A last appeal exhausted, Villanova announced Friday that the NCAA has ruled freshman forward Omari Spellman will not be eligible to compete for the Wildcats during the upcoming season, ruling his status to be as an academic redshirt.
Villanova coach Jay Wright said the 6-foot-9 Spellman, a five-star recruit in high school, will retain his athletic scholarship and have four years of eligibility starting with next season. This case reached "the highest levels" of the NCAA, according to Villanova athletic director Mark Jackson.
At a Friday afternoon news conference, Wright explained that the issue was that Spellman had started ninth grade at a public school but transferred to a private school "a couple of months" later. The problem arose because the private school, Hookam School near Albany, N.Y., reclassified Spellman as an eighth grader, but he had been a ninth-grader for those couple of months at a public school in Middletown, N.Y.
Villanova, which initially identified the issue and reported it to the NCAA, eventually hired a private law firm to work on the case. The school said in a statement that under NCAA initial eligibility bylaws, "A prospective student-athlete must complete their initial eligibility requirements not later than the high school graduation date of his or her class. Despite graduating from high school in 2016 and presenting the same academic qualifications as an NCAA qualifier, the NCAA determined Omari's status to be an academic redshirt."
"By rule, we get it," Wright said. "But he was on the ninth-grade basketball team. He wasn't a star. He wasn't even on the JV. He just had a chance to get to a private school. He didn't know anything about NCAA eligibility rules back then. ... Our contention was, he wasn't thinking about being a college athlete. There were also some family issues there that he was dealing with."
"There was an appeal before that _ [Wright] told me, I broke down in tears," Spellman said. "I didn't really know how to handle it, but I knew we had to handle it. Then he told me there was a reconsideration process. He told me again two days ago, it was hard, but it was more manageable. I just want to turn it into a positive and move forward from here. Life goes on and I just have to keep working every day. I'm allowed to work out. I'm allowed to improve myself as a person. That's what I'm going to try to do."
"I think I'm argued out," Wright said of the process. "I'm at the point now, we gave them every possible thought about this ... If we lost this appeal and they didn't have this [academic redshirt] in place, he wouldn't be able to come to Villanova. So that's a positive. That's what we're going to try and concentrate on now. He would have been a non-qualifier, even though he is a qualifer academically. Being labeled a non-qualifier is a stigma on a kid. Right away, they admitted, he's a qualifer."
With center Daniel Ochefu, the team's chief rim protector, graduated from last season's national championship team, Spellman was expected to be one of the Wildcats' key inside players. The NCAA decision takes away some scoring punch and rebounding strength that the 265-pound Spellman would have provided.
"It's a loss," Wright said.