[Updated (4/3/2016, 9:05 a.m.) with outcome of Saturday night's game.]
This weekend’s Final Four match-up between the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Syracuse University was the kind of game that college-basketball fans dream of. Two blue-blood programs with Hall of Fame coaches, who together have won some 1,700 games, squared off here on Saturday night. The winner, North Carolina, earned a chance to play for the national title.
But charges of academic misconduct involving their respective athletics departments have cast a shadow over the game, raising questions about the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s ability to deter cheaters and its system for punishing them.
On Thursday, two weeks into an NCAA tournament in which he has faced repeated questions about the long-running academic scandal in Chapel Hill, Roy Williams, the Tar Heels’ head coach, expressed weariness over the problems, at one point thanking a reporter for asking him about zone defenses.
"We have, in my opinion, the greatest sporting event there is, the Final Four, going on. It’s about four schools, four teams, four coaching staffs who have worked their tails off to get here," Mr. Williams said. "All that other stuff that sometimes I call junk has been talked about too much."
Jim Boeheim, head coach at Syracuse, expressed similar frustration for having to answer questions about an eight-year investigation into academic misconduct in his program that was completed last year. Mr. Boeheim, whose team sat out last year’s tournament because of the problems, imposing the ban on itself while awaiting a possible penalty from the NCAA, used a news conference here on Thursday to point out the differences he perceived in what his program was accused of and what it actually did.
"When they say ‘cheating,’ that’s not true," Mr. Boeheim said. "Rules being broken is a lot different. Cheating to me is intentionally doing something, like you wanted to get this recruit so you arranged a job for him, or you went to see him when you shouldn’t. You called him when you shouldn’t to gain an edge in recruiting to get a really good player. That’s cheating."
People who read the NCAA’s 94-page infractions report on Syracuse might differ with the coach’s interpretation of misconduct. The NCAA found four instances of academic fraud in Syracuse’s men’s basketball program, including some involving a former director of basketball operations, who had been hired by Mr. Boeheim to clean up academic problems.
He purportedly directed fellow athletics-staff members to obtain access to email usernames and passwords for players and to use the players’ accounts to correspond with professors and to submit academic work for them.
Asked on Thursday about Mr. Boeheim’s comments about cheating, Mark Emmert, the NCAA’s president, said he would let the coach define the problems however he wanted. But the association’s Division I Committee on Infractions determined that there were clear violations of the rules, stripping the program of scholarships and suspending Mr. Boeheim for nine games.
Mr. Emmert did not seem fazed by the appearance of Syracuse or Chapel Hill in the Final Four, despite the association’s emphasis on the need for high ethical standards among programs.
The NCAA leader emphasized that Syracuse had served its time and done everything the infractions committee had asked it to do. He also stressed that the university’s players "had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions," and that they should "be allowed to play."
That argument did not sit well with Jay Bilas, an ESPN analyst and NCAA critic, who suggested that it reflected an inconsistency in the NCAA’s application of its rules.
"So, UConn players, Louisville players, SMU players, and so many others," he wrote on Twitter, "you’re innocent, too, but can pound sand."
The University of Connecticut was banned from postseason play in the 2012-13 season after its men’s basketball program failed to meet the NCAA’s academic-progress requirements. A year later, after its team won the national title, Huskies’ players criticized the association for what they saw as an unfair punishment.
This year, Southern Methodist University and the University of Louisville, which both had good enough teams to qualify for the tournament, sat out because of alleged violations of NCAA rules. Like Syracuse last year, Louisville self-imposed its ban during the spring semester. That prevented players who reportedly were not involved in its problems, which include allegations that a former staff member provided team members with strippers and escorts, from participating in the tournament, a penalty its head coach and others have criticized.
Some observers, including Seth Greenberg, a former head coach at Virginia Tech and now an ESPN analyst, have urged NCAA institutions to adopt new rules that would prohibit teams from self-imposing postseason bans, or facing a ban from the tournament, once a semester begins. The idea is to protect players who are innocent bystanders.
In another case — this one involving ethical breaches in the men’s basketball program at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, a decision the NCAA handed down in December — the university received a one-year postseason ban, but for the 2016-17 season. (Hawaii qualified for this year’s tournament, knocking off the University of California at Berkeley in the first round.)
The Hawaii case could signal a willingness by the infractions committee to impose bans farther in the future, allowing players to know that they won't have a postseason opportunity before a season begins. But members of the infractions committee say that each case is unique, and that institutions will most likely maintain the ability to take their lumps when they like.
The unresolved issues at North Carolina pose an even bigger challenge for the NCAA. They stem from a nearly two-decade scandal involving no-show classes for more than 3,000 students, about half of whom were athletes.
Mr. Williams has denied knowledge of the fraud, in which academic advisers for football and basketball steered athletes to the fake classes.
"We’re embarrassed, we’re mad, we’re ticked off about what happened," Mr. Williams said last month. But he said men's basketball had "nothing to do with it, and we're very proud about that."
It’s true that Mr. Williams was not named in the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations, which broadly cited North Carolina for a lack of institutional control. But some former Tar Heels players, including a star of its 2005 team, which won the national championship, have said that they were enrolled in the paper courses and that coaches had knowledge of the scheme.
The NCAA's report on the North Carolina case suggests that men’s basketball players, as well as other athletes, were able to use the courses to maintain their eligibility.
It’s hard to know how severe the sanctions against UNC might be, but if the infractions committee’s reaction to the problems at Syracuse serves as an example of how hard its members might come down on the Tar Heels program, it won’t be pretty.
On Thursday, Mr. Emmert said that the association’s investigation into academic misconduct at North Carolina was nearing its end. And he brushed aside the notion that the NCAA might stop penalizing programs because current athletes had no involvement in past problems.
"No one ever likes imposing sanctions on students who had little or nothing to do with whatever an infraction was," he said. But he said that postseason bans can serve as an "effective deterrent."
"I want to be really clear," he added. "The membership has not said, We're out of the business of postseason bans."