Montana State forward loses senior year over mindless NCAA decision

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer
Mohamed Fall, right, was wronged by the NCAA over yet another myopic rule. (US Presswire)

The NCAA's kangaroo court has reached another infuriating verdict.

This time it's affecting a player you've never heard of at a small school in a big state. The chopping of a college career here will mostly go overlooked or flat-out ignored, which is what the NCAA would prefer. But come on: We can't just go quietly into that night on something like this.

Let's learn about the tribulation of Mohamed Fall, a Montana State big man who won't get to play his senior season there because his junior season became his senior season once the NCAA ruled that two offseason quasi-exhibition games Fall played in, in the greater Washington, D.C. area four years ago, triggered a season of eligibility. Two games equals 30. That's how the NCAA sees it. Fall had no idea of the consequences at the time, and the coaching staff at Montana State was equally clueless, so much so that they didn't know Fall had played in the games until the NCAA notified the school last summer.

Two exhibition games? Really? There has to be more. Tell me there's more. Tell me the NCAA can't just do this and kill another college career too early because it stupidly thinks a player getting involved in two not-for-pay exhibition games should cancel out an entire season's worth of collegiate competition. Turns out, that's really all there is to it. An African kid trying to use his skill to earn an education plays in some offseason hoops in hopes of getting noticed.

Eventually, it ends his D-I career.

Montana State coach Brade Huse knew since last fall, since before the season had started, this was likely. But he still held out hope. First came the waiver that was sent to the NCAA. That was of course immediately denied. Then the school appealed the denial. No dice. Montana State had held off announcing the news for months until Fall's chances were flat-lined once and for all. The school let out word last week.

The devastating irony: the 6-9 Senegalese forward participated in the glorified scrimmages — which take place everywhere, nearly every weekend from April to October — as a way of trying to make it on to a D-I team and earn a four-year education. The games wound up being fruitless activity. Until he arrived at Montana State last year, Fall played at Cloud County Community College for a pair of years. In 2011-12, when the Bobcats when 12-17, he averaged 7.2 points and 5.4 rebounds.

Questions remain as to whether this vague, run-of-the-mill, observed pickup game even classified as organized competition. Well, there're questions for anyone not paid by the NCAA. That's the first part of it. The second part of it is Fall played the games after he was 21 years old, clearing a threshold that the NCAA and its member institutions put into place likely after they were drunk off a big brunch at one of countless meetings that are held during the offseason.

“We hoped there'd be some leniency and relief to the ruling,” Huse said by phone Wednesday night. “Number one, Mohamed had no knowledge participating in that event could affect his eligibility at the Division-I level. But ignorance is not an excuse.”

Credit Huse for keeping a controlled fuse. The NCAA's view on this is strict, simple, myopic and frustrating as any of its other all-too-short-sighted rules and regs: just because Fall and Montana State didn't have the prescience to know playing in two not-even-officially-organized games could be a punishment doesn't mean jack. Forget the empathetic and pragmatic angle. Forget the fact this kind of thing had no actual impact on Fall's career whatsoever. Letter of the law, y'all! Even if the letters don't align to anything legible or credible.

There's another facet to this story, one other sites have brought up and I myself couldn't help but think of the same thing when I heard of this news. What about Tim Abromaitis? The Notre Dame forward was suspended four games last season for playing in … exhibition games ... three seasons prior. Hmm, that's familiar. So what's the difference? I asked the NCAA.

"The distinct facts regarding the eligibility decisions for Fall and Abromaitis involve different rules and circumstances," NCAA spokesman Stacey Osburn said. "To place a greater emphasis on academic readiness, our member schools have passed rules that encourage prospective [players] to not delay enrollment for the purpose of improving athletically or to be discovered for recruitment. This rule was designed to avoid a negative effect for those prospects who immediately enroll in college, but can be waived if the delay is based on extenuating circumstances. This was not the case with Fall and he triggered this rule when he competed in an organized competition for prospects to be evaluated and recruited.”

OK. I've got problems with that in general, but how is Abromaitis' situation any different?

“Each [player] has a five-year window to compete in four seasons of college athletics,” Osburn said. “While enrolled, Abromaitis competed at Notre Dame in two exhibition games during one season, which triggered a season of eligibility. Because this was based on a documented misunderstanding by the head coach, Abromaitis was granted a season of eligibility back with a four game withholding condition. The withholding guidelines for how many games or other conditions are established by the [player] reinstatement committee, which is made of member schools. The guideline for this rule in particular is a two game withholding for each competition."

So why can't Fall's? Because Fall played in a gym during the offseason when he was 21, and Abromaitis played in Notre Dame threads weeks before the start of Notre Dame's 2008-09 season, when he was a sophomore. One misunderstanding is allowed; the other, which is so similar and of even less impact it hurts to wrap your mind around it, strictly intolerable. When will the NCAA disabuse itself from quack punishments like this one?

Abromaitis, by the by, is waiting on word as to whether he'll get a sixth season of eligibility after he ripped up his knee a few games into last season. Hey, I hope Abro gets it, but if he does, Huse might break every potted plant in sight.

Montana State said it would honor Fall's final year of scholarship, but that's for naught. The kid wants to play hoops. He intends to transfer to a D-II or NAIA school, which he doesn't want to do, but has no choice. The reason Fall picked Montana State was in part because of the Agricultural Business program the school offered. Now he'll have to likely change his major. He probably won't graduate by the spring of 2013, which would have been the case had the NCAA removed its face from its rear in regard to another ridiculous rule.

(A courteous hat tip to Big Sky Basketball for alerting me to this story.)

 
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