The NCAA released its Academic Progress Rates Tuesday afternoon, and while the overall verdict was rosy -- the average APR for all athletes in all sports jumped three points to 970, well above the penalty cutline of 925 -- more than a few schools felt the APR's famous sting.
Most notable among them? Your 2011 men's basketball national champions, the Connecticut Huskies.
Yes, just seven days removed from a triumphant trip to the White House, Jim Calhoun's team was one of six BCS teams sanctioned by the NCAA for low APR scores. The Huskies will lose two scholarships in the upcoming season to serve the penalty. That's in addition to the scholarship Connecticut lost as part of the NCAA Committee on Infractions's ruling in the Nate Miles case last fall. The 2011-12 Huskies will have only 10 scholarships in 2011, down from the usual number of 13.
Prompted by the departures of two players, Darius Smith and Jonathan Mandeldove, in poor academic standing after the 2009-10 season, the Huskies' overall four-year APR figure dropped to 893. That not only falls below the "immediate penalties" cutline of 925, it also falls below the "historical penalties" line of 900. It was the second lowest score among BCS schools in all of football and men's and women's basketball. It is, shall we say, not very good, and it prompted the NCAA to "notify" the school that it was in danger of receiving harsher penalties next year if the score does not improve.
Granted, the APR is an arguably imperfect mechanism. Syracuse's Jim Boeheim suffered the two-scholarship hit last summer, and in doing so publicly upbraided the APR for taking into account the departures of Eric Devendorf, Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris for the NBA draft, all three of whom left campus to prepare for the NBA event without fulfilling their spring semester requirements. Boeheim had a point; the APR does have its flaws.
That said, it also leaves room for nuance -- it analyzes transfers based on GPA and awards players leaving for the draft for doing so in good academic standing -- and in all, it's a much better, more useful academic tool than anything that came before it. It's certainly better than graduation rate, which is a little like the RBI in baseball. It has some tenuous connection to performance, but not much. The APR, though imperfect, is far more complex and therefore far more telling.
For their part, Calhoun and Connecticut AD Jeff Hathaway are taking the APR hit not with brash disapproval but with humility and a pledge for future success:
"We are all disappointed in our academic performance and going forward we are going to attack this the only way I know how and that is to work as hard as possible to get better every day," Calhoun said.
"Everyone associated with the program recognizes that the team's APR results are not acceptable and is committed to improving the scores," Hathaway said. "This is a serious matter for the men's basketball program and the Division of Athletics. We had already made this a primary concern during the recently completed 2010-11 academic year. The academic performance of our men's basketball team remains a focus of attention this summer and will continue to be a top priority when the new academic year begins."
The brilliant thing about the APR is that those last two things -- "men's basketball team" and "academic year" -- can have direct, immediate and serious impacts on each other. If you want your hoops team to be good, you need scholarships. If you want scholarships, your players have to maintain good academic standing. If you don't, it doesn't take long to upend your program.
If the NCAA's overall numbers are any indication, this system has already begun to change behavior. This year, five percent of the NCAA's 6,410 programs registered scores below 925. In 2010, that figure was 6.7%. The percentage of teams that received penalties also fell this year, down 2010's mark of 2.2% to 1.6%. This year, 103 teams were penalized this, down from 137 last year and 177 in the year before that.
That has caused the NCAA to consider changes in the way it structures the APR cutlines. In short, the NCAA is considering getting rid of the 900 cutline and moving to a single-line format that would increase -- and thus force teams to consistently improve -- over time:
Looking to the future, the Division I membership is examining how to further strengthen academics in a number of ways, said Walter Harrison, president of the University of Hartford and chair of the Division I Committee on Academic Performance.
Harrison noted that CAP is recommending moving to a single penalty structure to streamline the process and lead to more improvement from the bottom up. The proposal would set a single benchmark for penalties that correlates to a Graduation Success Rate of at least 50 percent, with the long-term expectation that the rate would increase in the future.
And yes, while the NCAA has plenty of progress to cite, its most high-profile sports remain the ones most frequently lagging behind. According to the report, football and men's basketball are the only sports with four-year APR averages below 950.
Likewise, the NCAA banned Southern University from postseason play in both men's basketball and football -- the first decision of its kind -- and handed out 29 of the 58 harshest penalties to historically black colleges and universities. The NCAA says it will "work closely" with resource-challenged HBCUs as they "seek to improve the academic performance of their student-athletes." Five men's basketball teams -- Cal State-Northridge, Chicago State, Grambling, Southern University, and Louisiana-Monroe -- received postseason bans this year. (Chicago State's four-year APR? 823. Yeah. Yikes.)
In other words, there are lots of improvements to be made. Schools with minimal resources need help. Ditto for many HBCUs. And while academic performance is sound in most of the non-revenue sports, the big-time games still have more than their fair share of academic issues.
That said, fewer penalties do tell a tale. The APR does seem to be changing teams' academic behavior. Now, as in any large, data-driven bureaucratic measure, the process of fine-tuning that behavior -- and the penalties that go along with it -- marches on.