Houston -- It was inevitable that a Final Four matchup of Syracuse and North Carolina -- "On probation vs. under investigation," was how Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports put it -- would careen into hair-splitting. That happened here Thursday.
This was Jim Boeheim, who coaches Syracuse, which is indeed on NCAA probation: "I've coached 40 years. (This probation is) something that I regret. I'm not happy about it. I don't think we gained any competitive advantage at any time in this whole case that we've been through for 10 years. I think it weighed on us for 10 years and affected recruiting for 10 years. That's just part of the punishment."
Then: "But when they say 'cheating,' that's not true. Rules being broken is a lot different. Cheating to me is intentionally doing something, like you wanted to get this recruit, you arranged a job for him, or you went to see him when you shouldn't. You called him when you shouldn't to gain an edge in recruiting, to get a really good player. That's cheating. I think if something happens that you're not aware of it (and) doesn't really affect the recruit, I don't look at it the same way. It's a violation. I think when rules are violated, there should be a punishment."
This from the coach who missed nine games this season due to sanctions stemming from cheating/violations/whatever. Shortly thereafter, NCAA president Mark Emmert was asked if he concurred with Boeheim's distinction between what's cheating and what isn't.
Emmert: "Well, look, the committee on infractions (looked) at the facts in that case. It was a voluminous set of data. It took far too long for all the information to be collected and gathered. I think everybody agreed with that. When the data were put in front of a committee on infractions -- this is a body of members of the association that aren't paid employees of the NCAA. They're conference commissioners. They're athletic directors. There's a former Attorney General of the United States. A former university president. It's a cross-section of the membership.
"When those folks looked at the facts, they reached the conclusion that, indeed, violations of our rules and bylaws had occurred and imposed sanctions that were consistent with their view and that behavior. I'll let coach Boeheim define that how he wants to. But the committee determined these are clear violations of the rules and that, therefore, it warranted some pretty significant sanctions, and they were imposed."
Er ... was that a yes or a no? Did Syracuse, in the eyes of the NCAA, cheat?
Emmert: "I have enormous confidence in the committee on infractions. I think that process works remarkably well. It's the closest thing you're going to see to 'a jury of your peers' model for as broad an association as this one that includes a wide collection of institutions and members. I have complete confidence in what that body did in this case."
So: Still not quite a yes, but definitely not a no. So maybe Syracuse did, you know, cheat. And yet: Here it is, in the same season that saw the Hall of Famer Boeheim miss those nine games, in which Syracuse went 4-5 and thereby thrust itself on the NCAA tournament bubble, and still it was rewarded with a bid despite an RPI of 72, the lowest ever for an at-large selection.
Emmert was asked: Is the NCAA concerned that having one program on probation face another that's being investigated for giving college credit to what mightn't have been actual college classes sends a discordant message?
"It's always a concern of ours that the rules that the members have put in place strike that right balance between being deterrence from behavior that nobody wants to see, to also being too punitive and impacting students, for example, that didn't have anything to do with it. I would disagree with those observations that people have. The fact of the matter is that Syracuse, as I have said several times now, went through an exhaustive process. It went through a hearing on infractions. It dealt with the sanctions that were put in place. This current group of student-athletes had nothing to do with those sanctions, and they happen to be a very good basketball team.
"I think to conclude from that that there was no impact on the university is simply wrong. I think they disagreed at that time, and I think they would disagree today that there were no penalties that were inflicted on them. Then, of course, the UNC case, as I just said earlier, we haven't even gotten to a place where there have been allegations delivered to the institution. So we can't make any comment (or) observation about them one way or the other."
In case you were wondering why Emmert's annual Final Four press briefing is considered a must-see among us reporters, there you have it. He talks a lot and says very little, but man is it fun to watch him squirm.