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Punishment yet to arrive, but UNC already feeling pain

It’s going to be months before the NCAA decides if and how it’s going to penalize North Carolina for the academic fraud outlined in the Notice of Allegations released earlier this month. Even without official sanctions, the Tar Heels are already starting to pay the price.

Allisha Gray, the leading scorer on the women’s basketball team last season, was this week given permission to explore a transfer. Her reasoning was undisclosed, but the Notice of Allegations made it clear that whatever punishment North Carolina faces, the women’s basketball program is going to bear the brunt of it.

If Gray indeed transfers, she’ll be the third member of North Carolina’s 2013 recruiting class to leave the team, a class ranked No. 1 by ESPNW. National freshman of the year Diamond DeShields transferred to Tennessee in search of a better fit a year ago, and Jessica Washington left this spring seeking more playing time. Only Stephanie Mavunga is left.

Throw in assistant coach Ivory Latta, who recently left the staff to focus on her pro career, and the Carmichael Arena exit has gotten a workout. Their collective departures would gut a team that came within a game of the Final Four two years ago, reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament this season and now faces what figure to be very significant NCAA sanctions.

The NCAA has yet to drop the hammer, but women’s basketball is feeling the pain now — and that team is far from alone.

Women’s basketball is discovering now what the football and basketball teams have known for some time: Laboring under the threat and shadow of NCAA sanctions is almost as difficult as sanctions themselves.

Roy Williams this spring lamented his inability to get top prospects to visit the campus, let alone sign them, a staggering admission for a coach who at Kansas and North Carolina routinely landed the best players in the country. Kinston’s Brandon Ingram, the state’s top-ranked player, said the threat of sanctions was a significant factor in choosing Duke over North Carolina in April.

It was the latest recruiting miss for the Tar Heels, who don’t have a top-50 recruit for next season and only added a second commitment because he was released from his letter of intent to Virginia Commonwealth when Shaka Smart left. (Things are looking up for 2017, with top-10 prospect Jalek Felton already committed.)

Williams wasn’t named specifically in the Notice of Allegations, but the basketball program figured heavily in the supporting evidence, raising questions about what penalties it could face.

It’s something football has been dealing with since the first NCAA investigators arrived on campus five years ago, both explicitly and implicitly. Larry Fedora, after enduring the scholarship restrictions imposed by the initial NCAA sanctions three years ago, has continued to battle negative recruiting as the further investigation into widespread academic fraud has dragged on. “An all-time high,” Fedora said on signing day.

“It’s something that’s going to continue to happen until we get it all straightened out,” Fedora said

In Fedora’s first season, immediately after the sanctions were handed down, the Tar Heels missed out on a chance to play for the ACC championship in 2012 after going 8-4 because of the postseason ban imposed by the NCAA, a year after they declined to self-impose a ban. The program has yet to return to that level since, going 7-6 and 6-7 over the next two seasons.

No matter what the NCAA decides, there’s no question five years of scandal has taken a collective toll on North Carolina’s athletic performance as the university’s failure to get to the bottom of the academic fraud in a timely fashion has allowed it to fester.

In the 2013-14 academic year, North Carolina failed to win an ACC championship in any sport for the first time since ever. That may be mere coincidence. But as the NCAA process winds to its inevitable close, the Tar Heels already know what that punishment is going to feel like — except it’s probably going to be even worse.