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USC eyes APR improvements

South Carolina needed a bailout to avoid losing a scholarship in football and incurring additional penalties in men’s basketball after the Gamecocks’ signature programs failed to meet NCAA guidelines for academic progress.

But officials expect the numbers to get better.

Athletics department leaders point to a $13 million academic center scheduled to open in the fall of 2009, a bigger academic support staff and a three-pronged improvement plan for their optimism.

The hope is that when the NCAA releases its Academic Progress Rate scores next year, the Gamecocks will not be forced to rely on waivers to make the grade.

“That’s absolutely the goal,” USC compliance director Jennifer Stiles said Tuesday shortly after the APR was released. “All of our coaches are very aware of the APR and how it impacts their programs, whether it’s academic eligibility or transfers.

“It’s certainly at the forefront of decision making as we move forward. And I think we’ve shown in these (two) sports that the things we’ve put in place are working.”

The football team’s four-year APR average of 921 fell below the 925 threshold that triggers immediate penalties for programs that had players leave while ineligible.

But the NCAA approved USC’s request for a waiver, which was based on the number of players who were kicked off the team after Steve Spurrier’s arrival and the Gamecocks’ APR improvement in the years since.

Stiles said the football team’s single-year APR numbers have improved from 895 in 2004-05 to 943 in 2006-07, the last year included in this year’s data.

“In football, if you look at the numbers over the past few years, we’ve certainly trended in the right direction,” Stiles said. “That’s what the NCAA’s looking for.”

The men’s basketball team has not fared as well.

USC’s multiyear average was 899, which subjected the Gamecocks to both immediate and historical penalties, which are imposed on teams with scores of 900 or lower.

Realizing it would be below the 925 threshold, USC took its scholarship hit a year early when it did not replace the scholarship lost when forward Mike Jones was dismissed from the university a year ago.

The Gamecocks avoided a public reprimand, the sanction for a first-time historical penalty, when the NCAA granted their appeal.

Under former coach Dave Odom, the Gamecocks’ multiyear APR average dropped from 917 in 2004-05 to 899 this past year. USC is one of 19 schools that were below 900 to receive a waiver.

Schools falling below 900 must file an academic improvement plan to the NCAA. USC’s plan includes three components that the school has already implemented with the football and men’s basketball teams:

 sending an academic adviser to away games to conduct study-hall sessions during trips;

 strengthening its class attendance policy;

 conducting more one-on-one interviews with prospects during the admissions process.

The Gamecocks’ baseball team came in at 929. The score was impacted by the dismissals last year of Lonnie Chisenhall and Nick Fuller following their arrests for stealing property and money on campus.

The men’s track team made the biggest jump, improving its multiyear average from 908 — a score that could have brought penalties last year if not for a small sample size adjustment — to 931.

“Coaches are starting to understand it much better,” USC faculty athletics representative Bill Bearden said. “It’s especially going to help with retention. Part of that is taking in stronger students that are engaged in their studies.”

With the conditional waivers USC received, Stiles said the school must reach the benchmarks it set for next year’s APR or risk getting penalized retroactively.

Reach Person at (803) 771-8496.

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