FAIRBANKS -- The Pacific West Conference is checking into the eligibility of a player from Southeast Alaska on the Montana State-Billings team and the outcome of the investigation could have an impact on the post-season hopes of the University of Alaska Fairbanks men's basketball team.
Nate Strong, a 25-year-old 6-foot-5 sophomore forward on the Yellowjackets, might not be eligible if he previously was enrolled at UAF. If Strong, who is from Tenakee Springs, is ruled to be an ineligible player the Yellowjackets could wind up forfeiting wins from this season, including a victory over UAF in Billings.
``It is being looked into,'' Pac West Conference media relations contact Cameron Bjornstad said. ``If a player is ineligible his team could end up forfeiting wins.''
UAF's postseason chances would change if Strong was ruled ineligible and MSU-Billings had to forfeit its wins from the season. UAF currently needs to win two games -- against Hawaii Pacific on Thursday (UAF did win 75-55) and against BYU-Hawaii at 4 p.m. Saturday -- and have BYU-Hawaii lose to Alaska Anchorage (UAA won 78-64) in order to win the Pacific Division and guarantee a spot in the conference playoffs.
If the Nanooks don't win the division they would have to rely on a complicated rating formula to earch a conference berth and the chances of that happening are slim at best.
However, the Nanooks have been gaining ground in the NCAA Division II power rankings and are now ranked No. 10 in the region. There is a chance that UAF could earn a berth in the NCAA Division II Western Regionals without playing in the conference tournaments. Different formulas are used to determine participants in the two tournaments.
If UAF received a forfeit win from MSU-Billings, the Nanooks would control their own destiny. BYU-Hawaii beat MSU-Billings in their only meeting this season.
Amidst all the confusion between the Strong situation and the different formulas used to determine who plays where in the postseason.
``For the past two months the focus has been to just iwn and everything else will take of itself,'' Sokaitis said as he prepared his team for Thursday night's showdown with Hawaii-Pacific.
``We're in the midst of something special here,'' the coach added. ``We were picked to finish 11th and we're playing for the conference championship this week and that's how we're approaching the game with Hawaii Pacific.''
Bjornstad said that there is no time-table for completing the Pac West's investigation into the matter, meaning the ruling could happen after teams have already been invited to participate in the conference tournament.
Sokaitis said that his understanding was that a ruling could be forthcoming as soon as sometime Thursday.
According to NCAA rules regarding transfer players, a player that attended a four-year university and then dropped out to go to a two-year school, must either graduate from the two-year college before going on to play basketball at a different four-year school or the player must go back to the fouryear school he was originally enrolled at.
Strong is from Tenakee Springs near Juneau. He attended Skagit Valley Community College for one year before transferring to Montana State-Billings this season. University records appear to indicate he attended UAF.
``There was a Nathan Strong that was here for school for a year-and-a-half,'' UAF athletic director Randy Pitney said. ``I can not at this point say for sure it is the same Nathan Strong.''
Strong apparently tried out for the UAF team when it was coached by George Roderick, but never played for the Nanooks.
``He was definitely at UAF. His brother, Gabe Strong, was there, too,'' Roderick said. ``They both were there. Nate Strong tried out for the team when I was coaching. I can't put my finger on what year exactly it was, but it was in the early 90s. I know he was (at UAF) for at least one semester.''
Roderick said Strong did not make the team, but would have been put on a club squad or the equivalent of a freshman team, and he stood a good chance of playing for the Nanooks in the ensuing years.
Although Strong did not play at UAF, he would still be declared ineligible by the NCAA's 4-2-4 rule. The rule says a school only needs to offer an equivalent program to the one the player is currently enrolled in, the player need not have played at the first four-year school he attended.
Montana State-Billings lost 99-59 at UAF last Saturday with Strong scoring 12 points. Strong had 41 points in Billings' 111-82 win over UAF on Jan. 8.
``I saw the game the other night, he certainly has matured a lot,'' Roderick said. ``I would not have recognized him if I didn't have a number and a roster. But there is no doubt about it, Nate Strong definitely attended the university when I was there.''
Sokaitis said he talked to MSUBillings coach Craig Carse about Strong before this weekend's games.
``I said I wish we still had him, and (Carse) said he never went to school there,'' Sokaitis said. ``Carse called (Strong) into his office and asked him if he went to UAF and he said no, he never went there.
``At the game numerous people came up to me and said not only did he go here, he was cut from the team,'' Sokaitis added. ``At that point you have to follow up.''