Kentucky has granted an unconditional release to disgruntled freshman guard Joe Crawford, but the McDonald's All-American still has some obstacles in his path on his way out of Lexington.
The UK release applies to Crawford's scholarship and allows him to pursue discussions with any other program he chooses. However, the school is not inclined to waive the player's national letter-of-intent at this time, according to UK media relations director Scott Stricklin.
"It's an unusual situation," Stricklin said. "The fear is, let's not step into something.
"If we would let (Crawford) out, it would be precedent-setting. No kid has asked out mid-season since this new rule was in place. And once you do it once, the precedent would be set to do it henceforth. The concern of the school is that… for a program of this magnitude, it would allow guys to come and try out and just leave if they didn't like it."
Freshmen who sign letters-of-intent are bound to that agreement through their first year in college. If they leave prior to the end of their freshman season, they face losing a year of eligibility.
Crawford, a 6-foot-4 shooting guard from Detroit, informed UK of his intent to transfer on Monday, a day after playing only three minutes in a 65-59 loss to Kansas. He had played in all 12 games for the Wildcats this season, averaging the sixth-highest minutes (13.3) on the team, but had struggled to show the shooting skills (35 percent overall, 20 percent 3-point range, 46 percent free throw) that made him one of the nation's most heavily recruited players in the Class of 2004.
In the past, the one-year eligibility penalty was automatically enforced by the NLI board, but starting this season, schools were granted the option of waiving the rule.
Kentucky now finds itself in the uncomfortable position of having to deal with one of the first high-profile cases.
"We want to protect our own interest," Stricklin said. "We made a commitment to the player, and a coach would not revoke a scholarship after 12 games if the player wasn't performing well. We're asking the same thing of a student-athlete, which is why the national letter-of-intent is set up that way.
"It's not about Joe Crawford, from the university's standpoint. It's what's a fair expectation for the university. Will they give it one year? What's a reasonable amount of time? Is 12 games into your freshman year all a school should expect?"
Stricklin said the rule also helps discourage other programs from "tampering" with players who may be unhappy at their current school. He said if UK set a new precedent, other programs would know up front what to expect.
According to Stricklin, UK has not communicated a formal decision to the Crawford family, who were in Lexington on Monday to discuss the matter with head coach Tubby Smith and athletics department officials.
"But they understand the issues," he said.
There is an appeals process in place with the NLI board. Four athletes – none of them basketball players – have left their respective schools as mid-term freshmen. Only one asked for an appeal, according to what NLI officials told UK, and it was denied.
If Crawford leaves without the waiver, he will face a significant loss of his college eligibility. He'll have two and a half years available to complete one and a half years of eligibility. The penalty would simply mean he'll be a junior when he resumes his college career, rather than a sophomore.
Had he completed this season at UK, he would have to sit out the mandatory one year for transfers, but have a full three years eligibility remaining.
Stricklin also noted the difference in the Crawford case and two other former UK players – Marvin Stone and Bernard Cote. The NLI only binds freshman players. Once the freshman year is completed, a player can transfer without penalty, pending the conditions of the scholarship release from the school.