Problems at UNC, Syracuse cast a shadow over ACC basketball

CHARLOTTE – Brice Johnson, the 6-foot-9 junior from North Carolina, walked into a cavernous conference room at The Westin hotel in uptown Charlotte on Wednesday. He headed straight into a swarming hornets’ nest of three dozen reporters.

The 20-year-old sat alone, since the teammate who was supposed to join him, junior Marcus Paige, had an exam and would be late. The first question came. It was about the current academic scandal enveloping Chapel Hill. The young man took a deep breath and shrugged.

It was as if the weight of the world were on his shoulders, even though the problems documented in last week’s scalding Wainstein Report – detailing no-show classes and gifted grades for athletes in the African and Afro-American Studies program – took place long before Johnson was a Tar Heel.

Then a second question on the scandal, a third. The kid answered with maturity and grace. At first he gave the coached, political answers – “We can’t look in the past; we have to look in the future” – then gave more heartfelt, genuine answers that alternated between hurt and uncertainty and a touch of anger. He spoke about the stress he’s seen on head coach Roy Williams’ face, about the perception that a degree from North Carolina is devalued by this scandal, about people doubting his own academic credentials because of errant student-athletes who came before him.

“I’ve never had anybody do my work,” he said. “I do everything I’m supposed to do. Our coaches are really great about being on top of us academically. All those things with (former UNC star Rashad) McCants, saying people do our work — I haven’t had anybody do my work for me.”

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Fifteen questions about the academic scandal before a single question about basketball.

ACC men’s basketball media day in Charlotte on Wednesday foreshadowed what could very well end up as a theme of this season: In what should be an historically great basketball conference with this year’s addition of Louisville to its current batch of bluebloods, the scandals of the ACC might overshadow the great things happening here.

There’s the UNC academic scandal, which NCAA president Mark Emmert recently called “deeply troubling.”  There’s the possibility of NCAA violations at Syracuse, where representatives from the basketball program are heading to the NCAA Committee on Infractions on Thursday and Friday for an NCAA investigation into allegations of extra benefits and academic issues.

There’s also the shadow of the Miami scandal from a couple years back, plus the continued mess surrounding Florida State football.

It’s a shame, really, that all this stink might taint something so great. Because if there’s any conference in the nation we should be exalting this season, it’s the ACC.

First and foremost – a point that was repeated again and again on Wednesday – is that we are looking at a basketball conference that could be historically great, the best basketball conference of all time, rivaling the dominant old days of the Big East. Four of the five active Hall of Fame coaches in college hoops are in the ACC — every active Hall of Famer except SMU’s Larry Brown. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski is 17 wins away from becoming the first Division I men’s basketball coach to reach 1,000. Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim isn’t too far behind him with 948.

I count 11 of the 15 ACC teams who are possible NCAA tournament teams. Four are ranked in the top 10 in the preseason coaches poll. Duke has the nation’s top recruiting class, including presumptive NBA No. 1 pick Jahlil Okafor, who also happens to be an all-around good guy. Perennial bottom-feeder Virginia Tech made a huge offseason splash by getting new head coach Buzz Williams, a man Rick Pitino counts among the top 10 coaches he’d hire if he were an athletic director.

On Wednesday, Virginia Tech senior guard Will Johnston sang the praises of his new coach to me – and one of the things Johnston focused on was his academic approach. This struck me as especially resonant, given the day’s focus on academic scandal.

Buzz Williams has a six-minute rule: Six minutes early means you’re on time. Players must show up six minutes early to every class and sit in the first three rows, and they cannot wear hats or use headphones or cell phones. He has players tweet him photos from before certain classes, proving they were there.

This is what college coaches should be doing.

What was alleged in the 131-page Wainstein Report – whether Roy Williams knew of it or whether he was, as he claims, naïvely ignorant of what was going on – is the opposite. It’s troubling, it’s hypocritical and it’s despicable.

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It was a bit odd, then, to hear all sorts of versions of “no comment” on Wednesday on these questions that get to the very heart of what we believe American college athletics represent. Boeheim wouldn’t answer any questions about the ongoing investigation at Syracuse, which, given his penchant for saying a bit too much, seemed like a smart idea.

Others were just as guarded.

“I don’t follow it,” Krzyzewski said. “And I don’t follow it because I don’t want that to be what I’m thinking about. Obviously, I know there are things that are going on. And if they want to talk about it – Jim (Boeheim) and I talked about it a little bit, briefly, just ‘How are ya?’ Roy, same thing: ‘Stay strong.’ But other than that, it’s not my place.”

“It’s not something I’ve paid too close of attention to,” Duke junior Amile Jefferson said. “I know about it, but not much.” Then he pivoted: Well coached. “I really think this is going to be an amazing season in the ACC. Once the season starts, the new focus will be on basketball, and that’s what everyone will be talking about.”

The one man who couldn’t plead “no comment” was Roy Williams, and give the guy credit: For nearly a half-hour, surrounded by reporters, Ole Roy poured out his soul. He said, “There’s not one friggin’ person in the world who can say I didn’t emphasize the academic part of this.” He said he hated that this could hurt his reputation and the reputation of North Carolina. He said he’s found refuge in the basketball court. He emphasized that his sin in this scandal was one of omission, not one of commission.

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“You can accuse me of being naïve, but truthfully I don’t think you can go past that,” Williams said. “Coach (John) Wooden said one time about reputations being what people think you are, but character is who you are, and I feel very comfortable about my character. I can’t control what somebody else’s skepticism is. I know Roy Williams. I know I’ve never one day in my life failed to do something knowingly that would hurt our student-athletes. I’ve never one day in my life did something that I shouldn’t have done.”

It was odd, all of it. What is typically a celebration of college basketball and a chance for coaches to show their October Optimism turned into a bit of political theater.

The victims in all of this, I kept thinking, seem to be the current North Carolina players who are tainted by a scandal that wasn’t their doing, not to mention any college athletes who are drawn into the ills of an ailing system

Johnson, the North Carolina power forward, was pretty sick of answering questions about the Wainstein Report when I asked him if he’d even read it.

He said no.

“I don’t want to read it, either,” he answered. “What’s the point of reading it? It doesn’t affect me.”

The sad and unfair part of all these controversies is that the opposite is actually true.

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.