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Mark Bradley

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

North Carolina is back in the title game, still under NCAA scrutiny

GLENDALE, ARIZ. – North Carolina plays Gonzaga for the national championship Monday night. North Carolina remains – key word, “remains” – under investigation for alleged academic fraud that dates back to the 20th Century, which was a while ago. The NCAA’s probe hasn’t lasted quite that long, although it often feels that way.

Flash back to the first Monday night of last year: North Carolina played Villanova for the national championship. The belief then in cynical journalistic circles was that the Tar Heels, true to their history, had sprung the Four Corners on investigators. The school had timed its response to the NCAA’s Infractions Committee’s notice of allegations -- perhaps coincidentally, but almost certainly not -- so that its men’s basketball team would have a chance to play in the 2016 tournament and maybe win the darn thing before any hammer fell. Sure enough, the Heels made it to the season's last game and were tied with one second remaining.

Then a weird thing happened. Just after the Final Four, Carolina received a second notice of allegations from the NCAA. It didn’t mention North Carolina men’s basketball, which – along with football – had been seen as the crux of this matter. The investigation was prompted by reports in the Raleigh News & Observer, which alleged that many Carolina, er, student-athletes had been funneled to sham classes. Rashad McCants, who started for the Heels’ 2005 NCAA championship team, told ESPN he didn’t write his papers.

We pause to emphasize: This is the flagship university of a state that, yes, takes basketball very seriously, but also a university that has forever been a tad snooty in its insistence that it Does Things The Right Way. Apparently proud Carolina had learned to stonewall the right way. The universal public reaction to Notice No. 2 was: Tar Heels win!

But wait. In December, it was learned that the school had received Notice No. 3, which again mentioned men’s basketball. Proud Carolina might well have committed the sin of pride in its response to Notice No. 2, in which it accused the NCAA of overstepping boundaries. This is akin to plea-bargaining a felony down to a misdemeanor and then griping about having to pay court costs.

Also of note: The Infractions Committee’s renewed scrutiny apparently came at the prodding of chairman Greg Sankey, who’s the commissioner of the SEC, which geographically is the closest Power 5 conference to the ACC.

Those questions about academic fraud Roy Williams was getting en route to the 2016 championship game? He’s getting them still. Here was Ol’ Roy on Sunday: “My firm belief is that we did nothing wrong, and that's just the best way to put it. Were there some mistakes made? You're darned right there were. Were there some things I wish hadn't happened? You're darned right. But there were no allegations against men's basketball.”

(Never mind that men’s basketball is again a focus of the investigation. Back to righteous Roy.)

“So I've sort of hung my hat on that part, and I know we did nothing wrong. And I find it hard to believe that it could go that far. Do I believe again that our institution, there were some mistakes? You're darned right I do. I'm very mad, sad, ticked off, any way you want to put it ... embarrassed and all those things, too. But we've received a tremendous amount of hurt already over the last three years.”

Some cite Carolina, which hasn’t had a one-and-done player since Brandan Wright in 2007, as a shining example of the anti-Kentucky and now the anti-Duke. Williams concedes that’s not entirely by design. The Heels’ recruiting has suffered because of the fear that, any minute now, they might be hit with a postseason ban. (No one-and-done wants his one year to end short of the Big Dance.)

Williams: “We recruited 26 McDonald's All-Americans in our first 10 years. The last three I think we got one. I don't think I got that dumb that quickly. So it was the doubt (about the investigation) that people could put in -- some of them directly, some of them indirectly. But still bringing up the doubt was something that was hard to deal with. And I had one (player’s) dad say, ‘We're just going to wait until the spring and it will be over with by then, and then we'll know exactly what it was.’ That was two years ago. We still don't know what it is.”

For two springs running, Williams has sought to play the victim, which might go over better if McCants hadn’t been part of his 2005 championship team. And we stipulate that there’s a chance Carolina basketball could be charged with nothing of consequence. (The NCAA has been known to botch an investigation.) Still, the issue lingers. Minutes after the wild semifinal victory over Oregon, a questioner asked if the never-ending probe might have been “a blessing in disguise” because the Heels can no longer attract top-end talent and therefore have more seasoned players.

Ol’ Roy bristled. “I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I'm damned sure not the dumbest. I don't think there's one second of that thing that's been a blessing, not one second. People have tested my credibility, and I haven't appreciated that. It's been used against us in recruiting. There's not one second that I've thought that was a blessing. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy, and I don't have too many enemies.”

That might well be true. But North Carolina, via its delaying and then its indignation, has made few friends among NCAA types. Just because the hammer hasn't dropped doesn't mean it won't.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.