Is Louisville’s “roster management” merely oversigning?

Elisha Justice in action last season. (AP photo)

Elisha Justice in action last season. (AP photo)

Rick Pitino giveth, now he taketh away.

As part of a press conference on Tuesday morning, the Louisville basketball coach announced that three of his returning players (Kyle Kuric, Elisha Justice and Chris Smith) will be moved from scholarship to walk-on players next season so that U of L can meet the NCAA limit of 13 scholarships.

Pitino pointed out that Justice and Kuric were both recruited to be walk-ons, but then were awarded scholarships when Louisville had ones available. He said he told Kuric that sometime during his career, the program might need to shift the Indiana native to walk-on status. And Kuric told the Courier-Journal that he had no problem with giving up his scholarship for the good of the team.

Meanwhile, Smith was to have his way paid by his brother, Denver Nuggets’ guard J.R. Smith. Like Kuric and Justice, Smith was awarded a scholarship when Pitino was under the 13 limit.

Pitino’s numbers problem was brought about by the unexpected arrival of freshman Kevin Ware and transfer Luke Hancock. Ware, a former Tennessee signee, was released form his letter when Bruce Pearl was fired by the Vols. Hancock left George Mason after coach Jim Larranaga left to become head coach at Miami. Hancock landed in Louisville thanks to new U of L assistant Kevin Keatts, who coached Hancock at Hargrave Military Academy.

And yet, with the debate last week at the SEC Spring Meetings in Destin about oversigning in college football, one can ask isn’t Louisville guilty of the same thing?

My friend/critic Kevin Faris, a local high school teacher, tweeted yesterday, “Over signing is wrong for SEC FB (UK included) and it should be wrong for MCBB. Don’t see the difference.”

There is one problem, of course, the same problem that permeates much of big-time college athletics: Who do you believe?

The SEC football coaches did have a point in that some recruits are willing to sign a national letter-of-intent in February, then wait until the following January to enroll – the practice of gray-shirting – if it means being allowed to attend the desired school. And, if that’s how the scholarship offer is presented up front, then there is nothing wrong with that practice.

The problem comes when coaches are dishonest with players about their situations, or they make false promises, etc. It sends the message that coaches/programs are manipulating players/young people in order to meet the NCAA requirements. It leaves the impression that instead of following the rules, the coaches were doing whatever they could to get around the rules.

The Louisville question goes back to the honesty question. Was Pitino up front with Kuric, who is U of L’s leading returning scorer from last season? And is Kuric being honest in his reaction, or is he putting on a brave, unified front for the good of the program, not to mention his relationship with the head coach?

As for Justice, he was recruited as a walk-on. In fact, even when Kentucky showed late interest in Justice, with the possibility of a scholarship, Justice stuck to his U of L commitment. Pitino ended up putting Justice on scholarship, which in college athletics is a one-year renewable agreement. Is it wrong for the coach to put a player on scholarship one year, then take him off the next?

Again, it all goes back to the original agreement.

Back in 2001-02, Kentucky coach Tubby Smith found himself over the scholarship limit. He solved the problem by putting center Marquis Estill on need-based aid.

Don’t look for Kentucky basketball to face a similar problem anytime soon. John Calipari has shown he’s not into a big roster. He’s not Billy Gillispie. He reached the Final Four last year with just 10 scholarship players – 11 if you count the non-playing Enes Kanter. At present, even with the addition of transfer Ryan Harrow, he has 12 players on scholarship for next year, including Jarrod Polson, who was originally recruited as a walk-on.

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