From layup to cover up. The North Carolina revenge mission may have been completed with the pain of last year’s buzzer-beater defeat to Villanova wiped away with last week’s March Madness title win over Gonzaga.
It was UNC’s seventh championship and confirmed they are the best college basketball team in the land. Yet as the tickertape fell, chronic wrongdoing and scandal were being glossed over.
In the next few weeks, the spotlight will publicly shine again though, this time, dark matters will come to the fore. An exhaustive three-year investigation involving the NCAA is coming to the end, which, some believe, will uncover the worst academic fraud in history.
It’s alleged that between 2007 and 2011 over 3,000 students were enrolled in fake classes to help bring the best athletes in the US to their coveted programme.
Tutors were found carrying out homework for students. Grades had been adjusted accordingly. Plagiarism became commonplace.
The end product for sporting supremacy? Millions of dollars for coaches, teachers and the facility. (NCAA rakes in around $900 million for March Madness alone).
The African and Afro-American studies department which has come under the severest scrutiny boasted 10 of the 15 players who helped the Tar Heels win the title 12 years ago.
“Their classes were especially popular among those who played the ‘revenue’ sports of football and men’s basketball,” said a report.
To hell what happens in the classroom. Education? No, just worry about the next match.
Such a flagrant trouncing of rules by greedy men who should know better ignores the effect this will have on those in the system right now and in the future.
This sorry state of affairs is nothing new. College sports has been riddled with corruption for years.
University of Southern California (USC) were forced to take away 30 scholarships and had two title triumphs overturned because of illegal payments made to agents in 2010. A year later, Ohio State were banned after players received money for autographing memorabilia. Yet this mess digs far deeper into the depths of a continually abused system.
The whispers about UNC grew too loud to ignore and in 2014 Kenneth Wainstein, a former assistant attorney general, was asked to compile a report. His findings were remarkable. Student athletes were pushed towards meaningless subjects and even told to have a sleep at their desk if it all got too much. But despite all this, it took the NCAA ages before acting decisively.
Last December, a tough set of accusations against the university were filed. UNC lawyers agreed but quickly passed the buck back to the NCAA, whose rules members are supposed to operate under.
Taking retrospective action is problematic – these incidents started a decade ago – though naturally, the response on campus was one of startling innocence. Behind the scenes however, everyone knew about the firestorm brewing.
Other former employees spoke of UNC operating, “like a crime family who would do anything to protect their athletic machine.”
No team has ever had championship banners taken down but if the titles remain, penalties may still follow. Scholarships could be taken away along with wins, while strong denials from the university could see the hammer fall even harder.
“People have tested my credibility and I haven’t appreciated that,” said Roy Williams (left), UNC’s coach who has now won three titles during the period in question and bagged a nice $500,000 bonus last Monday. “It’s been used against us in recruiting… I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy and I don’t have too many enemies.”
The NCAA, however, appear to be pulling no punches, declaring the situation in North Carolina, “implicates issues at the very core of the Collegiate Model.”
Crunch time is looming. The lines between academic and sporting prowess have been blurred and the NCAA need to act or risk further embarrassment elsewhere.
We speculated, imagined and dreamed, but no one actually expected Russell Westbrook to average a triple-double.
As remarkable as the feat is, it should be remembered not as the end goal, but rather the end result of a player carrying his team.
By eclipsing six assists in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 120-99 loss to the Phoenix Suns on Friday, Westbrook locked in a triple-double average for the season, joining Oscar Robertson as the only other player in NBA history to accomplish the ultra rare holy trinity.
Westbrook, who finished with 23 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists, fell just shy of overtaking Robertson’s record for most triple-doubles in a season with what would have been his 42nd, but has three games remaining to own that mark.
By securing a triple-double average though, the 28-year-old force of nature has immortalised his season, which will be remembered with great admiration and respect, as Robertson’s famous 1961-62 campaign is.
