Controversial Buckles case shows NCAA needs fix for transfers

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

Former Louisville player Rakeem Buckles will not be able to end his career at Minnesota. (USATSI)
Former Louisville player Rakeem Buckles will not be able to end his career at Minnesota. (USATSI)

Last week the NCAA denied former Louisville/current Florida International/in-limbo forward Rakeem Buckles the chance to play at Minnesota. Naturally, the school appealed the decision. Sometimes these appeals can take a little while to process.

This time, all the NCAA needed was a holiday weekend to get back to Richard Pitino's new program and remind the Golden Gophers: We Said No.

So Buckles, who's dealt with his fair share of injuries in his four-year career, will not be eligible to play at Minnesota this season, his final in college basketball. Buckles played at Louisville for two years, then transferred from Rick Pitino's club to play for his son, Richard, at Florida International after the younger Pitino was promoted from Louisville assistant to FIU coach in 2012.

Last season brought Buckles a customary redshirt sit-out after leaving the Cardinals for the Panthers. Buckles in fact was rehabbing a knee that he injured during January of the 2011-12 season with the Cards. He was using up his fourth year of eligibility in 2012-13 with the intent of playing his fifth -- and final -- year in 2013-14 at Florida International. A player who averages 4.7 points and 4.2 rebounds while at Louisville has a chance for impact at the small-major level, no doubt, and Buckles had a bond with Richard Pitino dating back to when he was recruited to the Cards.

Then everything changed this spring. Richard Pitino got the Minnesota job. And Florida International was hit with a postseason ban for 2014 thanks to dismal APR numbers during the Isiah Thomas era. Buckles had nothing to do with that era, had no idea FIU was doomed to miss out on even playing in the postseason during his tenure, and so he naturally wanted out. Everything that brought him to FIU in the first place was no longer in the equation. Good news for him: The NCAA rightfully allows players in their final year of eligiblity to transfer free of redshirt penalty to any school of their choice when their current school faces a postseason ban.

Buckles should've been good to go to follow his coach at Minnesota then, yes? What's the hang-up? I called the NCAA for any comment on the case. It offered none. Here's the skinny: The NCAA offers no comment on player transfers in two instances: 1) regarding academic performance and 2) personal issues tied to a player that the player requests not be made public. We don't know which stipulation is being cited here. There's no indication of either a personal issue or an academic issue. Rick Pitino is on record saying Buckles had a very good GPA while at Louisville.

After the NCAA initially denied Buckles' eligiblity, Minnesota and Buckles went to an NCAA subcomittee for a secondary opinion, one that ultimately agreed with the first verdict. That subcommittee is comprised of:

-- Matthew Banker, assistant commissioner for institutional services at the Ohio Valley Conference
-- Paul Bowden, associate director of athletics compliance at George Mason University
-- David Flores, assistant commissioner of government and academics, Big 12 Conference
-- Erin Kido, associate athletics director for compliance, Xavier University
-- Robert Phillipe, associate commissioner for compliance and academics, Conference USA

The NCAA, for all it does right -- and there's plenty it does right -- keeps making decisions like this, wherein it's practically mandatory writers from all over brandish their blades. It's become rote, really. With regularity, the NCAA makes a decision seem so heartless that you can't help but root for it to fail and then hope whatever replaces it can be consistent and possessing something resembling a soul.

We've not even reached the end of Buckles' troubles and the outwardly arbitrary nature of this outcome. Because there's a player named Malik Smith, who you've probably never heard of. Smith will wear Minnesota threads next season. Smith wore FIU colors last year. Smith, like Buckles, wanted out at FIU when his coach got the Minnesota gig. In May, the NCAA allowed Smith to go. Buckles, who signed a tender to play for Minnesota last month, is stuck at FIU in a final year of irrelevant basketball.

The argument against Buckles is this: He's attempting to play for three teams in three years. But that's flawed on two counts: One, Buckles never played a minute for FIU and took his lumps as a redshirt. Two, the reason for the transfer is transparent. Florida International cannot play in its conference tournament, let alone be eligible for an NCAA tournament bid, so what's the point in forcing a kid to stay there in his final year? Most of his academic past has proven to be above average.

The situation seems clear. Shouldn't the NCAA pragmatically approach this situation, step back and look at what it's deciding on? Cases like these are why my colleague, Gary Parrish, has recommended the NCAA invent the position of a Director of Common Sense and Decency. The revamped guidelines on transfer waivers from last year is already not effective, and if it's grades from FIU that have kept Buckles from moving on, here's the arguable legislation responsible. The NCAA is just taking hit after hit here. The small stuff adds up. The big cases, the money, the hypocrisy of profiting off athletes, all that gets more pub. But the smaller erosion here only diesels up the arguments.

Whether Buckles was done right or wrong, I think it's become evident that the transfer process needs a reboot or, at least, a complete rewrite on how waivers are doled out. Too many contradictory cases make for everlasting egg on the NCAA's mug.

If the monolith in Indianapolis cares at all about winning the public's trust in these cases, it needs to not only step back and really look at how it judges transfers but also be as transparent as possible in doing so. Right now there are a lot of people asking why Rakeem Buckles should be forced to play an irrelevant final year of college basketball at a school where he doesn't want to be. Cases like this would be much less subject to doubt and speculation if the baseline for transfers was altered and, ironically, made for black-and-white rather than perpetually dealing in gray.

 
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