Shaq, Isner highlight returners under NCAA’s ‘graduate exception’ rule

Bennett, Virginia stand pat as April 3 deadline draws near

Shaquille O’Neal is headed back to Louisiana State University, but don’t ask him to hold a clipboard or wear a tie.

The personable big man — dubbed “The Big Aristotle,” “Mayor McShaq” and just plain “Diesel,” among other extra-large nicknames — will suit up in the purple and gold next year as the Tigers’ starting center.

“Dunk on Kentucky coach John Calipari and stuff a free throw,” O’Neal said in an exclusive interview with The Cavalier Daily. “Those are my two biggest goals.”

But it’s not just O’Neal coming back to college ball.

Under the NCAA’s new ‘graduate exception’ rule, every team in the country gets a roster spot for an alumnus — even if he or she has already exhausted his or her NCAA eligibility.

At 55, Earvin “Magic” Johnson is ready for another go at Michigan State. And WNBA legend Lisa Leslie should be plenty comfortable as USC’s backup center.

“Backup?” Leslie said. “Trojans coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke has another thing coming.”

But we’re not just talking basketball here. American tennis star John Isner, who graduated from Georgia in 2006, is leaving the ATP World Tour for another run at the NCAA Championship.

“The Bulldogs will roar,” Isner said. “Before, I was just a 6-foot-9 college kid. I’m still 6-foot-9, but now my serve’s a guillotine.”

The question is, who will Virginia enlist?

Puzzlingly, the Cavaliers have yet to make a move.

“For me, what we’ve got here is an ethical dilemma,” Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett said. “We’ve got a saying up in Wisconsin about ‘if your friend jumps off a bridge…’ You know, we’ve got to stay true to what got us here.”

Duke and North Carolina fans roundly applauded Bennett’s words. So did Michael Jordan, who’s returning to Chapel Hill for the chance to team with Marcus Paige.

“I’d rather play that Jack Salt kid than Ralph Sampson,” Jordan said Tuesday at The Pav, where he snacked on Sun Chips and a cheese quesadilla.

Virginia fans are less than pleased. Minnesota Lynx guard Monica Wright and Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman both expressed interest in coming back to Charlottesville. No dice.

“No comment,” Athletics Director Craig Littlepage said in an impromptu press conference at The Park. “Actually, I do have a comment. This rule is ridiculous, and I quit.”

Littlepage later explained that he is not actually quitting. He was just frustrated, he said.

“It’s something I’ve gotten used to saying,” Littlepage said. “Just a nervous tick, like scratching your shoulder blades. You know what I mean?”

With the April 3 deadline to lock in alumni approaching fast, Virginia doesn’t have much time to get in the game. Fortunately, O’Hill’s Double-swipe Dean has a solution.

“I have a plan,” he said, tapping his head with two student IDs. “It’s all up here.”

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