(Reuters) - As college basketball's March Madness rolls on, the NCAA is on the verge of banning a perennial contender from next year's championship tournament because of poor performance - not on the court, but in the classroom.
The University of Connecticut men's basketball team - last year's national champions - has announced that it cannot meet the new, higher standards for academic performance that the National Collegiate Athletic Association enacted last fall.
A dozen other teams - including Syracuse, this year's top seed, Ohio University and Florida State - are at risk of failing to meet the standard, according to a study released this month by the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports.
The new rules have substantially strengthened long-standing NCAA requirements on academic performance. Schools must now ensure that at least half their players are passing courses and moving steadily toward graduation. Teams lose points for each player who drops out, flunks out or transfers after falling behind academically.
Perhaps most importantly, the new rules make suspension from the tournament automatic for schools that fail to meet the bar. The NCAA had previously punished lagging teams mainly with mild sanctions such as cutting the number of scholarships a school could offer. A handful of teams with especially dismal academic records were barred from post-season play in past years, but most had no chance of making the tournament anyway.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says he fully expects the NCAA to abide by its new rules, even if that means some top teams sit out in 2013.
"If they don't improve, you simply won't see them in the tournament," Duncan said.
But banning true contenders could change the nature of March Madness, the 68-team college championship tournament that has evolved into one of the nation's premier sporting events and generates some $800 million in revenue annually for the NCAA.
The biggest immediate impact could be the absence of UConn, which lost in the first round this year but has been a perennial national title contender for the past two decades.
For many fans, a tournament without the Huskies is inconceivable. "March Madness is the best time of year," said Kevin Meacham, a UConn alumnus who blogs about the team. "To see that UConn might not be a part of it is very depressing."
The school is pushing hard for leniency, but its initial application for a waiver of the rules was denied. The most recent data available, for players entering UConn in 2004, shows that just 25 percent graduated within six years.
The team's four-year average Academic Performance Rating, which is based on how many players stay in school and pass their courses, stood at 893 out of 1,000 for the academic year 2009-10. That is far below the NCAA's new standard of 930. The only team in this year's tournament with a lower rating was Mississippi Valley State University.
In its bid to have the rules waived for next year, UConn acknowledges "unacceptable" academic performance by the men's basketball team but insists it has turned the corner. University officials now track each player's academic progress closely; a typical memo notes that one player missed his Monday communication class but "everyone else was perfect."
Players are now required to take summer courses to rack up credits in the off-season. They must attend study hall 10 hours a week. Head Coach Jim Calhoun's contract has even been rewritten so he forfeits pay if his players fail to make the grade.
Mike Enright, an associate athletic director, said the team improved last year and is on track to achieve a near-perfect academic rating this year. However, the NCAA calculates tournament eligibility based on an average of recent years, so it is mathematically impossible for UConn to make the cut. Some other teams on the bubble, including Syracuse, say they are confident they will make the grade for next year.
UConn officials say it is unfair to punish current players for the academic failures of past teams. That argument did not fly with the NCAA initially, but UConn hopes it will reconsider at a meeting next month.
"The waiver process continues," Enright said.
The University of North Carolina at Wilmington, which has made the tournament four times since 2000, is also requesting a waiver.
The NCAA would not comment on any waiver application.
The March Madness tournament accounts for the bulk of the NCAA's annual revenue; unlike in football, where TV money flows directly to conferences and schools, the basketball tournament is run by the NCAA itself. The association keeps about 40 percent of the revenue and sends the balance back to colleges and regional athletic conferences. The schools that consistently perform best in the tournament receive the richest payouts.
The tournament is also very important for the powerhouse teams. Tournament wins bring in top recruits, give a college national visibility - and rally school spirit. "Basketball really brings a lot of people together," said Amanda Cole, a junior at Syracuse, where the campus bookstore displayed rack after rack of tournament T-shirts and orange team jerseys.
Mike Bobinski, who will chair the NCAA's Division I Men's Basketball Committee next year, said the leadership had "a very strong resolve" to stick to the rules, despite the costs of banning top teams.
"If you send the message that (academics) are not optional, that this is what you're here for, students will live up to it," said Bobinski, the athletic director at Xavier University in Cincinnati.
Schools that succeed both on the court and in the classroom say it takes effort and investment. Athletes at Western Kentucky University have a 10,000-square-foot study center, as big as the weight room. An academic adviser travels with the Xavier team; this week, he was nagging freshman guard Dee Davis to finish a writing assignment on ecology. Ohio University, eager to raise its academic rating and avoid sanctions, recently began pairing players with retired faculty who act as "academic encouragers."
Even critics of the NCAA say the new rules seem effective in prodding more teams to take academics seriously. But some say the NCAA should go further.
Less than 5 percent of tournament revenue goes to support athletes in the classroom with services like tutoring. (Another 8 percent helps them pay for necessities such as books.)
The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics has urged the NCAA to award a large chunk of tournament revenue to schools that do a great job graduating athletes - even if their teams never make it to the Final Four.
A 50 percent team graduation rate should be a "minimal expectation," not a gold standard, said Amy Perko, the executive director. "It's all about emphasizing the 'college' in college sports," she said.
(Reporting By Stephanie Simon in Denver, additional reporting by Nick Toney and Debbie Truong in Syracuse, New York; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Matthew Lewis)