize themselves with shared commitments, which is why true two-sport success stories have been so rare and celebrated in modern college athletics.  Stanford has in three short years seen its reputation as the golden standard of dual-commitment varsity athletes fade to the margin.

Moore played in just four contests this year, averaging 3.0 minutes of play when he did check into a game.  It is statistically a stretch to evaluate what he did in those 12 total minutes, but the minutes themselves are a germane topic.  The sophomore had high hopes that he would enjoy better basketball success this year for several reasons:

  • As a freshman, he joined the hoops squad with ankle and shoulder injuries that crippled his transition and progress beyond the time he missed for football
  • Moore started well behind the rest of his teammates last year because of injuries and the many practices missed for football, but he felt like he learned "the system" enough during the balance of that freshman campaign that he should have been able to hit the ground running this year
  • Graduation losses in the frontcourt devastated Stanford's fabled post depth, and Moore as a sophomore was set to battle freshmen for time off the bench
  • Despite everything working against him to start his basketball season last year, Moore felt that Mike Montgomery never quite gave him a fair shake after he successfully got up to speed later in the season.  The 6'7" two-sport athlete confided that a fresh start with Trent Johnson gave him a more equitable chance at deserved playing time

Despite coming to basketball with a clean bill of health and a new head coach who declared that "the best players will play," Moore languished on the bench for his month-plus of service with the team this year.  I spoke with the sophomore shortly after Bradford quit basketball to gauge Moore's future with the team.  An important difference between those two decisions is that Bradford's was primarily motivated by academics, which were suffering while he served two varsity masters; Moore's decision was an athletic-based call predicated upon playing time.

"I came here to play two sports, not to play one and practice another," Moore allowed.

It was perhaps easier to swallow his role on the bench and in practices last year while Stanford surged to an unprecedented 26-0 start and #1 national ranking.  But the Cardinal have not known early-season failings like the current 6-6 (0-2) record in more than a decade.  It would make sense for Trent Johnson to pull some levers to try and shake up the various cogs and chemistry that were not working, in both the backcourt and frontcourt, but Moore remained on the bench.  He found a second straight head coach who flatly did not hold the confidence to play him, even with uneven results from other players on the roster.

For that reason, it is not hard to understand why Evan Moore quit basketball Monday and has his remaining focus at Stanford with football.  The 6'7" wide receiver could have a professional future on the gridiron; his prospects with this college basketball program looked bleak.  All of the above is not to say that Trent Johnson is wholly blameworthy in this episode, though.  He is the man who was hired to run Stanford Basketball, including the personnel decisions of recruiting and playing time.  For whatever reason, Johnson did not see enough in Moore through the last month-plus to want to play him outside of garbage time.  Montgomery came to that same conclusion a year ago.  In the end, we can only conclude that for both the student-athlete and for the basketball program, this was not a marriage that was going to work.

While two-sport athletes failing in one of their varsity endeavors is not at all new to Stanford, the academic failing of Tim Morris is something Cardinal Basketball has not seen since before current players were born.  The redshirt freshman is an aspiring doctor who is pursuing studies in the Human Biology major, which contains a "HumBio Core" of two five-unit classes commonly taken by sophomores.  Morris received failing grades in both of those classes this fall quarter, rendering him ineligible for the winter quarter.

For Morris, there is a little bit of bad luck.  Only last year in the 2003-04 academic year did the NCAA put into place a new rule that governed student-athlete eligibility on a quarterly basis.  Previously, the governing body did not render an athlete ineligible for mid-year academic performance unless his or her school declared that student to have flunked out.  Plenty of times, a student-athlete had previously run into the rocks on their quarter or semester transcript but never made the news because they mended their graduation progress by the end of the year.  Under the new rule, a student-athlete at Stanford like Tim Morris needs to pass six units each quarter to remain eligible.  Morris passed only one class and failed his 10 units of HumBio Core, leaving him short of the six units he needed.

Cardinalmaniacs™ are immediately curious as to the immediate ramifications for Morris and his eligibility.  The oft-asked question is if he has a chance to return still this season.  The short answer is that chances are slim.  Morris and Stanford immediately filed a petition when his autumn quarter grades came in, and it was after that petition was denied, he become ineligible on Monday.  That petition was different from the appeal that Stanford was to file by today with the NCAA.  The petition was the normal reactionary procedural plea, while the appeal is a far more involved set of paperwork that has the backing of some high-ranking people in the Athletic Department and the University.  There is a January 18 date when Stanford officials currently believe that appeal will be answered, though I would caution that it is not necessarily a hard and fast date.

The fight that Stanford is trying to make argues that the intent of this NCAA graduation progress rule should not force Tim Morris out of athletic competition.  It is intended to punish those student-athletes who do not give attention to minimum studies toward a minimum degree.  Morris instead was challenging himself with one of the more difficult, and certainly one of the most competitive, majors at Stanford.  If you have not recently been involved with the undergraduate student body on The Farm, it is littered with ambitious and competitive pre-medical hopefuls that fill up biology and human biology classes.  These majors are perhaps the only/best example at Stanford of grading curves intended to weed out students.

If you survey the vast majority of high-major Division I basketball scholarship student-athletes, you will find a small minority who are challenging themselves academically to this extent.  Morris took a risk - the same kind of risk that President John Hennessy and Provost John Etchemendy continually challenge Stanford students to take.  The Stanford sophomore took himself beyond his comfort zone, trying to maximize his Stanford educational opportunity to become a medical doctor while at the same time pushing his basketball to earn major playing time after a year redshirting on the bench.  The hope for Stanford and Morris is that the appeal process will demonstrate his academic diligence and intents, with little question that he is on track to graduate.

However, this has to be said.  Tim Morris did fail himself and his team and rightfully shoulders the blame for this situation.  He is not a marginal student who intrinsically is unable to pass these classes while playing basketball.  You may remember his strong academic credentials and family background from his recruitment, and it should be repeated that he was the first Stanford Basketball recruit to earn admission before his final sixth semester of high school grades.  I know Morris well enough to know that he could and should have done better academically.  The punishment is probably too harsh in this instance, but Morris is not an innocent victim wholly absolved of blame.

The Stanford sophomore is taking not only a blow to his ego with the public embarrassment of his failings, plastered in the newspapers and on ESPN.  But he is also taking a personal blow to his educational and career ambitions with this setback to his major.  You might expect him to make a U-turn and go another direction with his studies, but Morris intends to continue his pre-med ambitions.  Though this setback in the HumBio core would completely derail most Stanford students, Morris took a redshirt last year and has five years on scholarship.  A significant part of that redshirt decision was Morris' intent to get five years worth of studies from Stanford - only now he may use those five years to get the one degree he wants rather than two degrees.

For the big picture of Stanford Basketball, the timing of losing Morris and Moore is painful.  Practice rotations take a hit in the frontcourt without Moore, while Morris had just earned his first career collegiate start Sunday against Washington.  The 6'4" shooting guard was playing his best basketball of the year - one of the few players to show clear and marked progress in this season.  He is the best player on the roster at attacking the basket and creating offense from the perimeter, and losing that is traumatic to this greatly challenged team.

The one shred of good news is that reports from players and coaches say that the practices this week have had the most fire and spirit seen yet this year.  One player told me Monday night that the Washington game was the first game this year that "felt like Stanford Basketball again."  This is a team playing with their back against the wall, and there are some signs that they could come out (finally) fighting.  Tonight's game against Arizona State is a tremendous test, though truthfully there may not be a game on the rest of the schedule that is not a tough test for this team.  We will watch to see how this team responds tonight and the rest of the way.

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