Just because there is no post-season pot of gold to play for this year, there’s no reason not to play with the passion that brought them to the game in the first place.
The Gamecocks enter their fifth season under Green facing a reduced schedule, in- and out-of-season practice limitations and a one-year ban from post-season play — all the result of failing to meet NCAA academic progress benchmarks, a situation not entirely of their own making.
Green said he probably won’t get into that when the team meets for the first time Sunday in advance of Tuesday’s first day of classes, but the sanctions will be 800-pound elephant in the room. In addition to the post-season ban, the Gamecocks are strapped with 16 hours less in-season activities per week and an additional day off, four hours less out-of-season activities per week, a 10-percent reduction in the season and 11 scholarships.
That’s the hand they’ve been dealt and now they have to make the best of it.
“We know we can’t play in the tournament, but what does that have to do with us playing UNLV?” Green said, making his first public comments on the issue since the penalties were announced in June. “We’ve got to get beyond that and play the game the way the game is supposed to be played and for the same reasons we always have. We should be even more motivated because we don’t have that at the end. Whatever we prove to ourselves and whoever has to be done through those games.”
There is precedent for a JSU program to win in the face of such adversity. The football program faced a postseason ban and other restrictions in 2009 because of its own APR shortcomings, but even though it was ineligible for the OVC title and FCS playoffs, all it did that year was go out and post the best conference record in the league.
In the wake of the sanctions, the football program instituted changes to upgrade its commitment to academics, even devoting one practice day to academics. The basketball program has put together a similar APR Improvement Plan, which includes the addition of personnel for student-athlete support.
“Fortunately for them and less fortunate for us is their program was probably in a more stable position,” Green said. “We’re still going to have goals this year and still plan to practice hard, play hard and enjoy the game and the college experience, so those things haven’t changed. But our time has changed. We want our goals to be realistic enough that if we go and work and do the best we can and we don’t (reach them), nobody feels they are let down because of that.”
The sanctions against the basketball program were levied as a result of failing to meet the requirements of last year’s waiver against penalties, ostensibly not meeting the minimum benchmark. APR is a rolling four-year value described as a real-time snapshot of a program’s academic success, taking into account eligibility and retention.
For all the strides the JSU athletics department has made academically in recent years, Green’s program couldn’t overcome a weak score left by the previous regime. The first three years under Green, the program produced APR scores of 940, 974 and 898. JSU has six weeks from Tuesday to report the 2011-12 APR that will replace the 769 that started the cycle. University president Bill Meehan said he is confident the program will “meet and exceed” the NCAA standards going forward.
“Each individual guy is different,” Green said, “but collectively I would like to say, because the average of what we’ve done has been above the requirement, they’ve done their part not just to put themselves in better positions as adults somewhere down the line, but they also helped us as a program and as a university in correcting a problem we all want to not have.”
The penalties couldn’t be coming at a worse time in the Green Era. The Gamecocks won their first playoff game since 2006 last season when they beat traditional power Austin Peay in the first round of the OVC Tournament and played Morehead State tough in a quarterfinal-round loss. They won nine of their final 13 games after starting the season 6-14.
“We can still build on that,” Green said. “I would like for them to have had that opportunity to see how they could have grown and perform in that (tournament) situation having been there before. We’re going to miss that part of it, but in terms of how we’re going to go play each game, we’ve got to get past that.”
Luckily, they return a veteran roster that should have a better understanding of what needs to be done and Green hopes they’re assume the burden in their free play. The Gamecocks are eligible to return all the players who finished the season with them last year; the roster had six juniors.
Green said no rising seniors have asked to transfer because there’s no tournament in their final season of eligibility, but there is one player “possibly” doing that who he declined to identify. He’ll know for sure Tuesday.
In addition to the postseason ban, the Gamecocks had their schedule reduced by three games. While the schedule has yet to be released, the Gamecocks are expected to have only 12 home games, which includes eight in the OVC and a Bracket Buster return by Eastern Michigan. Three of the conference home games will be played before JSU students return from semester break.
The road schedule includes eight OVC games, Alcorn State, UNLV, Oregon, Bracket Busters and Northern Arizona, Campbell and North Carolina A&T in Las Vegas. Earlier this month, Nebraska officials announced its non-conference schedule includes a game with the Gamecocks.
Meanwhile, Green is still interviewing candidates to replace assistant coach Ben Hicks, who took a similar job at Columbus State earlier this summer for family considerations. Green said he’d probably be interviewing “a couple more” candidates this week.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.