Is Matt Roth being wronged?

Mar 4, 2012; Bloomington, IN, USA; Indiana Hoosiers guard Matt Roth speaks on senior night after the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Assembly Hall. Indiana defeated Purdue 85-74. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

A sure sign of IU's resurgence on the basketball court is that covering IU basketball is once again a twelve month proposition. Today's Indianapolis Star includes a straight news article about Matt Roth. Roth, as all IU fans will recall, has been at IU for four years, participating in Senior Night (see above photo), earning his bachelor's degree in 2011, and finishing off a master's degree this year. Although Roth saw game action in all four of the seasons that he has spent at IU, in 2009-10, his sophomore year, Roth played in only two games before a foot injury sidelined him for the rest of the season. Roth has applied for and has received a medical redshirt year for that season, so he has one remaining year of eligibility. The above-linked article makes clear what hadn't been entirely apparent before: Matt Roth really wants to play for IU next year.

What prevents that, of course, is that IU does not have a scholarship for Roth. In fact, as has been discussed here before, IU already is oversigned by one, which means that either one of IU's five signed incoming freshmen will not enroll, someone will transfer, or someone will pay his own way (as to the last option, most of the speculation has centered on Jordan Hulls and Derek Elston--both are Indiana residents and both graduated this past weekend, meaning that either could enroll in a light grad school load and pay in-state prices). Adding Roth to the equation creates even more of a logjam. Yet, in an accompanying blog post that appeared today, Terry Hutchens argues that Roth is being wronged. Here is the gist of the post:

But Roth shouldn’t even be a part of that discussion. He should have his scholarship and get a chance to play. Tom Crean and his staff should have to figure the other stuff out with Roth not included in the conversation. If Roth wants to play one more season — and he does — he has earned that opportunity. I had someone ask me the other day a very simple question: Do you ever remember a scholarship basketball player at Indiana, in good standing with the program and the university, who had one year of eligibility remaining but wasn’t brought back for that final year? I could think of no one.

First, and most comically, this is Terry Hutchens, who for most of his time as the Star's IU beat writer has been very much a company man. This has been, at varying times, much to the consternation of IU fans and IU foes. For IU fans, Hutch distinguished himselfy during that last, ugly years of the Mike Davis era, when Hutchens made every excuse in the book for an obviously over-his-head coach. Now, with the IU basketball program in its best condition in decades, is when Hutch decides to make his stand. Beautiful.

Still, I think this does raise the issue of what a basketball player is getting when he signs a letter of intent with IU or any other university. As well all know, as a technical matter athletic scholarships are one-year renewable grants. Tom Crean or any other coach could cut any player loose for any reason after any season. Typically, that doesn't happen, although Crean and most other coaches may occasionally have frank conversations with players about their future prospects for playing time, and sometimes those talks may be designed to encourage players to look elsewhere. I tend to think that regardless of productivity on the court, a player who does the work that is expected of him in the classroom, in practice, in offseason conditioning, and in the community and on campus, should be allowed to continue until he earns a degree regardless of whether he contributes much. Even if a coach tells a player that he isn't going to be part of the rotation, I think that if a player wants to stay and meets the above criteria, he should be allowed to stay. Particularly given the constraints on transferring per NCAA rules, I don't like the idea of yanking scholarships.

Of course, none of that has much to do with Matt Roth. Roth has been at IU for four years. He played in each of his four seasons. He will leave IU with at least two degrees. It's tough for me to see where Roth has been wronged or exploited. Hutchens seems to argue that any player who starts at IU should be allowed to fulfill every year of his eligibility at IU. Actually, Hutchens doesn't really argue it. He simply presumes it. And my question is, why? Do the NCAA rules require it? No. To the contrary, NCAA rules leave players quite exposed to the whims of coaches. Did IU or Tom Crean promise it? I think that's the key question. All along, Roth has acted as if he knew that his IU career likely would not extend beyond 2011-12. He earned his bachelor's degree at the end of year three and finished a master's degree by the end of his fourth year. If Roth were taking his sweet time to earn a bachelor's degree, and had the rug pulled out from under him without any means to finish his degree, that would be bad. But if Tom Crean has been straight with him and has given him ample time in which to plan for the inevitable, then what's the problem?

I understand that neither of Roth's options are particularly attractive to him. If he wants to play at IU, then Roth, who is from Illinois, has to pay his way as at the higher, non-resident tuition rate. I'm sure that taking out student loans and/or digging into his parents' savings to take a few classes for a degree that he likely won't finish probably doesn't sound all that great. On the other hand, Roth could be the beneficiary of one of the NCAA's best rules: he has the right to transfer without penalty to a school where he can play his final year without sitting out a year. It's a great rule and an excellent opportunity, but Roth, understandably, having tasted success as an Indiana Hoosier, doesn't want to wear any other uniform.

I hope none of this sounds callous toward Matt Roth. As a member of IU's turnaround senior class, he will forever hold an important place in IU lore. He's worked very hard, improved from year-to-year, and has always been one of the most accurate shooters I have seen in an IU uniform. He has given much to IU. But he's also received much: two degrees, and four years playing for one of the most tradition-rich programs in college basketball. He doesn't appear to have been blindsided by his current reality. Given all of the abuses and exploitation that occur in college basketball, this situation doesn't rate at all.

Finally, my biggest gripe with the Hutchens piece is his petulant claim about a scholarship for Roth: "It’s what Indiana needs to find a way to do." Well, how, exactly? Currently, IU has 14 players on board for 2012-13 and 13 scholarships. Adding Roth to the mix gives IU 15 players for 13 rides. I don't think it's enough for the IU beat writer with the state's most widely read newspaper to say IU needs to do something. He needs to explain how it can happen. Of the possibly 15 players in the mix for next year, three of them (Roth, Hulls, and Elston) have degrees. Who should make room for Roth? Should Hulls or Elston be pushed aside? I doubt Hutchens would accept that for the same reason that he doesn't think Roth should be out. Should someone at the end of the bench be nudged onto the transfer list? In that case, someone with no IU degrees would be pushed aside in favor of someone with two IU degrees. Should IU prevent one or more of the freshmen from enrolling? That raises the same issue as the last category. This is, of course, one of the reasons that oversigning makes some of us queasy, but I'm much more angst-ridden about whoever player #14 might be than I am about Roth.

Again, thank you, Matt Roth, for all you have done for IU. But as long as Tom Crean has been honest with Roth far enough in the future to allow him to plan, I have zero problem with this situation, and I don't understand why it is suddenly front page news.

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