Saturday, May 29, 2010

Did Eric Bledsoe receive improper benefits in high school?

Late last night, Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans of the New York Times broke a story involving Eric Bledsoe. According to the report, Bledsoe was the beneficiary of potential NCAA violations while still in high school in Alabama.

  • Brenda Axle, the landlord for the house where Bledsoe and his mother moved for his senior year of high school, said that Bledsoe’s high school coach paid her at least three months’ rent, or $1,200. By moving there, Bledsoe was eligible to play for Parker, which he led to the Alabama Class 5A title game. Maurice Ford, the coach, denied paying the money.

  • A copy of Bledsoe's high school transcript from his first three years reveals that it would have taken an improbable academic makeover — a jump from about a 1.9 grade-point average in core courses to just under a 2.5 during his senior year — for Bledsoe to achieve minimum N.C.A.A. standards to qualify for a scholarship.

  • A college coach who recruited Bledsoe said that Ford explicitly told his coaching staff that he needed a specific amount of money to let Bledsoe sign with that university. The coach, who did not want to be named out of fear of repercussions when recruiting in Birmingham, said Ford told him and his staff that he was asking for money because he was helping pay rent for Bledsoe and his mother. Ford denied this, saying, "I don't prostitute my kids."

    He said he had done nothing wrong, adding: "I'm a poor black man. And when one black man tries to help another black man, there’s always something wrong."
Shortly thereafter, ESPN filed their own report, contributed to by investigative reporter Mike Fish. Fish's involvement has helped fuel speculation that this story has been in the works for months.

The biggest question now becomes whether or not Eric Bledsoe was actually eligible to play college basketball. The NCAA cleared him as a result of his marked improvement during his senior year, but was that improvement legitimate?

Bledsoe was forced to transfer from Hayes High after his junior year because the school closed, and he ended up at Parker High. Steve Ward was the head coach at Hayes High, and he spoke to

"When he was at Hayes he was borderline," Ward told "When he left me I don't know what happened." Asked if he was surprised that Bledsoe qualified, Ward said: "Not really. I knew if he applied himself he would have been able to. So I wasn't totally surprised."

Is it possible that Bledsoe actually put in the work in the classroom to get eligible? Absolutely. Is it possible that his grades were tampered with to get him to Kentucky? Absolutely. I have no idea.

What I do know is that this is now the second time in the span of two years that John Calipari has used a potentially ineligible player. Let's say the NCAA investigates Bledsoe (as of now, Kentucky hasn't been notified by the NCAA of an investigation) and discovers that what the New York Times reported is, in fact, true, then Kentucky's season is at risk. It doesn't matter that the NCAA had already cleared Bledsoe, they made it incredibly clear when they vacated the 2008 Memphis Final Four season that taking a risk on a potentially ineligible player can cost the school.

If a player is found to have been academically ineligible, the NCAA can retroactively punish the school for using an ineligible player. Every game that player participated in can be vacated. There is a chance that UK2K will happen all over again.

As far as Calipari is concerned, a vacation of the 2009-2010 Kentucky season will be the third time in his career he has had a season erased from the record books. How long is Kentucky going to put up with this? Could we relive this entire soap opera again next summer if news leaks that Enes Kanter was a professional in Turkey?

As Gary Parrish rightfully pointed out, the ability of a college basketball coach to survive depends on how well he is able to avoid the hammer when it drops. Calipari is hands down the best in the business at keeping his nose clean. His middle name is plausable deniability. I find it difficult to believe that as the head coach of a college basketball team, he was unaware of what was going on with Marcus Camby at UMass or Derrick Rose at Memphis. If it comes out that Bledsoe was also ineligible, only the simplest of the naive would maintain Calipari's innocence.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Will Bledsoe be found ineligible? Will Kentucky face sanctions? Will it be enough to send Calipari to the NBA?

The other part of this is the quote that the Times has from an unnamed college coach saying that he was told Bledsoe had to be bought. Did Calipari buy Bledsoe? Before you answer that, take a look at this quote from Bledsoe:
If Cal had stayed in Memphis, I would have signed with Florida. I wanted to play in the SEC.
So all that talk about Billy Gillispie recruiting Bledsoe can be put aside. Cal brought him to Kentucky.

We'll see where this goes. Nothing has been proven yet, but Kentucky fans should be concerned.

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