Auburn announced on Sunday that it has on its men's basketball program in response to an NCAA case that has generated a notice of allegations yet remains unresolved.
It's hard to argue it's not a smart move.
Bruce Pearl's Tigers are replacing five starters from a team that finished 25-6. They were picked seventh in the preseason SEC poll. They are 66th at KenPom. They are 108th at Torvik. Barring a (mild) surprise, they would not have made the 2021 NCAA Tournament anyway. So in this pandemic-shortened season where everything is uncertain and nothing guaranteed, Auburn has banned itself from the postseason with the hope being that when the NCAA finally does formally punish the program, it will get credit for time served.
So, again, it's hard to argue Auburn didn't make the smart move.
But is it right?
I've long believed that strategically-timed self-imposed postseason bans should not be considered acceptable punishment by the NCAA because they are almost always examples of schools gaming the system with little regard for the student-athletes enrolled. Schools sacrifice their mediocre present with the idea being that it'll give them a better chance to maximize a more-promising future. Syracuse did it in the middle of the 2014-15 season -- now Auburn is doing it three days before the start of the 2020-21 season.
And I don't blame Auburn! I hope I've made that clear.
Auburn is merely taking advantage of the system in place in the same manner many before it have done. The Tigers had a former assistant, Chuck Person, break the rules and get caught, and now they're punishing themselves for that -- and possibly other undisclosed things -- in a way that is allowed by the rules currently in place. So I don't blame Auburn for doing what it's doing. I just don't believe Auburn should be allowed to do what it's doing.
(By the way, I also don't feel too sorry for the student-athletes currently at Auburn. Each of them enrolled after Person was arrested in September 2017 and charged with federal crimes that promised to create NCAA issues. So if they didn't want to be at risk of someday being banned from the postseason, they probably should've picked a different school. But I digress.)
"This was a difficult decision -- but the right decision," Pearl said in a statement released by the school. "I hate it for our current players. They lost the opportunity for the postseason last year because of COVID, and now they will miss the postseason again. It's a two-year postseason penalty for them. However, we need to take this penalty now to put it behind us."
My translation: "This sucks. But we know we're going to be hit with a postseason ban eventually, so we'd rather get it behind us this season so that we'll be good to go next season when our talented freshmen are sophomores and joined by Jabari Smith, a consensus top-five prospect in the Class of 2021 who is already committed to us but might reconsider if we're ultimately banned from the 2022 NCAA Tournament."
It's impossible to read my translation of Pearl's statement and not acknowledge Auburn made the sensible move here -- but it should be noted there's no guarantee it will work as Pearl hopes. Yes, the Committee on Infractions has often accepted self-imposed one-year postseason bans as good enough. It doesn't have to, however; it reserves the right to add on. So Auburn's postseason issues might be over after this season, but we will not know for sure until the Committee on Infractions rules.
So, stay tuned.
Undeniably, there are issues with the entire NCAA process, as they take forever to investigate. They take forever to send a notice of allegations. They take forever to punish. As a result, an NCAA cloud hangs above programs literally for years -- sometimes even when the cases lead to nothing. So I can understand why Auburn, well aware of what it's facing, would be anxious to go ahead and punish itself in an attempt to remove that NCAA cloud ASAP. But if you put me in charge, I'd no longer give schools the option to do it.