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NCAA rule weakens preseason competition

When Duke takes on Canada’s St. Francis Xavier tonight at 7 p.m. in Cameron Indoor Stadium, the team won’t be worried—the X-Men are a less formidable opponent than the Blue Devils have faced in the preseason for years.

After an NCAA rule change, the Blue Devils, who played against the Nike Elite and the EA Sports All-Stars in last year’s preseason exhibitions, are no longer allowed to play such professional teams. The amendment was first submitted in July 2003 but was not fully adopted until June of this year.

The rationale for the amendment, according to the bill approved by the Division I Board of Directors, is that “limiting exhibition games to contests against four-year collegiate institutions is a healthier competitive environment for collegiate teams, eliminates potential recruiting advantages and improves the image of the game.”

The legislation was inspired partly by allegations that professional teams, many of which have organizational ties to AAU teams, were using these connections to secure scheduling from the colleges that recruited top prep school players. Many college coaches had complained that they felt pressured to schedule certain teams to merely not lose ground in recruiting.

“We solved a problem, but we did not create the best answer,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Is it in the best interest of the game to play an exhibition game against Division II or Division III schools or NAIA schools? It may be, but we should look at it. I don’t think that was looked at.”

The legislation’s approval may have been hastened by a public incident that highlighted these recruiting connections—the Connecticut Huskies’ recruitment of star freshman Rudy Gay. Gay, the No. 4 recruit in the nation last year according to scout.com, participated in an AAU program that was sponsored by a group that owns a professional team, the Beltway Ballers. The Huskies paid the Ballers for a preseason exhibition last year, and some claimed that this connection helped Huskies coach Jim Calhoun secure Gay’s commitment.

When the Ballers lost to Connecticut 102-44, critics noted that the professional team did not even appear to provide adequate competition for the Huskies. Maryland head coach Gary Williams, who was also recruiting Gay, made some critical remarks to The Baltimore Sun regarding Calhoun’s apparent tactic, though he never mentioned Calhoun by name. Williams has said he now believes the new legislation has helped stop that problematic trend but is a long way from perfect.

“I think the intent of the legislation was good because there were some things going on that were not right with the AAU games,” Williams said. “Now that’s changed but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop with the legislation, that can get better too.”

Many top coaches are pleased that the de facto recruitment bidding war was put to an end but are concerned that smaller colleges do not provide an adequate level of competition. Many ideas on how to improve this situation have emerged, including scrimmages between Division I schools.

“You don’t get anything out of the game if you win by 50 points,” Williams said. “There’s some things you could do—possibly have a national scrimmage day.”

The amendment only applies to men’s basketball, although the NCAA Competition Cabinet has noted that some of the recruiting connections could occur in women’s basketball as well. The Duke women played EA Sports Wednesday, but this may be the last year they play professional teams. Some men’s teams will still play professional teams this year as the legislation allows teams to schedule games if they had signed a contract before Oct. 21, 2003.

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