All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.
Billy Baron wasn’t supposed to play at Canisius.
Near the end of his post-graduate year at Worcester Academy in 2010 and after much deliberation of whether to play for his father, Jim, at the University of Rhode Island, or at a bigger basketball school, Baron elected to play for Tony Bennett at Virginia.
He was supposed to be a staple in the Cavaliers’ backcourt and, notching 19 points in Virginia’s season-opening game against William & Mary, the future looked bright for Baron. Ultimately, as the season unfolded, Baron’s playing time dwindled leading him to transfer back to his home state of Rhode Island to play for his father. The decision was not easy and one he wrestled with before deciding that for the betterment of his basketball career, transferring was the best move.
Baron told NBCSports.com by phone: “Obviously, transferring wasn’t the plan, but it motivated me a tremendous amount, more than I ever thought that I could be motivated. I met a lot of great people [at Virginia] and still stay in touch with the coaching staff. I keep in contact with Joe Harris; he’ll be one of my best friends for life…Transferring was just a wall to get over. It set a bar for me and motivated me.”
When Baron transferred to Rhode Island, he was able to play right away for his father who had led the Rams to four straight 20+ win seasons and postseason appearances. It was a program where Baron’s older brother, Jimmy, was a four-year letter winner for and one of the school’s top three-point shooters in history.
Billy grew up around the Rhode Island basketball program with his father having coached there beginning in 2001, when Billy was just ten years old. It was a homecoming of sorts when he transferred to URI, which is why when his father was fired at the conclusion of the 2011-12 season finishing out the academic year was such a difficult task.
“I would have never transferred to URI if I thought my Dad only had one year [left as coach]. It came as a complete shock to me after we lost to UMass in the final game of the year when he told me he got fired at 8:00 AM the next morning; I was completely shocked. I had to finish the semester there, walk from class to class, go to lunch – you know it was just extremely tough knowing my father wasn’t there. Rhode Island really became a part of the family with my brother playing there and dad coaching – when I was the only one left, I knew I couldn’t stay.”
It didn’t take long for a school to scoop up Jim Baron. Just weeks after he was fired at Rhode Island, Canisius hired Baron in early April of 2012. That summer, Billy transferred to Canisius where he was granted immediate eligibility. It has been a whirlwind of a college basketball career, but Billy has found a home at Canisius.
“When I tell you that I was motivated more than ever after transferring from Virginia, now I was at a whole new level. I had to back my father up. I’m so thankful that Canisius welcomed me with open arms and believe in me like they did with my father. I can’t tell you how good it feels to be back at Canisius for a second year, and not have to go through that whole process again of building relationships with teammates and learning my way around a new school.”
Now that he had found a home, it was time to win. Baron was part of a 16-15 team during his lone season at Virginia, and then a 7-24 team at Rhode Island. Entering a program who won just five games in 2011-12, winning was becoming a foreign concept.
That quickly changed. Canisius posted solid early-season wins against Boston University and St. Bonaventure, but their signature win that garnered the attention of the college basketball community came against Temple, a 72-62 victory to move to 8-2 on the season.
“I think I had forgotten the feeling, a little bit, of what it was like to win,” Baron said. “As a team, we weren’t all that surprised that we won 20 games, although I am sure that everyone outside of our locker room was, and why not after winning just five games the year prior.”
Canisius went 12-12 to close out the season, which was a minor disappointment given their hot start. Considering they improved their record by 15 wins though, last season should be viewed as nothing short of a success — the Barons helped to turn around the program in just a season. Billy is hardly satisfied, though: “If you look at the schedule [last year], we beat Temple, but then kind of struggled down the stretch. We weren’t able to win more than three games in a row and lost a lot of close games that we didn’t know how to close out…To go from five wins to 20 wins was great, but now it’s got to carry over from 20 to 25 to even 30. That’s something I feel we can do.”
The ultimate goal, as is the case for many mid-major programs in the country, is to win the league championship and advance to the NCAA Tournament — something Canisius hasn’t accomplished since 1996.
There was no questioning Canisius’ offensive ability last season as they averaged 73.5 ppg (41st nationally), but the defense proved to be the Achilles heel. Baron explained that improvement on the defensive end is an absolute must to reach that next level: “It’s really going to start on the defensive end. When you look back at that Iona game [in the MAAC tournament], we lost 89-85 and, even though it’s Iona, you can’t give up 89 points and expect to win. Getting key stops in the second half to close teams out – getting scores after those stops – is so important. It has to be a full team effort on the defensive end.”
Expectations are, no doubt, much higher this year than last. In the MAAC preseason poll, Canisius was picked to finish third in the 11 team conference behind Manhattan and Iona, but that’s just fine, according to Baron: “Being picked to finish third in the conference, we are kind of behind the scenes which is perfect for us. With Iona and Manhattan picked ahead of us, we are fine staying behind the scenes and then hopefully get hot come March.”
