SPOTLIGHT: Could NCAA’s APR be DOA?

ON THE MOVE: Senior-to-be point guard Brian White is reportedly not returning to Northwestern State’s basketball team.

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports

Grambling’s just-hired volleyball coach, Chelsey Lucas, reportedly cut her entire team to look for better players.

New basketball coaches at Louisiana Tech, LSU and Northwestern State have varying degrees of roster management issues.

At Tech, the focal situation centers on the big man, Kenneth Lofton Jr., the Bulldogs’ sensational sophomore. Before Eric Konkol took the head coaching post at Tulsa, Lofton understandably stated his intention to explore entering the NBA Draft. Last week, Lofton also entered the NCAA’s transfer portal, increasing chances that he will be movin’ on up one way, or another, despite being recruited to Ruston by new Tech coach Talvin Hester, an assistant at the time of Lofton’s signing.

After the firing of Will Wade, the LSU basketball roster emptied. All scholarship players entered the transfer portal, or declared for the NBA Draft. Several Murray State Racers have followed their head coach, Matt McMahon, to Baton Rouge, along with NSU’s freshman star center, Captain Shreve product Kendal Coleman.

The new Demons’ head coach, Corey Gipson, has seen other key figures from last year’s NSU squad exit Prather Coliseum. Coleman was gone before Gipson arrived, but as of today, five of Northwestern’s top six scorers last year (two were seniors) reportedly won’t be back, notably underclassmen Carvell Teasett (12.9 points per game) and senior-to-be Brian White (5.9 points), the starting guards.

These are some, not all, of local cases-in-point illustrating the transfer portal is college sports’ version of the DFW Airport, with constant incoming and outgoing traffic.

Fluid rosters in coaching transitions are nothing new, but widespread exits had been curtailed significantly after the NCAA instituted academic reform with the arrival of the Academic Progress Rate in 2004. APR is a gauge of how schools do advancing student-athletes toward graduation. There have been penalties, including bans from postseason play and limits on scholarships and practices, for programs that fall below Division I-wide standards by not retaining their players.

Due to pandemic impact, the NCAA quietly suspended APR penalties a couple years ago. A restart was expected next year but has been delayed for at least another year, if not forever, as the transformative impact of the portal, and other problematic issues, soaks in.

The transfer portal has radically altered the landscape. No matter what the sport, Division I coaches have to constantly monitor their own roster, understanding the status of each player, and must be alert to players looking for a new home who might be good additions. The conventional recruiting paradigm has been blown up. With that, it’s possible, even perhaps likely, that the APR, the NCAA’s anchor for academic emphasis, could join fax machines and Walkmans in the obsolete file.

“You’re getting to the point where it’s unknown if penalties will be reassessed,” said Dustin Eubanks, associate athletic director at Northwestern State, who has handled NCAA compliance for 22 years. “We have to look at it as if they will be, but can I tell you they will? It’s like so much with the NCAA now; the word that is used is uncertainty.”

Does that mean the NCAA’s heavily-marketed focus on academics is in the way of its newfound commitment to free enterprise by student-athletes?

“There are too many issues like the portal that are problematic at this stage,” said Eubanks. “How does the NCAA reconsider its enforcement of academics? I don’t think they know right now.”

If these academic standards do resume, will they matter? A growing number of ambitious coaches on the outside of dream jobs, but looking up, are putting in all their chips toward rapid success to quickly climb toward multi-million dollar contracts. What’s left behind when they jump? Not their problem.

“There are some that don’t focus on APR as much as the way it used to be,” said Eubanks. “Coaches will tell you, we’re paid to win. If we don’t win, we’re out. Talking to colleagues at other places, I think discounting or altogether disregarding APR is more prevalent than you’d want, if you believe the end goal for college athletes is graduation.”

Do academics really matter in college sports? Rumors of the elite power programs considering a super division, something that could replicate minor league sports with a modicum of academics, are on the radar.

With so many unknowns, the notion that graduation is considered as big a win as championship trophies is very much in doubt.

Photo by CHRIS REICH, Northwestern State