So now it's official. American college basketball really is our sleaziest sport. Because it even induced a nice little college program such as Saint Mary's into cheating.
Oh, you can rant and rail all you want at the NCAA for its rules and investigations. Some of the ranting is justified. But bottom line, Saint Mary's was probably asking for trouble when it started to rely on international players to boost its stature.
Moraga is not exactly the place that comes to mind when you think about slime. But the charming East Bay community that is home to the Saint Mary's campus apparently was the site of nefarious activity, if you believe the NCAA, which placed the school on four years' probation for "failure to monitor its men's basketball program."
The actual punishment -- which does not include an NCAA tournament ban -- will hurt mostly in the sense of tarnishing Randy Bennett's reputation. The Saint Mary's coach has been generally regarded as a quirky-smart hoops lifer who somehow managed to create a perennial conference contender at the school through his wits and through clever international recruiting.
According to the NCAA documents that you can read here -- mercurynews.com/college-sports/ci_22697080/documents-ncaa-report-saint-marys-college-basketball-program -- Bennett might have been too clever about his overseas pursuit of players. Or to be more accurate, he was too laissez-faire in his monitoring of international recruitment being done by one of his former assistant coaches.
That coach, Keith Moss, was also once an assistant on the San Jose State basketball staff. He helped steer French star prospect Olivier Saint-Jean to the Spartans program. Saint-Jean, who subsequently changed his name to Tariq Abdul-Wahad, helped SJSU to its only NCAA tournament appearance in the last few decades and became a first-round NBA draft pick en route to a fairly successful pro career. It seemed strange that Abdul-Wahad would suddenly show up in San Jose with Moss as his guide, but nothing illegal was ever proved.
In the Saint Mary's NCAA paperwork, investigators appear to be vexed about some murky stuff involving impermissible summertime training at the school's gym by outside coaches. The workouts apparently were encouraged by Bennett, who never checked with his school's compliance officer to see if they were legal. But who are we kidding? The sexy part of the accusations involves the information about a foreign player being provided free airfare and shoes and clothes -- presumably by Moss -- as an inducement to enroll at an American high school with the idea that he would eventually become a Gael. And it sounds as if Bennett did not do anything to discourage that plan.
Bennett met with NCAA investigators to protest that he wasn't even really interested in recruiting the foreign player in question. But text messages and emails were uncovered that seem to prove otherwise.
The plain fact: College basketball programs enter dangerously tricky waters when they decide to recruit internationally. The structure of basketball development in foreign countries is extremely different from in the United States. There is usually no scholastic component at the high school or college level. Each country has its own system of club teams -- that can consist of teenagers and 30-year-olds -- operated by coaches who double as agents.
Additionally, the NCAA rules are notoriously arcane when it comes to what colleges can and cannot do when helping recruits find their way to America. It's why teams embark on a sensitive journey when they pursue players from the other side of various oceans, though it should be noted that none of the 11 current or former Australian players at Saint Mary's are named in the current violations. Moving ahead, you can be sure the NCAA will be looking at any or all foreign recruitment by the Gaels.
The most damaging element of Saint Mary's punishment is not the temporary loss of two scholarships. That simply means the Gaels will not be able to afford many recruitment mistakes. No, the main damage is the ban on Bennett's being able to recruit off-campus. It means that when other coaches are in the stands watching players at AAU or high school tournaments, he won't be there. It means that his assistants will have to visit homes of recruits and their parents, who surely will ponder the head coach's absence.
Do other schools pursue more shady practices and get away with it? Probably. Does that mean Saint Mary's was hit too hard by the NCAA? No. Bennett is responsible for all aspects of his program. At the very least, while chasing the March Madness dream of every school, he let some details slide and waded into swampy ground. When you go into that swamp, you can't be surprised if an alligator shows up to bite you. That's the smarmy side of college basketball today. Congratulations to Saint Mary's for joining the club.
List of penalties by the NCAA against the Saint Mary's College men's basketball program that were announced Friday morning:
Read the full NCAA report on its investigation of Saint Mary's basketball
Monte Poole: Program isn't big enough to escape NCAA's wrath.
Storify: Online reaction to the ruling
Transcript of Saint Mary's College news conference with president Brother Ronald Gallagher and athletic director Mark Orr
Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett comments on the ruling
Video of Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett's reaction to the NCAA penalties
NCAA levies punishment on Saint Mary's basketball program.