In Georgia Tech’s appeal, a possible opening to postseason eligibility

Georgia Tech will appeal three of the penalties that were handed down by the NCAA’s infractions committee, including the postseason ban in effect for the 2019-20 season. If the process isn’t swift, Tech officials might not complain.

A rather significant aspect of the decision to contest the NCAA’s sanctions is that the appealed penalties will be stayed for the duration of the appeal process, meaning that if the appeals panel cannot reach its decision before the time that the NCAA tournament field is decided, then the Yellow Jackets would be eligible for the postseason.

The school filed its notice of appeal Friday, according to a statement provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Friday was the final day that Tech could notify the NCAA that it planned to file an appeal after it was apprised of the NCAA’s findings and penalties on Sept. 26.

In its appeal, Tech will attempt to demonstrate that the NCAA infractions committee panel abused its discretion in assigning those penalties.

“Our entire team is grateful for the support of our administration and legal team,” coach Josh Pastner said in  a statement. “The appeals process is entirely in their hands. I am completely focused on coaching our team and preparing for the upcoming season.”

Tech also will seek to overturn two other sanctions from the NCAA, the reduction of one scholarship for the next four years and also the limitation on official visits, which prohibits Tech from scheduling official visits in conjunction with home basketball games for the coming season and also the 2020-21 season. Those penalties will also be stayed throughout the appeal.

For Tech and Pastner, the stay of the postseason ban is potentially a huge boost. Before the release of the sanctions, including the ban, Pastner had made clear his plans to lead the Yellow Jackets into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010.

While the Jackets have been under .500 the past two seasons, Pastner’s second and third in charge of the Jackets, the team’s core returns and adds transfers Bubba Parham (VMI) and Jordan Usher (USC), both of whom are expected to add scoring punch to a team that has defended well but last season was by far the least efficient offense in the ACC. Making the tournament would be a clear sign of progress and give the Jackets and Pastner a needed swell of momentum.

It would not at all be a surprise if the appeals process, which requires a submission of the actual appeal, the infractions committee’s response, then a rebuttal from the appealing school or coach and finally the review and decision by the appeals committee, goes well past the end of the 2019-20 season.

The past five violations cases that were appealed by schools or coaches took an average of about eight months from the time that the NCAA handed down its original decision to the appeals decision. The NCAA tournament field will be announced March 15, about 5-1/2 months from the day that Tech’s violations were announced.

To that end, however, Tech runs the risk of not making the NCAA tournament this year when the stay permits the Jackets to be eligible and then losing the appeal, locking out the team from the 2021 tournament and likewise extending the other appealed penalties into the future.

Tech was found to have committed Level-I violations (severe breaches of conduct) stemming from impermissible benefits granted to three former Tech basketball players (Tadric Jackson, Justin Moore and Josh Okogie) and a prospect (former Duke star Wendell Carter) by two men identified as boosters by the NCAA (former Tech basketball star Jarrett Jack and Ron Bell, a former friend of Pastner). Former assistant coach Darryl LaBarrie, whom the NCAA found arranged the impermissible benefits given to Carter and Moore on Carter’s official visit in 2016 and then failed to cooperate with NCAA investigators regarding his involvement, was given a three-year show-cause order, which is effectively a suspension from coaching at an NCAA school.

The appeal does not come as a surprise. After the violations and penalties were announced, athletic director Todd Stansbury said he was surprised by the “severity and length of some of those penalties” and said he would look into an appeal.

Tech is not contesting the facts of the case and is not appealing all of the penalties, an indication that it believes it may have a better chance with the sanctions that it will protest. The list of sanctions that the school will not contest include four years of probation, the fine of $5,000 plus 2 percent of the team’s budget (about $120,000), other recruiting reductions besides the one pertaining to official visits during home basketball games and the vacation of games and individual records, including the team’s run to the NIT finals in 2017.

However, history suggests that Tech faces long odds. The NCAA adopted its current structure of violations in 2013, categorizing misconduct into four levels and creating a matrix of penalties to be assessed for each level.

In that time, there have been 17 cases (either coaches or schools) that have appealed penalties on the basis of abuse of discretion, as Tech will. Only four succeeded in having the sanctions modified or overturned.

While the postseason ban might be deemed a punishment on athletes who had nothing to do with the violations, it is part of the NCAA’s penalty matrix, and the infractions committee went to considerable length in its report to explain why it believed Tech was deserving of the Level I-standard penalties that it was given. The postseason ban and the scholarship reduction that Tech is appealing are standard sanctions for Level I-standard violations.

In recent years, the NCAA infractions committee has improved at explaining its rationale for its findings and penalties.

“So what you’re seeing is, I’m not saying they’re correct all the time, but you’re seeing committee decisions that are much more focused and based on very good evidence,” said Michael Buckner, an attorney who has represented coaches and schools in several NCAA violations cases. “Now, again, they’re not 100 percent all the time, but I think you’re finding better and better decisions.”