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Ben Frederickson is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. You can follow him on Twitter (Ben_Fred), Instagram (benfredpd) and Facebook (BenFredPD).

Illinois State vs Evansville Missouri Valley men's basketball tournament in St. Louis

Evansville's Dru Smith (front), who will play for Mizzou next season, and Illinois State's DJ Clayton battle for the ball during a March 2017 game at the MVC Tournament in St. Louis. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

It sounds like the Missouri men’s basketball team might be without its best player this season.

We’re not talking about Jontay Porter’s season-ending knee injury, either.

On Friday, Mizzou announced Illinois transfer Mark Smith received an NCAA waiver that granted him immediate eligibility.

Those in the know suggest the silence surrounding another transfer named Smith spoke volumes.

There is grumbling behind closed doors.

Evansville transfer Dru Smith might be the best college basketball player on the Tigers’ roster at the moment. Not the best NBA prospect. And not the best in terms of potential as a college player. But the best college player right now. And it looks like the guard who averaged 13.7 points and 4.6 assists last season is going to have to sit this season.

Yes, a season on the bench for Dru Smith would be in accordance with the NCAA’s archaic rules. Let’s make that clear up front. But these rules are shifting before our eyes. And Dru Smith’s argument for wanting to play immediately at Mizzou seems to be a convincing one, considering the NCAA’s newfound leniency when it comes to transfers.

Dru Smith changed schools after Evansville changed coaches. Other college basketball players who have made that decision have received waivers. Yet Dru Smith’s initial request was denied. Why?

Don’t blame the NCAA for this one.

The answer is Evansville.

The NCAA denied Mizzou’s initial attempt to secure a waiver for Dru Smith. A source close to the player confirmed Monday that Evansville did not cooperate with the waiver request. An Evansville spokesman declined to comment on the program’s stance. It was unclear Monday if Mizzou can challenge the NCCA ruling.

There is a lot of he-said, he-said going on between Mizzou and Evansville. That’s common in these situations. But the big picture seems clear. Evansville changed coaches because it wanted a fresh start, but it does not think Dru Smith deserves the same. The Purple Aces have planted a petty flag.

Increasingly, the NCAA is scaling back transfer restrictions. An area of emphasis should be establishing immediate eligibility for players who want to go elsewhere after the coach they agreed to play for leaves. Coaches jump jobs for more money. Teams fire coaches at will. Why should the players be punished?

Evansville did not lose Evansville native Dru Smith because he wanted to jump levels. This is not an example of a growing fish seeking a bigger pond. Evansville lost Dru Smith because it fired Marty Simmons and failed to persuade Dru Smith to play for Walter McCarty, the new Evansville coach Dru Smith had no say in hiring.

Please spare me the argument about not getting to pick your own boss. It will apply when student athletes become paid employees.

Simmons rebounded as a Clemson special assistant. McCarty is ready to roll. Dru Smith has to sit for a season at Mizzou. Isn’t something wrong with this picture?

The softening of the NCAA’s stance on transfers suggests so. Just look around — starting with a recent headline on the NCAA’s own website that proclaimed the “Top 15 transfers to watch this college basketball season.”

Siena transfer Jordan Horn will play immediately at North Dakota State. He transferred after Siena coach Jimmy Patsos resigned.

Washington transfer Carlos Johnson will play immediately at Grand Canyon. He went to Washington to play for former UW coach Lorenzo Romar but did not leave for Grand Canyon until his playing time decreased under new UW coach Mike Hopkins. Grand Canyon coach Dan Majerle sounded legitimately surprised Johnson’s waiver request was granted. “No idea,” Majerle told The Arizona Republic when asked what reasons were given. “We just filed.”

Alabama transfer Braxton Key will play immediately at Virginia. Auburn transfer Mustapha Heron will play immediately at St John’s. Providence transfer Dajour Dickens got the green light at Old Dominion. None of these three players could cite losing a coach as a reason to relocate. None was blocked by his former school.

Examples that should put pressure on Evansville are piling up. Here are two more telling ones:

Let’s start with Mark Smith. The former Mr. Basketball from Edwardsville clashed with Illini coach Brad Underwood’s system last year. He flashed early, then floundered — in part because he was sick for parts of the season. For reasons known only to Illinois, Smith and Mizzou, all parties agreed it was best for Smith to move on without the punishment of a sit-out season. Mizzou athletics director Jim Sterk has publicly praised the Illinois athletics department, specifically AD Josh Whitman, for working with Mizzou during Mark Smith’s waiver process.

I wonder what Sterk would say about Evansville athletics director Mark Spencer.

There are always unknown details in these dramas, but from the outside looking in, it seems that Illinois went out of its way to do what was best for a student athlete. That’s a good look.

Mizzou can say it does the same.

The Tigers cooperated with N.C. State’s request to secure immediate eligibility for former Mizzou guard Blake Harris, who was cleared to play for the Wolfpack this season. Like Mark Smith, Harris could not cite a coaching change as a reason for changing teams. He just wasn’t happy at Mizzou. The Tigers moved on. They helped Harris do the same.

It’s not hard for teams to do the right thing.

Why is Evansville doing the opposite?

The Purple Aces should reconsider their stance, if it’s not too late.


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