The U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of New York dropped a bombshell on the college basketball world Tuesday morning.
Ten people, including four assistant coaches at major programs, financial planners, agents and decision-makers at Adidas, were arrested on fraud and corruption charges.
And frankly, those ten people are not the big deal.
This is a network of influencers that got caught up in the fallout when a financial planner that became a cooperating witness after he was caught by the Securities and Exchange Commission misusing more than $2.3 million of professional athlete’s money that he was charged with investing.
That financial planner, who is named Louis Martin Blazer III, and a runner named Christian Dawkins worked with these four assistant coaches to line up potential clients for the agency that Dawkins worked for. “Worked with” is a friendly way to phrase it; Dawkins and Blazer, along with another financial planner, would line up bribes for the coaches in order for them to exert their influence on the athletes they coach. For a measly $2,000, you can (allegedly) get a meeting with a prospective client during a team’s road trip to West Virginia!
That’s not all that was in the three complaints that were filed on Tuesday.
Blazer was also in the room, along with an undercover FBI agent, when a deal was struck between Jim Gatto, a powerful executive with Adidas, and Louisville coaches that – again, allegedly – facilitated the commitment of Brian Bowen, a five-star prospect, to the Cardinals. Louisville is sponsored by Adidas.
But that’s not what makes this burgeoning scandal such a black eye for the sport of college basketball.
This, from a still-undercover FBI agent, is: “Because this affidavit is being submitted for the limited purpose of establishing probable cause, it does not include all of the facts that I have learned during the court of the investigation.”
This, from U.S. Attorney Joon Kim, is, too: “Our investigation is ongoing. And we are currently conducting interviews.”
The FBI already has recordings. They have video tapes. They had an undercover agent embedded with Blazer sitting in on these meetings. They have hard evidence. This isn’t sloppy. There is no guess work here. There is a reason the Feds almost always get a conviction.
What else do they know?
What other coaches do they have on tape?
What other deals do they have on video?
Because the hard truth is this: Dawkins did not deal with just four coaches. Gatto did not deal only with Louisville. This may only be the beginning, and those that were arrested today haven’t even been interrogated yet. Blazer likely won’t end up being the only person involved in this investigation to become a witness.
The question now is whether or not this is something that the public at-large is going to be able to come to grips with. None of this information is new. We’ve known that shoe companies play a role in where many of the elite talents end up going to college. We’ve known that agents have relationships with different coaching staffs and AAU programs. And we’ve known that the NCAA’s artificial attempts to put a stop to basic economic principles – supply and demand, capitalism – and human instinct – greed – were always doomed to fail.
Now look at the schools that have been caught up in this scandal already. Book Richardson was an assistant coach at Arizona, who is a preseason top-three team in college basketball. USC, where Tony Bland is an assistant coach, is a preseason top-ten team. Lamont Evans is now an assistant coach at Oklahoma State, but he was previously at South Carolina, who is tied up in the complaints just five months after reaching their first Final Four. Auburn, a school that has a scandal-plagued history with the NCAA, is where Chuck Person is employed by Bruce Pearl, who has his own NCAA history to deal with.
And that is before we get into Louisville, an historically-great program with a Hall of Fame head coach that is currently, as we speak, in the midst of an appeal regarding the NCAA sanctions they were given for a scandal that involved an assistant coach paying for hookers and strippers for recruits. That could end up costing Louisville their 2012 Final Four and their 2013 National Title.
North Carolina isn’t mentioned in any of the complaints, but they are the reigning champions and currently facing their own NCAA ordeal, one that could cost them the 2005 national title.
The best way I’ve been able to describe Tuesday’s revelations of a federal investigation into fraud and corruption in college basketball has been “shocking yet not surprising.”
It is truly astonishing to read through the pages of the charging documents in which the government lays out a case in incredible detail of the system in which money changes hands between shoe companies, middlemen, assistant coaches, financial advisers, agents and anyone else who can insert themselves into this apparently lucrative setup. The federal government says it has audio of discussions about this corruption. They claim to have video of in-person meetings. They’ve got a cooperating witness, multiple undercover agents and wiretaps that they say illuminates what otherwise operated in the shadows.
It’s the light here that’s shocking, as we long suspected what was happening under the cover of night. To finally see it up close and in person, in federal court papers, takes your breath away.
But are we really surprised that what’s been whispered about, suggested and assumed is, apparently, actually taking place? Of course not. And for a lot of reasons.
The most obvious cause is simply the money at stake.
On the college side, there are tens of millions of dollars flowing through athletic departments from television contracts, donations, ticket sales, merchandise and whatever else schools can slap a price tag on. That money translates into multi-million dollar contracts for head coaches and six-figure deals for assistants, who are in turn chasing those multi-million dollar head coaching jobs in large part on their ability to secure top-end talent. Coaches don’t move up the ladder without players.
