Tobacco Road powers Duke, North Carolina engulfed in uncertainty amid recent scandals

by | College Basketball Blogger
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Duke critics wonder how Coach K could be oblivious to Lance Thomas' jewelry purchases. (Getty Images)  
Duke critics wonder how Coach K could be oblivious to Lance Thomas' jewelry purchases. (Getty Images)  

When you stop and think about, it's peculiar how rivals Duke and North Carolina tripped into the NCAA crosshairs and in such a short time frame. Appropriate, too, that the two share their troubles -- because they share almost everything else in common.

However, it's uncertainty, not inarguable scandal, that's wrapped around more than just those two. In fact, every ACC basketball program in North Carolina is dealing with misfortune. That alone is noteworthy for its surprise factor, but then of course the threat of NCAA litigation against two of the most popular college programs in the country -- and I'm not reducing that distinction to only men's college basketball -- makes for good copy and palpable Schadenfreude from fans outside the esteemed four basketball programs.

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Duke is all the talk at the hour, which it should be, but let's look around and assess all troublesome situations along Tobacco Road.

So you've got Duke obviously gripping at the moment, as its case is the newest to the public -- and also the juiciest. But don't forget North Carolina is currently buried in documents and chasing ghosts of its past, hoping it doesn't uncover any academic wrongdoing that could officially jeopardize its records and championships in football and basketball.

North Carolina State is approaching the first season in years with expectation of reaching the second weekend of the NCAA tournament -- but there's still the matter of stud recruit Rodney Purvis getting cleared to play. That's the snag, and in any other year, it's the primary talk radio talking point about triangle basketball in the offseason. Not this year. State fans should be thankful, but still, Purvis' high school history leaves a haze over that campus -- for now.

Then you've got Wake Forest, which is free of controversy over possible violations, but the mere fact that Demon Deacon basketball is basically an afterthought within its own state is sad and alarming. It's a proud program that's out to pasture, and has been for a few years now. Wake's irrelevance merely emphasizes how each of these four programs have problems, even if each issue is of a different distinction.

Things are not good for any of the four right now. Each of the four are in tense circumstances and trying to wade through uncertainty, an ironic state of affairs considering the ACC is on the brink of a new era, when Pittsburgh and Syracuse will join next summer and unofficially create the most dominant and historically unequaled basketball conference in the country. What's more, none of the teams are really seen as a Final Four candidate, and while that usually boils down to Duke or North Carolina, how often have we believed that to be the case in the past 10 years?

The Duke case, to me, isn't nearly as important as what's happening at North Carolina. Yes, again, the UNC case is not over and the NCAA continues to play watchdog while compliance staff in Chapel Hill empty out the file cabinets and conduct internal interviews. The Tar Heels could be dealing with academic fraud that helped players keep GPAs up, thus keeping them eligible, thus helping them win games and earn capital in recruiting evermore. If that's the case, that's gargantuan and indeed one of the most significant cases of grade fixing we'll have ever seen in college basketball. Basically, if Duke and North Carolina are eventually both found guilty for their respective alleged NCAA crimes, then UNC's is clearly much worse.

But people want to see Duke burn. UNC is only disliked within North Carolina and select parts of Kentucky. Duke is universally despised. It has long been a monolith for loathing. Ever since Corey Maggette's case of money-grabbing got swept away, cynics have been waiting and hoping for any dirt to find its way to Mike Krzyzewski's door.

Now, perhaps again it has. That Coach K could have been oblivious to Lance Thomas' purchases is immaterial to the critics who wish to see the NCAA hit the juggernauts the way it does the peasants.

My lingering question regarding Thomas: How could Duke recruit a kid this dumb? I find no joy in the fact college programs can be brought to their knees and coaches lose their jobs over incidents or transactions that have almost nothing to do with sports (read: Ohio State; Jim Tressel; tattoos). But it's how the NCAA operates.

Here's what I do know: The Thomas transaction at a high-flown Manhattan jewelry store is one of the most classic, out-of-the-blue, unpredictable potential NCAA violations I've ever seen. And plenty are shocked at not only the lawsuit against Thomas for defaulting on a nearly $70,000 loan, but just for the fact it was Lance Thomas at the center of this. He was a nondescript Duke player caught in something so flashy, it seems unreal at face value.

Someone close to Thomas told CBSSports.com,"There's gotta be an explanation. It's bizarre. There's gotta be an even more bizarre story [behind it]."

The source added, "I'm stunned. I've never been so stunned."

Part of the reason behind the shock lies in the fact Thomas wasn't even known as a player that wore jewelry. Those who knew him on that Duke team didn't see the fringe NBA talent as someone who glitzed himself up. And suddenly, in the middle of his senior year, he makes a quick jaunt over to Rafaello & Co. while Duke is set to play Gonzaga in New York City and forks over $30,000 for a hat-full of diamonds, necklaces and watches?

It's the question that won't go away -- ever -- unless Duke faces punishment for the transaction. Lance Thomas, a workmanlike power forward who put up five points and five boards per game, outwardly, did not appear to be a man who could plunk down $30,000 to save his life, let alone for jewelry. He was a son to a single mother who worked at a Ford factory.

So where did the money come from? Was Thomas in cahoots with someone else? What promises were made behind the purchase? These are more questions. And yet more keep rolling on in. Remember, the lawsuit isn't new; it was filed in January, but only now are we learning of it. That makes for nearly two years of non-action against Thomas for defaulting on what's quickly becoming the most infamous jewelry purchase in NCAA history. Why the wait?

Over the weekend the conversation has shifted from what might've happened to what could and should happen. So, this ties Coach K to college basketball's designated poster boy for all things vacated, John Calipari, who lost a title game appearance and a 38-2 record in 2007-08 at Memphis because Derrick Rose had a shady SAT test score.

"Strict liability" will be the phrase of the week. Unfortunately, it means bubkus. Because the NCAA is known for consistency and fairness like politicians are known for their honesty. Memphis getting slammed means nothing in regard to Duke, just like Penn State's obliteration from the NCAA will have nothing to do with the UNC case.

That said, there are still existential questions regarding the NCAA and its rulebook and procedures that mean more than whatever Thomas walked out of that jewelry store with on Dec. 21, 2009. What can or can't be proven is completely unknown. At the very least, Duke joins North Carolina in a handcuffed defense of itself against the mercurial judges of the NCAA and a sarcastic jury of the sport's public.

It's not all bad yet, but it's rarely if ever been further from good for both programs.

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