Gophers, Pitino must navigate NCAA transfer gray areas

  • Article by: AMELIA RAYNO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 30, 2013 - 6:48 AM

The NCAA's waiver process involves much work, and they aren't always sure things.

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Gophers guard Malik Smith was ruled immediately eligible by the NCAA after transferring from Florida International.

Photo: CARLOS GONZALEZ • cgonzalez@startribune.com,

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For almost every rule, there is an exception. Extenuating circumstances. Special cases. The world is not black and white, and there is plenty of gray in the middle.

This offseason, the new Gophers men’s basketball coaching staff is taking full advantage of gray areas when it comes to filling out a roster.

Coach Richard Pitino came to the program in April. After two recruits decommitted and Joe Coleman announced he would transfer, Pitino was quickly staring at a depleted team and five available scholarships. Other programs with sitting coaches were way ahead in the game, and most of the solid-to-elite range high school recruits had long since been snatched up.

The solution, at least in part? Find transfers who could be eligible for a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately instead of having to sit out a season, which D-I basketball transfers typically have to do.

The Gophers have two incoming transfers involved with a waiver, Joey King and Malik Smith, and they could possibly seek a third if they land Rakeem Buckles, another transfer.

The school announced earlier this month that Smith will be eligible this season after being granted a waiver because his former school, Florida International, was banned from the postseason because of his team’s inadequate Academic Progress Rate. The Gophers are still gathering materials for King’s waiver, which revolves around a family health concern. King, who played high school ball at Eastview, was a freshman at Drake last season before transferring.

“I don’t think it’s common for basketball programs to do this,” said J.T. Bruett, the University of Minnesota director of compliance. “I do think it’s a result, though, of when Coach Pitino was brought in. … I think you see it more often in coaching changes and things of that nature where they’re a little bit behind at that particular institution.”

There are a few basic types of waivers used for transfers to become immediately eligible, which essentially means their year of establishing residency is waived:

•  Hardship waivers, including illnesses in the family or any other urgent personal circumstance. This is what the Gophers will seek for King.

• Waivers for a student- athlete whose institution is penalized for a violation of which that student had no involvement.

• Waivers for a student whose institution is banned from postseason play for the remainder of that student’s eligibility. This is what the Gophers sought and received for Smith, who has only one year of eligibility left. This could also be a path to land Buckles, a forward and another potential Florida International transfer entering his senior season. Pitino, who knows both players from coaching at FIU last season, inherited the academic mess at the school from his predecessor, Isiah Thomas.

• Waivers for a graduate student who still has a year or more of eligibility remaining.

With many factors to be considered, the information gathering and submitting process are quite extensive. And how the NCAA rules — even in situations that seem identical — can vary greatly from case to case. In 2011-12, the latest year statistics are available, the NCAA approved 27 of 52 undergraduate transfer waivers and six of seven graduate waivers for Division I men’s basketball.

“There’s no such thing as an automatic waiver,” Bruett said. “You still have to put together an argument. … They ask for statements from the student-athlete, they ask for reasoning why a particular student is transferring to a particular institution. Sometimes, a statement from the previous institution or information from the previous institution. … There’s an academic component to it as well, so there’s a lot of different things.”

It usually takes the NCAA two to four weeks to review the waiver, Bruett said, but that can vary depending on the NCAA’s workload as well. Smith’s waiver took approximately two weeks once submitted, but with King’s, a lot of labor is going into information gathering first. King seems to have a good case for a waiver — but then again, these things can be unpredictable.

“It can be hard to predict because every case is different,” Bruett said. “Generally, if we feel like we have a decent case, we’ll submit it, but there will be times when we think we have a very good case and the NCAA denies it and other times we’re not so sure and they approve it.”

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