NCAA's latest notice to UNC takes an unexpected turn

Voepel: Baffling that women's basketball stands alone in UNC's latest notice (2:22)

espnW's Mechelle Voepel says it is alarming that women's basketball stands alone in the latest Notice of Allegations that North Carolina received from the NCAA and explains how the notice has impacted the Tar Heels' recruiting. (2:22)

On May 20, 2015, North Carolina received a lengthy Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, detailing five serious penalties including, "impermissible benefits to student-athletes that were not generally available to the student body," and that "anomalous courses in the African-American studies department went unchecked for 18 years, allowing student-athletes -- particularly on the football and men's and women's basketball teams -- to take those classes at a disproportionate rate to the rest of the school's student body.''

On August 14, 2015, North Carolina announced that, while replying to that Notice of Allegations, it had discovered two new penalties, another involving the women's basketball team and unrelated recruiting violations in men's soccer.

On April 25, 2016, the NCAA issued a new Notice of Allegations, theoretically taking into account the new allegations involving women's hoops and men's soccer. The women's basketball team figures prominently in the new document.

Magically, the words "impermissible benefits," "football" and "men's basketball" no longer appear in the documents.

So gather 'round the rulebook, all ye NCAA conspiracy theorists, we have found Jerry Tarkanian's Holy Grail: The NCAA is so mad at the Carolina football and hoops teams, it's going to penalize the bejesus out of women's basketball.

Indeed, what initially looked like an insignificant announcement, dumped in between Deflategate and Steph Curry's MRI results, actually is quite huge. The amended document (not an amendment, which is a significant semantics differentiation) left more than a few people who know the inner workings of the NCAA more than a little bit stunned. As one person put it via text, "Big win for UNC today."

Because somewhere in the past year, in what most assumed would merely be a reworking of the Notice of Allegations to include the new potential violations, the NCAA flat-out removed accusations against the school's two flagship sports.

Now barring something unforeseen, improbable or a frankly downright winnable appeal, the NCAA will be hard-pressed to impose any postseason bans for the Tar Heels men's hoops team.

Though the new NCAA penalty structure includes postseason bans for Level I charges -- which North Carolina will be charged with -- "It would be difficult to impose a postseason ban on a team that's not even named in the document," one person familiar with the NCAA process explained. To put it more plainly: If the rowing team is out minding its own business, sculling across the river, not accused in a formal document of any NCAA violations, you can't just slap them with penalties because you feel like it.

Men's basketball coach Roy Williams, in an interview with ESPN before his team's appearance in the national title game, reiterated that sentiment.

"[It's] hard to penalize somebody when you have no allegations against them," Williams said.

And more, if a player hasn't been accused of -- let alone found guilty of -- receiving an impermissible benefit, he or she can't be considered ineligible, by extension, which means that 2005 national championship banner should continue to fly in the rafters. Reached by email on Monday, an NCAA spokesperson said the NCAA could not comment beyond "general process questions."

Men's basketball and football will be held accountable under the broader umbrellas of "lack of institutional control," but with the new notice, significant penalties become "less likely," another source said.

That won't be the case for the women's basketball team, the program that ranks as either North Carolina's renegade sport or convenient scapegoat, depending on which side of Tobacco Road you sit. Thanks to Jan Boxill, then the women's team's academic advisor, the team is specifically alleged to have received extra benefits. That team will be subject to the full force of the NCAA rulebook and the new penalty structure. Boxill's attorney released a statement on Monday stating the alleged activity is "incorrect and based on email conversations that were taken out of context."

If you'd like to raise a skeptical eyebrow at all of this, by all means, do. The problem with this case always has been a bit unclear. Essentially, the NCAA can only charge a sport with offering impermissible benefits if the benefit isn't made available to the general student population.

Conveniently, everyone -- athletes and nonathletes -- at North Carolina was allowed to commit egregious academic fraud via the African-American studies program for years and years.

So, using the letter of the law then, the NCAA has had a hard time turning this into an extra-benefits case. But why shouldn't this be an NCAA issue? This goes to academic integrity and ethics, which should be the very pillars of a collegiate governing body.

North Carolina and the individuals named have 90 days to respond to the NCAA, and athletic director Bubba Cunningham expects it will take the full allotment of time. After that, the NCAA has 60 days to respond to the response.

All of which means UNC isn't likely to go before the Committee on Infractions until the fall, with a decision not likely to come much before 2017.

Once -- like, say, Friday -- that seemed like a dire timetable for the men's hoops team. Another season awaited the Tar Heels, like the one that just ended, played under the investigative cloud, with the Heels' accomplishments constantly held up like a stinky sock because of the potential NCAA sanctions.

Now, though, with the help of some bureaucratic hocus-pocus and a nice dollop of Wite-Out, things look decidedly less murky.

Except, that is, for the women's basketball team.

Jerry Tarkanian would be amused.