Hey, NCAA: Can Stepheson play?

Alex_stepheson Alex Stepheson is sitting, waiting, wishing.

He’s sitting out games, having already missing USC’s opener.

He’s waiting to find out if he can play in the Trojans’ second home game tonight.

And he’s wishing he can board a red-eye flight that will take the team to Puerto Rico for a weekend tournament.

Stepheson is an impressive forward who transferred to USC after two
seasons at North Carolina. Most players have to sit out one year, but
the NCAA grants exceptions under certain circumstances. Stepheson
applied for a transfer waiver, reportedly after an illness in the
family caused him to come home to the LA area. But with the season
already underway, he still doesn’t know if he’ll be eligible to play.

The Stepheson ripple runs deep. Coach Tim Floyd never divulges his starting lineup, but you can interpret his assessment of Stepheson yourself. "We feel like he’s a guy that can have an impact, not only on our team but in the league."

Basketball analysts agree. ESPN’s Andy Katz thinks his addition would make USC a Pac-10 title favorite, alongside UCLA and Arizona State.

In the meantime, the Trojans are spending valuable practice time on schemes that they might not be able to run.

"We’re trying to prepare with both scenarios in mind," said Floyd. "We’ve done a lot of work with him as a part of the group that would be out there, and a lot of work without him in that group…. We really had to think in terms of two offensive systems, which has been somewhat of a distraction. If he wasn’t as talented as he is, it wouldn’t be worth doing. But he is, and we’re trying to prepare ourselves the best we can in the event that we get good news."

It also wouldn’t be worth doing if Stepheson’s case were a long-shot. Based on NCAA precedent, there’s reason for the Trojans to be optimistic. And that can make the waiting game frustrating.

Last year, the NCAA granted 55 transfer waivers and denied 34. Tyler Smith, who transferred from Iowa to Tennessee just before his father passed away from cancer, was one of six approved in men’s basketball, out of 10 requests. This season, the NCAA had nine requests in men’s basketball by the start of November — approving four and denying one. That leaves four in progress, including Stepheson.

According to college sport’s governing body, one of the common reasons they grant a transfer
waiver is documented illness to a member of
student-athlete’s family "that results in the need for the
to transfer." No need to overanalyze that. In tough times, his family needs
him. He needs them. And as a lifelong athlete, he still needs
basketball. Teammates are usually like a second family, and Stepheson has
joined a team that certainly knows how to deal with life’s hardest
knocks. Two years ago, they lost point guard Ryan Francis in a tragic
shooting. He would have been a senior this season.

The NCAA obviously can’t issue a free pass to anybody who wants to jump ship and skip the normally required redshirt year. A few months ago, they denied the waiver of Colin Peek, an Alabama football transfer who left Georgia Tech because their new coach doesn’t typically use his position (tight end). The NCAA won’t comment on specific cases, but a representative said that type of reasoning falls outside the scope of a transfer waiver. There were reports that Peek would seek a "hardship" waiver (typically granted by conferences, not the NCAA, for severe injury or illness), but ultimately he found himself on this season’s Tide scout team.

Though some might sympathize with Peek, who couldn’t sympathize with Stepheson? His situation is serious enough that he missed missed playing time last season at UNC in order to travel home, including the Tar Heels’ conference opener against 19th-ranked Clemson. Then he ditched the No. 1 team in America — where he might have been a starter for part of the year. All-world Tyler Hansbrough is hurt, and guess who was a top candidate to fill in — or at least get more playing time? Katz added that one thing is clear: "The Tar Heels definitely could have used Alex Stepheson back."

Even though he could be having an influence on Tobacco Road, it’s difficult to imagine that UNC would oppose the transfer waiver; the school  reportedly wouldn’t appeal if it goes through. But the school is  caught up in the protracted NCAA process. The Tar Heels were sent paperwork on the case last week, and have up to 10 days to respond.

North Carolina declined to publicly comment on the matter until the NCAA announces its decision, but an initial feel-good press release about the transfer quoted Coach Roy Williams as saying, "Being closer to home he will be able to provide the necessary support and help his family needs at this time. He is a wonderful kid."

Anybody with Internet access (including the NCAA) could have known this was coming three months ago, but sources indicate the full waiver request was filed with them only in October. The Stepheson family was asked to provide additional documentation just two weeks ago, and North Carolina still may not have finished all of its paperwork.

"I think they’ve been pretty responsive on the NCAA end," said Floyd. "I think it takes time to present your case."

Whether it’s something on its end or not, the NCAA’s wheels-of-justice have a reputation for turning very slowly. There are plenty of examples with USC alone, including two ongoing investigations about extra benefits allegedly received by Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo.

In 2004, the NCAA waited just two days before USC’s football team kicked off its season to announce that wide receiver Mike Williams was ineligible after losing a reinstatement appeal. The organization claimed that it "responded within 24 hours of receiving the final information," though the situation had been under public scrutiny for several months and all parties appeared cooperative.

At least Williams found out before his team boarded the plane. It’s looking less and less likely that the NCAA will be able to do the same for Stepheson.

— Adam Rose
Photo by Bob Donnan/US Presswire

For further reading:

Kyle Bunch

Partnerships for R/GA Ventures. Raised in California, adopted by Texas. Opinions expressed here are mine and they are fantastic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s