VILLANOVA, Pa. — Five-star freshman forward Omari Spellman was declared ineligible by the NCAA for the 2016-17 season, hurting Villanova men's basketball's hopes of repeating as national champions.
Spellman will be an academic redshirt, meaning he will be able to attend Villanova this year on scholarship and retain all four years of eligibility. He will be in a similar process to most transfer or redshirt athletes and will be able to be around the team.
“When they came down with the final decision, the final appeal, we don’t agree with it,” coach Jay Wright said Friday afternoon. “We accept it and respect that the NCAA put a lot of time on this, looking at every little issue.”
The ruling by the NCAA came after months of appeals and an opportunity for reconsideration. Wright seemed visibly pained in explaining the significant time spent on the process.
“I think I’m argued out,” he said. “I’m at the point now where I know they considered everything we gave them. We gave them every possible thought on this.”
Friday's announcement by Villanova was after the final reconsideration. Spellman said he "broke down in tears" when the ruling originally came down, but was more composed this time around.
“Life goes on,” Spellman said. “I just have to keep working every day. I may not be able to play in games, but I’m allowed to practice. I’m allowed to work out. I’m allowed to improve myself as a person, so that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
Spellman was declared ineligible because he did not graduate with his original high school class. He originally began 9th grade at a public school (Middletown High School in New York) but had the opportunity to attend the Hoosac School, a private school. He transferred there after two to three months, but had to start in 8th grade at the Hoosac School.
After 8th grade, he went to three different schools during high school over the next four years and academically qualified at each one. However, he had technically started high school a year early and graduated a year after his original class.
Villanova realized that could be an issue and alerted the NCAA. The process went through Villanova’s compliance and general council, the NCAA’s Eligibility Center and, ultimately, the highest levels of the NCAA before Spellman was deemed an academic redshirt. Villanova even hired a law firm to talk to each school Spellman attended in order to clarify the issue.
Spellman's absence for the season is a definite blow to the Wildcats. The 6-foot-9 big man was a top-25 recruit for Villanova and was expected to contribute right away. While the Wildcats retained some of the core that won the second national title in program history, starting center Daniel Ochefu graduated, leaving a hole in the middle. Senior Darryl Reynolds is expected to play a big role in the frontcourt, although losing Spellman means the Wildcats have less depth down low.
Wright admitted that it hurts the team, particularly with Spellman’s talent.
“It’s a loss. It is a loss," Wright said. "He’s talented. He’s picked up things quickly. He’s gotten in shape. He’d gotten a little overweight coming out of high school, but he’s gotten in shape quickly. He’s fit in academically … he’s just fit in really well, so I wasn’t concerned that he was going to struggle this year.”
While he won’t be able to play, Spellman can attend home games. He cannot travel with the team, just like any player who takes a redshirt year. Both Wright and Spellman talked about turning the year away from the court into a positive, something the Wildcats have some experience with recent redshirts.
“We’ve got a good process in place," Wright said. "It worked well for Mikal Bridges. It worked well for Dante DiVincenzo this past year. Eric Paschall, I think everyone will see it. Again, we didn’t want to do it, but we do have a good process and Omari knows [because] the guys have told him that.
Perhaps most important for the freshman is that he still gets to be around the team while preparing for the future. After going through the grueling NCAA appeals process, his teammates were quick to pick him up after the ruling against him, including Paschall reiterating to him that the redshirt process would go quickly.
“I just think it’s amazing how close you become with people in a short period of time,” Spellman said. “Eric, I didn’t know him before I got here and me and him are so close [now]. I’m so close with Mikal, Josh [Hart], Kris [Jenkins], the other guys. They have just helped me so much to come to peace with it."