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Points in the Paint: Memphis becomes the test case for NCAA’s new independent investigation mechanism

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You mess with the bull, you get the horns

<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Memphis

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Entering the 2019-2020 season, there were a few recruits that had bounced around between several programs before deciding late upon the Memphis Tigers. One of them was probable No. 1 NBA Draft pick, 7’1” James Wiseman.

For those unfamiliar with Wiseman’s recruiting, and his sordid history with UM coach, Penny Hardaway, it is a little convoluted with all the moving parts. To simplify:

Hardaway was once coach of Memphis HS power, East High. Hardaway also happened to be an AAU coach for a local crew, Team Penny (formerly, and once again, the Bluff City Legends.) James Wiseman, from Nashville, spent two years in Nashville playing high school ball, while also playing for a St. Louis-based AAU brand. He later transferred to Hardaway’s Team Penny.

Hardaway was able to convince Wiseman to transfer from his Nashville school to play at East — while also remaining Wiseman’s AAU coach. But, the Tenn. High School Athletics Association disallowed Wiseman’s entire Junior year, because of Penny’s AAU links with Wiseman. He would play his Senior year, however. And East won its third straight State title.

Following Tubby Smith’s flame-out at the University of Memphis in 2018, there was much pressure locally to hire Penny — based in part on his NBA connections, his hometown hero status, and the belief that with his East High and AAU ties he would be a great recruiter — eventually building a class around James Wiseman, who stayed at East High for his senior year, and remained a fixture with the Bluff City Legends.

Penny was eventually hired that spring and had to cease running AAU operations, which he did. Upon his hiring, Penny donated $1 million to the Tigers to build a basketball dorm complex. Hardaway also put forth a full-court press for Wiseman in October 2018, unleashing a soldout Midnight Madness event at the FedEx Forum that featured Yo Gotti and several other Memphis rappers. Five other Top 50 prospects were in attendance — including Precious Achiuwa, Boogie Ellis, and DJ Jeffries. To little surprise, Wiseman signed with the Tigers, as would the three others named above. Memphis claimed the No. 1 recruiting class with a bullet too.

Less than six months after his NLI, the NCAA declared Wiseman eligible after a joint review by the school and the NCAA. Wiseman would not play until November 5th, however. But then on Nov. 8th, after additional information was forwarded to the NCAA, Wiseman’s attorney, Leslie Ballin, “said at a news conference that Wiseman has been ruled ineligible by the NCAA after findings that Hardaway helped Wiseman and his family move to Memphis. The school says that Hardaway — deemed a booster by the NCAA due to the aforementioned $1 million donation to the school in 2008 — provided $11,500 in moving expenses to Wiseman’s family in the summer of 2017. Wiseman files a lawsuit against the NCAA.”

<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">NCAA Basketball: Houston at Memphis

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

This is when things turned really, really nasty.

The University tried a Mail Mary, suing the NCAA to obtain a restraining order enjoining the NCAA’s decision — which was granted by a local judge. At the same time, University administrators were defiant, and despite Wiseman’s ineligibility, allowed Wiseman to suit up, firing off combative press releases vowing to take the case to the mat. But, the school advised Wiseman to end his lawsuit. That would wind up being costly, as the injunction was eventually lifted when Wiseman dropped out of school just a week later.

No lawsuit. No injunction. And Memphis had played an ineligible player, one who had been ordered to pay back $11,500 his family had taken from booster-turned-coach Hardaway to relocate to Memphis.

Now, the NCAA is out for blood. But, because there is so much underlying animus between the NCAA and the university, and the case is both complex and novel, Memphis now becomes a test case for the newest NCAA enforcement mechanism, an independent review for complex or particularly serious cases — and this one fits both fact patterns.

The University of Memphis’ infractions case will become the first to enter the NCAA’s Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP), the organization announced Wednesday.

The IARP was formed following a recommendation from the Commission on College Basketball in August 2019. It is comprised of “independent investigators, advocates and adjudicators” who are in charge of reviewing infractions cases in Division I.

The University of Memphis is the first school to successfully be referred for independent review. The panel will then determine the outcome for the school’s infractions.

This is a particularly interesting case of what is, in essence, arbitration. The independent commission is tasked with fact-finding, investigation, and then ultimately providing the sanctions. But, unlike the usual system for NCAA infractions, there is no appeal from the commission — either from their findings of fact or the punishment that they hand down.

Why is this of particular importance? It has the potential to completely upend the basketball landscape in general, and the SEC particularly. The NCAA has been exceptionally tight-lipped following the Adidas corruption cases. We have had to find out through second-hand sources that the NCAA has handed down notices of allegations to Kansas, to Auburn, and others — including, one would presume, LSU eventually. And those are really complex cases. But, the reserved institution did break its silence for this case.

And, if you are Memphis — and others who may be referred to the independent commission — that perhaps does not bode well. The ironic part? The NCAA’s show of force here against Memphis and the AAU pipeline is institutional hammer-swinging based upon the Rice Commission, which bent over backwards to make concessions to basketball athletes. While hailed at the time for its forward-thinking and player-friendly proposals, it also contemplated the harshest of sentences, with no possibility of appeals, for the worst of college basketball’s malefactors.

If I’m in Baton Rouge or Auburn, my nights just got considerably more restless.