The madness of March that consumes college basketball began earlier than expected for the Villanova men’s basketball team.
On Saturday, the University announced the suspensions of 12 of the men’s 15 players for the misuse of a school telephone access code, an NCAA violation of extra benefits.
An internal audit of the University’s telephone records on March 4 alerted school administrators to the irregularity in phone calls. After notifying the basketball program, the coaching staff immediately called the team together to begin dealing with the situation in accordance to NCAA rules and regulations.
The suspensions range from three to eight games, depending on the dollar value accumulated by each player. NCAA guidelines state that any extra benefit to an athlete $100 or less must paid back by the player, while larger amounts lead to suspensions.
Bills up to $300 result in a 10 percent suspension of the season’s games, which in a 30 game season amounts to three games. Athletes receiving advantages up to $500 must sit out 20 percent of the season, five games, and those who accumulate over $500 in extra benefits must sit out 30 percent of the season, eight games.
The NCAA and University officials worked together to stagger the suspensions so the Wildcats can still field a seven-man team in their final games od the season.
The eligible roster consists of freshmen Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Curtis Sumpter and sophomores Marcus Austin and Derrick Snowden, all of whom must fulfill their suspensions early next season. Freshman Michael Claxton and junior Tom Grace, both walk-ons, joined the five scholarship players off the bench.
Claxton, Grace and walk-on freshman Baker Dunleavy, red-shirting his first season on the Main Line, are the lone three not suspended.
Seniors Ricky Wright, Gary Buchanan, Andrew Sullivan and Lou Rusky will not likely suit up again in their collegiate career, since all are facing at least a three-game suspension.
Other ‘Cats suspended are junior Andreas Bloch, sophomore Chris Charles and freshman Jason Fraser.
The suspended players said they did not know what they were doing was in violation of an NCAA rule, but are now aware that they made a mistake and must face the consequences.
“I didn’t know exactly what the mistake was at the time, but now I know, and I have had the chance to read the ruling and it is just,” Wright said.
“You just have to live with it.”
NCAA athletes must live up to certain standards under the rules and regulations, and the strict guidelines are not a new concept for the players, especially at such an elite level of college basketball.
“We try to be regular students, but we realized we are not regular students and now we have to face the consequences,” Buchanan said. “The last few days have been very tough.
“I have told my team I am sorry about the whole situation. I let my team down. I have been playing here for four years now and I know when those situations occur I just can’t do things like that.”
The suspensions come in the midst of fierce allegations of NCAA violations across the country at Georgia, St. Bonaventure and University of Michigan. However on the Main Line, the administration and the coaching staff are cleared of any implication and are actively working with the team to mitigate the situation as well as possible under the regulations.
“It’s like [being] a parent,” head coach Jay Wright said. “You watch your kids go through stuff like this and it hurts and that really is what it is now. I think this is maybe going to be a tough couple weeks for us, but we will get stronger through this, we will. We will be okay, Villanova will be good.”
With those serving suspensions dressed in shirts and ties on the bench, the seven-man squad faced off against then-seventh ranked Big East foe Pitt Sunday and fell just short of the upset 54-56.
The same seven took on Georgetown Wednesday in the first round of the Big East Tournament, but came up short 46-41.
NCAA rules and regulations forbid those serving suspensions to travel with the team and participate in activities surrounding the conference tournament, such as the Big East dinner. However Wright, Rusky Fraser and sophomore Chris Charles face the minimum suspension of three games and could rejoin the team if they make it to the finals, allowing the quartete to travel and participate with the team at the Big East.
Those serving longer suspensons are allowed to go to the tournament, but must pay their own way on all accounts. While the Rusky and Wright attended the tradional Big East Senior Dinner, Buchanan and Sullivan remained back at school unable to particapate in tournament activities.
This is not the first time Villanova players violated NCAA extra benefit regulations with phone charges. In 1996, Kerry Kittles was suspended the final three games of the season for charging up to $3,000 on a school official’s phone account. The suspension came the night before the ‘Cats took on then-ranked No. 3 UConn on national television.
The current suspensions will likely bring an early end to an already disappointing season for ‘Nova. High expectations were placed on the four starters returning from last year’s 19-win squad, joined by one of the best recruiting class in the nation. Prior to the suspensions the ‘Cats bubble seemed already burst, but without a bench to go to, even the NIT is doubtful now.