NCAA rules force schools into forfeits

The NCAA bylaws contain multitudes. There are famous and infamous sections, oft-quoted frameworks for amateurism, recruiting violation stuff, cream cheese … you know the drill. But there are many more unknown, obscure portions of the rulebook, rules that generally make sense -- and only come up when something profoundly weird goes down.

Today is that day, and is that bylaw. It reads: "An institution may schedule and play not more than four basketball games, including any contest (e.g., scrimmage, exhibition), in an academic year against institutions that are not members of Division I."

In other words, there are limits to the number of non-D1 teams you can play. Nonconference opponents don’t supply data to the Ratings Percentage Index, and so (among other reasons) you can’t spend your entire nonconference season scheduling opponents that don’t provide data to the RPI. There’s a limit, and teams abide by it.

It’s a straightforward rule. It’s almost invisible. So why, according to ESPN Stats and Info, would as many as four Division I college basketball teams have to forfeit games for playing too many exhibitions?

The answer is simple: confusion.

This summer, four new schools -- Abilene Christian, Grand Canyon, Incarnate Word, and UMass-Lowell -- joined Division I. Abilene and Incarnate became members of the Southland Conference; Grand Canyon joined the WAC, and UMass-Lowell found a home in the America East.

But the NCAA doesn’t just let programs jump into Division I all willy-nilly: There is a four-year transition process each school goes through before full membership is granted. (The delay isn’t about exclusivity so much as financial stewardship -- making sure new D-1 athletics departments are brought along slowly.) Those four schools have their own statistics recorded as Division I members, but during the transition -- and this is the kicker -- they are regarded as Division II results for opponent scheduling requirements. Even within their conference.

That’s how Oral Roberts ended up facing two forfeitures in its upcoming games against Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word: It scheduled too many nonconference non-D1 teams and exceeded its four-team limit too early. The same thing happened to Stephen F. Austin, which will forfeit against Incarnate Word on Feb. 1.

Meanwhile, the University of Maine is trying to figure out what to do about its America East game against UMass-Lowell. Vermont played four nonconference non-D1 teams and has already played UMass-Lowell once, with one more conference game scheduled for later in the season.

The Southland Conference’s release on the matter truly captures the esoteric brilliance at work here:

All Southland teams have single games against ACU and UIW in 2013-14, and have had to adjust to the non-countable scheduling aspect of playing these teams. In 2014-15, ACU and UIW will be Division I schedule counters.

The forfeits will be recorded in the Southland standings, be utilized in the seeding process for the 2014 Southland Men's Basketball Tournament, and will be documented in the conference historical records. The NCAA will not recognize the forfeits, but will instead view the cancelled games as no contests, thus preventing any violation.

The good news, at least for ORU and Stephen F. Austin, is that the games don’t count (Stephen F. Austin gets to keep its home win streak alive, for instance) and that no violations will be handed out.

The bad news is all four programs have to hope people understand that a headline that reads “violation” and “forfeit” and “NCAA rules” is actually just an innocent clerical misunderstanding and not something more nefarious. If the schools themselves didn’t clear the rule up first, what chance do the rest of us have?