What’s insane in what has been a season of crazy is that Westbrook may not even win the Most Valuable Player award, potentially losing out to other worthy candidates in James Harden, Kawhi Leonard or LeBron James.
Regardless of your view on who should earn the honour, it’s impossible to deny how much of the burden Westbrook has shouldered, especially in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure.
The fact that he’s registered triple-doubles with regularity has been the result of that burden.
There is no ‘chicken or the egg’ question here. Oklahoma City often win when Westbrook reaches double digits across the three categories. Westbrook doesn’t get triple-doubles because the Thunder win.
It’s not a coincidence that he averages 31.7 points, 11.8 assists and 11.4 rebounds in wins this season, compared to 31.6 points, 8.6 assists and 9.7 rebounds in losses.
Westbrook gets killed for ‘stat padding’ and while there are instances when he’s chasing numbers, those moments are heavily outweighed by the moments he’s doing everything in his power to help Oklahoma City win by any means necessary.
“My main goal since I got here, especially this season, is to win a championship,” Westbrook said after the loss to Phoenix. “If I wanted to get 10 assists, I could get 10 assists. Everybody wants to see the record broke, but it’s bigger than that for our team and for me.”
Yes, triple-doubles hold too much importance. They’re a measure of arbitrary, round numbers at the end of the day. But Westbrook has given meaning to those numbers and for that, his historic campaign should be appreciated.
With the Golden State Warriors currently riding a 13-game winning streak, it’s fair to wonder, as it was last summer, how much better they can be with Kevin Durant. Unlike last summer though, we now have plenty of empirical evidence that makes the answer to that question abundantly clear.
Durant, who has been sidelined by a knee injury for the past 19 games since suffering a left MCL sprain on February 28, will make his return tonight against New Orleans (tip-off: 06:30+1), one week ahead of the start of the playoffs.
Depending on how coach Steve Kerr chooses to handle Durant, the Warriors could get three games under their belt with the former MVP back on the floor before the entering the postseason.
It may not be enough time to fully assimilate Durant to the point Golden State are firing on all cylinders again like they were before he went down, but it at least starts the process before the games truly begin to matter.
In the two weeks after Durant was hurt, the Warriors weren’t exactly in a free-fall, but they did drop five of seven games and showed concerning signs as to how they could manage in his absence.
Since then, however, Golden State have looked akin to the juggernaut of the past two years that didn’t need a fourth All-Star to dominate. They’ve reeled off 13 straight victories, including an impressive three-game stretch that featured two wins over Houston and another against San Antonio.
Surprisingly, the Warriors’ defence has somehow improved sans Durant. While it shouldn’t be the case when you lose a long, rangy and versatile defender from your lineup, Golden State’s defensive rating has dropped from 101.3 points surrendered per 100 possessions before Durant’s injury, to 100.5 after. Over that span, the Warriors rank first in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage at 43.1, while ranking fifth in 3-point percentage allowed at 32.2.
What hasn’t been surprising in the wake of Durant’s injury though, has been the return of Stephen Curry as an alpha scorer.
The two-time reigning MVP is averaging two full points more since February 28, while shooting slightly higher percentages from the field and 3-pointers on more volume. Instead of willingly deferring to Durant and slotting as the second option, the injury has forced Curry to assume more responsibility and he’s thrived as he did over the past two seasons.
Even with Durant coming back, Curry’s play of late should allow Golden State to function with even more balance going forward.
But for as well as have the Warriors have done without Durant, it still hasn’t been near the peak of their world-beating form when he’s been available.
They weren’t on a pace to match or better their record 73 wins from last season, but judging by the point differential between this year’s team with Durant and last year’s historic squad, the Warriors are better now.
With Durant healthy, Golden State have outscored opponents by 12.8 points, a rate that would be the best in history and top the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers’ mark of 12.3.
A better question would be if the Warriors can win the title without Durant because it’s obvious they’re the clear favourites with him. A lot depends on how quickly they can get back in sync, but if and when they do, it’s hard to imagine anyone beating them.