McCants, Williams in an academic tangle

For argument’s sake, let’s wonder: What if Rashad McCants is telling the truth?

What if he rarely went to class in college and never wrote his own papers, steered as he insists to no-show courses in Afro- and African-American Studies to remain eligible as a basketball player at North Carolina?

What if the former NBA player-turned-whistle-blower isn’t blowing smoke?

More important, what if Roy Williams as a respected, revered, national championship coach was as naive to such a boatload of alleged academic fraud as he claimed this week?

Where does most of the blame lie?

Who is failing whom most?

I’m not buying the T-shirt that McCants wore for an ESPN interview on Wednesday, not all-in on believing the same guy who departed Chapel Hill in 2005 and played five NBA seasons should be anointed the defender of all student-athletes.

God help us if this is true, because we shouldn’t be prepared to place on a pedestal of impeccable character a person who once compared playing for the Tar Heels to a prison and who wore a tattoo stating “Born to be hated, dying to be loved.”

But as troubling as his claims are and his transcripts suggest — that McCants went from nearly ineligible to straight A’s and on the dean’s list in the same semester North Carolina won the national title in 2005, all without attending a single class — the fact Williams says he didn’t know much about how such a transformation could occur is as damning as anything else.

It’s one of the oldest debates in college sports — a coach is either aware of improprieties within his program or isn’t, and the latter is often worse.

There isn’t a coach nationally — Williams, Mike Krzyzewksi, Dave Rice, Bill Self, add-in-your-favorite-here — who doesn’t during the recruiting process preach about the high academic standards at their respective schools and promise those mothers and fathers staring back at them that they will help guide their son through the rigors of college life, on and off the court.

There isn’t a coach who for a second would think about downplaying his involvement with the academic side of things when chasing signed letters of intent. Coaches, if nothing else, are an opportunistic lot who would go to their graves swearing the sky is green rather than blue if it meant landing a certain kid.

And yet there was Williams, telling a nationally televised audience that he was unaware just how McCants improved his academic standing so greatly in such a short amount of time, that he was confused about the meaning of no-show courses, that he had a hard time believing others would write papers for players.

Roy played dumb better than Jim Carrey or Jeff Daniels could in any movie. He denied everything, another predictable ploy coaches instantly embrace when put in a difficult and embarrassing spot.

Look. North Carolina isn’t the only school to push athletes through courses on bogus majors, although the Tar Heels (given their previous academic issues within football) sure seem to have helped design the blueprint for it.

But how can a coach of Williams’ stature be so in the dark about the culture of sketchy academics surrounding his team? And if he isn’t, if he absolutely knew what was going on with McCants and, as the former player said, helped him manipulate the system by getting him into courses that could keep him eligible, what are we to think about a man who so many champion for his integrity and standard of excellence?

Something went on, because no one at North Carolina or elsewhere has denied the veracity of McCants’ transcript. He went to sleep one night a kid who barely showed his face in class and awoke a mix of Paul Allen and Sir Andrew Wiles.

Why didn’t Williams ask more questions? Why didn’t he demand to know more about such an academic turnaround?

I doubt anything comes of this that might seriously harm Williams’ program. The NCAA isn’t on Line 1. McCants hasn’t agreed to speak with the person in charge of North Carolina’s investigation into academic fraud and won’t name others he said also had papers written for them by tutors. Meanwhile, good ol’ Roy has a few teams worth of former players standing behind him.

But you can’t take more than a cursory look at the entire story and not conclude that Williams’ reputation has seen much better days. McCants very well might be as bitter and angry and scheming as many have suggested, but there is also no favorable angle for Williams to play on this one.

He either knew or he didn’t.

Really, which is worse?

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.