Jeff Jacobs: Some unintended consequences as players sail through NCAA’s eligibility loophole

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Women’s basketball recruit Saylor Poffenbarger (4) will enroll at UConn this weekend. After a 10-day quarantine, she will be eligible to practice and play in games.

Women’s basketball recruit Saylor Poffenbarger (4) will enroll at UConn this weekend. After a 10-day quarantine, she will be eligible to practice and play in games.

The Washington Post via Getty Images

On Friday, Saylor Poffenbarger sailed out of Middletown High School in Maryland and into the thick of five possible national championships with the UConn women’s basketball team.

No senior prom. No senior skip day. She skipped into the chase for the Huskies’ 12th national championship.

The 6-foot-2 wing, her game marked by versatility and a sweet shooting touch, certainly is not alone in a midseason jump through a fortuitous loophole directly onto the college court without burning any of her four years of eligibility.

If its eventuality was carefully considered in October, the Division I Council made a mistake that could have been historic.

If it was an unintended consequence, the NCAA certainly should have been much more careful in making what otherwise stands as a humanitarian decision in allowing athletes competing during the 2020-21 winter season an extra year of play. Spring and fall athletes previously were given that extra year.

“It likely was a consideration; it certainly wasn’t the intent of the decision to grant an extra year of eligibility,” NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said Friday on a podcast with Hearst Connecticut Media. “That intent was for current student-athletes.

“It’s not that unusual in other sports a high school senior would graduate early and enroll in college earlier. We see that in college football with some frequency. It’s a new twist and certainly an unusual situation to happen in basketball. I don’t know that it was a major factor in the decision-making. I’d like to think there was some consideration given to that, but I don’t think there was an understanding that it may become more prevalent than we’ve seen it happen in a few cases.”

Although it’s not easy to track everyone with more than 350 Division I schools, our Doug Bonjour found that Poffenbarger (No. 30) is the sixth top 100-rated player in her class to make the early jump. Dominique Darius, No. 26, already has played a few games at UCLA. Knisha Godfrey, No. 40, has joined Mississippi State. There’s also Madison Conner (Arizona, No. 71), Jess Finney (Washington, No. 94), Ally VanTimmeren (Boston College, No. 95) and Katie Borowicz (Minnesota, No. 98).

Among the men, Trey James, a 6-10 center regarded as one of the top high school players in Kentucky, decided to forgo his senior season and join Rick Pitino at Iona immediately. Four-star Trey Patterson, ranked No. 27 by ESPN, joined Villanova, while four-star Jaden Jones has joined Rutgers.

In the case of Patterson and Jones, the reported plans were to acclimate to college, work out and not to play until next season. But they could play without losing any eligibility and give Jay Wright and Steve Pikiell flexibility.

Every basketball action has a basketball reaction and each of these players can have an effect small to large.

Azzi Fudd, No. 1-rated and a transcendent star who committed to UConn in November, gave careful consideration to joining the Huskies this month. Ultimately, her dad, Tim, told Hearst Connecticut that it was decided not to speed up Azzi’s academic timeline: “It’s just too complicated,” he said.

With Fudd, a 5-11 guard, alongside Paige Bueckers, UConn would have become a favorite to win it all. Can’t you see the headlines coming out of the NCAA Tournament in San Antonio?

“Geno’s So Great He Can Guarantee 5 Natties”

Wouldn’t my good friend Dan Shaughnessy have a field day with that one?

COVID-19 has made this a unique year, a most challenging year in college basketball. It is hard in some ways to justify giving another year of full eligibility to a player who may only miss a few games, or even none, because of COVID protocol, while another player misses almost all or all. Still, could you imagine having to go through every player on every team trying to determine who deserves the extra season?

Auriemma recognized this in October when he said: “I don’t have to worry about it. I don’t have any seniors … But you’re going to have some seniors go, ‘Hey, I want to stay.’ And you’ve got a coach going, ‘I wasn’t planning on you staying.’ Now what are you going to do — turn the kid out?

“I don’t like it. If you lose your season, I can see that. If you say, ‘The fall sports guys, you lost your season. We’ll give that back to you.’ That makes sense. But how are you going to let somebody play a whole season and then give them another year?”

Besides seniors getting nudged off programs by coaches making it clear they aren’t in the plans for significant minutes, seniors in all sports with eligibility and little or no athletic aid will have to make difficult financial decisions about remaining.

Not to mention how all this can significantly affect playing time for players in every class. The best players can shrug and say “It’s not my problem.” But the rest, who love to play just as much, having to sit more can lead to disillusionment and transfer numbers never seen before. And they’re already sky-high.

The extra year also clogs the pipeline of talent so high school seniors may have to go somewhere else to get an athletic scholarship, may have to drop a division or two, may have to find financial aid in other avenues, may have to go to prep school.

All transfer restrictions were lifted in this COVID season and players were made immediately eligible. Many see this as the first step to a blank one-time transfer exemption in the future, which I support. Yet there are also so many different scenarios at the front and back end of the pipeline with COVID that it isn’t easy to determine what is the fairest for everyone.

The NCAA, to its credit, has been trying since March to give athletes some peace of mind, time to plot out their futures and a choice not to lose that precious year of eligibility. Bully for the NCAA on that point.

Yet allowing a high school senior who accelerated their graduation so they could play on a college team at midseason to lose zero eligibility? Nope. It should not be part any part of this college landscape, not even with COVID.

Often in football, a kid graduates early, takes 12 credits (as Poffenbarger will), gets a jump on academics and weight-training and spring regimens. That’s what it should be like for these early jumpers. School. Training. Even practice. Yet if you play in games this season, you are subject to the normal rules of eligibility.

In Poffenbarger’s case, her high school season was being wiped out by COVID. In Fudd’s case, her St. John’s College High team in Washington, D.C., is playing against other club teams. Doesn’t matter. Neither were college students when the rule was made.

All this has the scent of a waiver acquisition deadline in pro sports.

Poffenbarger is a talent. She also isn’t Fudd. I have no idea how much she’ll play when she comes out of 10-day quarantine. She’d be a role player if she does. She can shoot. If she can handle the rigors of the college game, there is the chance of big points in big games. There also is a chance she only gets in at the end of 50-point blowouts.

“This is an unprecedented event for us for a lot of reasons, but this is an unprecedented year,” Auriemma said in a statement Friday. “Opportunities have presented themselves that weren’t available for the past. I’m excited for Saylor and her family that they wanted to take advantage of this opportunity and I can’t wait to coach her in practice and have her as part of the team.”

The UConn fan base can be easily angered, easily offended. So before somebody takes five shots of hot sauce and starts breathing fire in this direction, this opinion isn’t specifically pointed at Saylor Poffenbarger.

She is six syllables of public-address announcing magic.

Sayyyy…lorrrrrr. Poff-en-barge…errrrrrr.

Greatest name in UConn women’s history. As she elevates her game, grows into her role, who could resist nicknaming her “Admiral”?

Let’s wish her the best for a 4.0 GPA, a terrific career and four national championships on the court.

Just not five.; @jeffjacobs123