Wisconsin-Milwaukee won the Horizon League Tournament this season and played No. 2 seed Villanova tough for most of its second-round NCAA Tournament game, but the Panthers will not have a chance to return to the Big Dance in 2015.
They will be ineligible for postseason play due to sub-standard Academic Progress Rate scores after the NCAA denied the university's final appeal this week.
Schools are required to post a minimum score of 930 over a four-year period, with the current cycle running from 2009-10 through 2012-13. Milwaukee posted a 908 in that span.
The APR is calculated by giving one point to a team per season for each scholarship athlete who stays in school. Schools earn another point if the athlete is academically eligible. A team's total points is then divided by its possible points and multiplied by 1,000 to determine its APR score. If a player leaves school early, for example to enter the NBA Draft, this does not count against the school provided he is in good academic standing.
In addition to the ban, Milwaukee will also need to replace four hours of basketball each week with four hours of academic activities. Basketball activities will be limited to five days per week instead of six.
The NCAA's intentions in the still somewhat new APR system are noble. The system is meant to ensure teams across an athletic department are putting the proper emphasis on academic work in order to prepare athletes as much as possible for life after college.
But the system is flawed.
The NCAA's APR Manual states that a school may appeal a decision and have a ban overturned for a number of reasons, including if the school submits a plan to improve its own academic policies.
Milwaukee has done just that. It has added a second full-time academic advisor to its staff, added a class for incoming student-athletes to help with their transition to college and has increased its efforts to help determine which athletes might need additional academic help.
Is that enough? I don't know. Because the NCAA isn't specific regarding what is necessary to have a ban overturned.
And the ambiguity in the NCAA's rules is just the start. One has to ask, who is really being punished by the NCAA's APR sanctions?
Take the possible 2013-14 Milwaukee roster. Assume everybody, except for the seniors from this year, stays with the team and the Panthers' lone commit Brock Stull does not change his mind. That leaves 14 players on the roster, including scholarship athletes and walk-ons. Remember that the APR scores were calculated from seasons between 2009 and 2013. Nobody on next year's team will have been in school for the first two seasons of that four-year span. Just one player, Evan Richard, was with the Panthers for the last two of the four seasons. Steve McWhorter was on the team for the 2012-13 season, the final one measured by the NCAA to determine next season's ban.
We also do not know if McWhorter or Richard impacted the program's APR score negatively in any way.
So, at the absolute worst, there are two players on next year's team who could have had any hand whatsoever in Milwaukee's ban. The other 12 players came along after, either as freshmen in 2013-14, freshmen in 2014-15 or transfers.
Like Connecticut in 2012-13, which was banned from postseason play for the same reason, despite not having a single player on its roster who was on the team for any year measured by the NCAA, Milwaukee's players appear to be taking the fall for the actions of others.
Of course, also like UConn, Milwaukee's players will likely have the option to transfer and immediately play at another school that is eligible for the postseason. Seems fair. But the NCAA, which claims to be just as much about the "student" in student-athlete, is basically offering as its compromise the opportunity for a player to transfer for athletic purposes. It's disregarding the academic opportunities that may have drawn players to Milwaukee or UConn in the first place. If a player on Milwaukee's roster is entering his senior year at his dream school with the hope of playing in another NCAA Tournament, he has a decision to make: leave his dream academic setting or give up on his dream of maybe winning a game in the NCAA Tournament. This being because of a punishment that he probably had nothing to do with.
One improvement that would at least help this would be to make the four-year cycle the most recent possible. This means Milwaukee's postseason status should instead be based on academic stats from 2010-11 through 2013-14. The NCAA would only have to wait until the end of this semester to determine who qualifies.
But that doesn't solve the problem altogether. It still doesn't account for athletes at North Carolina who turn in papers like this and receive an A- along with a point toward the school's APR.
The APR seems like a start. But if the NCAA is serious about emphasizing "student" just as much as "athlete," it needs to take another look at who it is punishing and take a few more steps to make sure the system accomplishes its intended goals.