Coaches underwhelmed by APR


Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan.

File photo
Published: Monday, February 9, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 8, 2009 at 10:55 p.m.

When Florida senior guard Walter Hodge first enrolled at Florida Air Academy in Melbourne as a high school sophomore, he knew little English.

From his native Guaynobo, Puerto Rico, Hodge adapted to a new language and country before even being admitted to UF.

Yet six years later, Hodge is on pace to graduate with a degree in recreation programming. He’s made the Southeastern Conference student-athlete academic honor roll three times for posting grade-point averages above 3.0.

“I just go to my tutor and try to do everything at the time and not wait until the last minute,” Hodge said. “Do the little things and you’re going to be fine.”

Hodge is an academic success story in Division I men’s basketball. Not every player has followed his lead. In the SEC alone, seven of its 12 men’s basketball teams, including Florida, fell below the minimum threshold score of 925 in the NCAA’s recently-constituted Academic Progress Rate for the 2007-08 reporting period.

The APR was devised four years ago as part of a bold academic reform package implemented by current NCAA president Myles Brand. It measures how well schools retain players, keep them academically eligible and eventually graduate them.

A 925 score represents a graduation rate of 60 percent. SEC teams that fell below the 925 threshold were Florida (919), Ole Miss (917), Tennessee (911), LSU (910) Auburn (905), Mississippi State (901) and South Carolina (899).

Those numbers suggest that men’s basketball teams throughout the league aren’t making the grade. SEC commissioner Mike Slive views the issue in broader terms.

“I’m more concerned about the plans for improvement and progress and I think we’re doing that,” Slive said. “This is a marathon not a sprint. Our ultimate goal obviously is to graduate all of our student athletes higher than the student body in general. And for lots of reasons basketball has the lowest APR nationally.”

Slive has wrestled with the problem as a member of the NCAA’s basketball academic advancement committee and has come up with some ideas, including mandatory summer school, to try to help men’s basketball players better adjust in the classroom. The current Division I men’s basketball average APR is 928, just three points above the minimum threshold. More than 40 percent of Division I teams are below the minimum 925 score.

Tennessee and South Carolina have already each lost one men’s basketball scholarship as a result of their lagging APR scores over a three-year period. The NCAA can implement postseason bans and more scholarship reductions following the next month’s 2008-09 reporting period for schools that have a continued history of falling below the minimum threshold score.

Vocal opposition

Though the APR’s intention is to increase graduation rates, it hasn’t been embraced with open arms in the college basketball coaching community.

“It’s not a good rule,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “I don’t think there’s any college coach and I don’t know administrators that would say that they are in favor of it.”

Donovan said that because the NCAA has cut the amount of time coaches can contact and spend time with incoming high school recruits, coaches don’t know what kind of students they are getting.

“With that being said if a guy picks up and transfers, or, if you’ve got a great player that’s a potential pro and the semester ends or the season ends in March or April and they say you know what, I’m sorry to put you in a bind with the APR but I’ve got to work on myself and my career and I’m going to take off, those things put you in a bind and I don’t know as a school how you can control that,” Donovan said. “I think it’s totally impossible to control. So I think when you talk about seven of the 12 schools, I think that’s a pretty good reason to evaluate that because if schools are really being put in a bind like that they have to look at that.”

Another issue regards transfers. Under previous reporting periods, a transfer that left a Division I program counted the same as an underclassmen that left for the NBA in poor academic standing.

“The data shows that transfer students take a longer time to graduate,” Slive said. “There’s about a nine-month lag. And the goal is graduation so when you get down and look at all the data, we want not just the initial eligibility out of high school but we also want to look at make sure that the kids that transfer get a chance to graduate in about the same time frame.”

The NCAA has since amended the transfer rule for this upcoming reporting period, allowing transfers who leave the school with a 2.6 grade-point average not to count negatively against a school. NCAA vice president for academic and membership affairs Kevin Lennon said schools can apply for waivers for the NCAA to review transfers that fall below a 2.6 GPA.

“The reason 2.6 was chosen was that was a profile of a college student that transfers that goes on to obtain a college degree,” Lennon said.

Florida has had nine transfers leave its program since the 2003-04 season.

“I don’t think it makes any sense to penalize schools when they have players transfer,” former Georgia coach Dennis Felton said. “Everyone should have the freedom to make choices and do what they think is best for them.”

Florida has lost five underclassmen to the NBA draft in the past two seasons. In that time-frame, Florida has had just one player graduate, former Gator shooting guard Lee Humphrey. However, both Al Horford and Taurean Green returned last summer to take classes in order to work toward their degrees.

Donovan said he’s been fortunate with his two most recent defections, former center Marreese Speights (who left for the 2008 NBA draft) and former point guard Jai Lucas (who transferred to Texas). Both, Donovan said, left Florida in good academic standing.

“Marreese had enough substance and his family had enough substance to say you know what, you need to stay in school, you need to work toward your degree, and you know what, that’s the right thing to do and he did it,” Donovan said. “But there’s also people that say, you know what, the right thing for me to do is to go and get ready for the NBA draft. I can’t argue with that. But it puts the school in a tough situation. “Even the transfers, a guy picks up and decided he wants to transfer. Let’s say Jai Lucas just decided, I don’t want to go to school. Let’s say he’s not eligible to transfer. How I’m I supposed to control that. He wants to make a decision to leave, we’re supporting it. I hope he’s doing what he’s doing, we provided all of the things that he needs, if he needed something academically.

“I think it puts the coaches and the players in a bad situation because a lot of that stuff is based on stuff that’s out of the coach’s control, and the school’s control.”

Mixed messages

Graduation rates are a noble goal, yet as long as school administrators place them below winning on the priority list, coaches may continue to pursue the best talent regardless of classroom consequences.

Felton inherited an academic mess from former Georgia coach Jim Harrick six seasons ago. Under Felton, Georgia’s current 958 APR score was second-best in the SEC behind Vanderbilt. But because Felton was unable to post a winning record in five-plus seasons with the Bulldogs, he was fired on Jan. 29.

Alabama, another SEC school above the APR threshold with a score of 928, pressured coach Mark Gottfried to resign on Jan. 26.

Lennon said that based on current data that the NCAA is receiving, he expects “marked improvement” from Division I men’s basketball APR scores when they are released next month. He said the NCAA is currently studying the academic challenges of men’s D-I basketball players that transfer from junior colleges to four-year schools.

JUCO transfers have had the lowest percentage of graduation success, Lennon said. One proposal the NCAA is considering is to have JUCO transfers to sit out of competition for a year without losing a year of eligibility, in order to get adjusted academically.

Other than that, Lennon said the NCAA is satisfied with the progress that schools are making to try to graduate their athletes.

“I think we have people’s attention,” Lennon said. “We’ve increased the academic standards and we’ve increased the consequences. I think we can say with great confidence that gradation rates for athletes will continue to improve.”

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