On the financial side, once players go pro, there are potentially hundreds of millions up for grabs. With agents in line to grab a percentage of contracts and endorsements and financial advisors potentially managing those nine-figure sums, there is considerable dough to be made.
What was on display today in those charging documents, though, was the black market largely created by amateurism.
By shutting the door on players getting paid – either by schools or outside entities – NCAA rules have created space for these illicit activities to not only exist, but apparently become commonplace, if you want to take assistant FBI director William Sweeney at his word.
“We have your playbook,” Sweeney said of larger-scale investigation into corruption in hoops.
If players could be paid, again not just necessarily by schools but by third parties, there would be no need to pass the money off through middlemen whose only real asset is proximity to talent and youth whose NCAA eligibility depends on not taking money over the table. If an agent could take a prospect out to a steak dinner, give him a Rolex and some walking around money as a gesture to later get him to sign, there is less oxygen for third-party middlemen. If players got a piece of apparel contracts, there’s less incentive for sneaker companies to buy their loyalty illicitly.
With the money at stake here, it would probably be impossible to ever legislate or prosecute away shadiness and corruption, but NCAA amateurism rules create an ecosystem for the slimiest organisms to survive and thrive. It takes agency away from players and even institutions to police their sport. How can a school – or even the NCAA at large – be expected to rein in multi-billion dollar shoe companies? Or keep tabs on cash transactions that take place in Los Angeles, Morgantown, Miami and anywhere else an agent, coach, sleaze or slimeball can fly with a thick envelope? It took the feds a cooperating witness, undercover agents and wiretaps to get done. The NCAA doesn’t, and never will, have those tools at its disposal.
This isn’t to excuse or minimize the alleged crimes committed here. These adults knew what they were doing. They, allegedly, made their own choices with at least a theoretical understanding of the potential consequences. They’re the symptom of what amateurism has created, though.
The money big-time college basketball generates is real. It’s also partially artificially inflated because by the simple fact of cutting players – and their families – out, there’s that same amount of cash with fewer people to claim it. That allows things to get ugly, first on the fringes and then further and further to the center of things as the practice becomes a playbook.
Outlaw something and you create outlaws. Fighting the power of capitalism and the simple economic principle of supply and demand is always going to be in a losing effort. Most of the time that tradeoff is acceptable and necessary. Keeping cash out of young basketball players’ hands to prop up an antiquated amateurism model in which so many people get so much doesn’t seem like a trade worth making.
To see the FBI invade the space of college basketball is truly shocking.
Given how that space has been allowed to fester for years though, it’s not really all that surprising.
USC hires former FBI director Freeh, Tony Bland placed on leave
Louisville and USC have both released statements the bombshell news this morning that four assistant coaches were among ten people that were arrested by the FBI, who were investigating corruption in college and high school basketball.
USC announced that they have hired former FBI director Louis Freeh to conduct “an internal investigation into this matter so that we can take action quickly and appropriately.” Tony Bland, the assistant coach that was accused of wrongdoing, has been placed on immediate administrative leave.
“This morning, we reached out proactively to both the NCAA and the FBI to pledge our full cooperation and to learn more details,” the statement reads. “Everyone associated with the program will cooperate fully with these investigations and will assist authorities as needed.”
Louisville Interim President Greg Postel issued the following statement:
“Today, the University of Louisville received notice that it is included in a federal investigation involving criminal activity related to men’s basketball recruiting,” the statement read. “While we are just learning about this information, this is a serious concern that goes to the heart of our athletic department and the university. UofL is committed to ethical behavior and adherence to NCAA rules; any violations will not be tolerated. We will cooperate fully with any law enforcement or NCAA investigation into the matter.”
Auburn suspends Chuck Person without pay over fraud, corruption allegations
Auburn announced on Tuesday afternoon that assistant coach Chuck Person has been suspended without pay by the university.
“This morning’s news is shocking,” the statement reads. “We are saddened, angry and disappointed. We have suspended Coach Person without pay effective immediately. We are committed to playing by the rules, and that’s what we expect from our coaches. In the meantime, Auburn is working closely with law enforcement, and we will help them in their investigation in any way we can.”
Person was charged with six federal crimes this morning by the U.S. District Attorney for allegedly taking bribes of more than $50,000 to steer players, presumably Austin Wiley, to a financial advisor, an agent and a suit-designer.
The Enigma of Miles Bridges: Inside the ‘weirdo’s’ decision to return to Michigan State
Tom Izzo knows just how fortunate he is that Miles Bridges was born in Michigan State’s backyard.
He knows all too well that it’s unusual for Michigan State to beat out programs like Kentucky for a recruit. He knows how fortuitous it is for his program that the future lottery pick they were able to beat Kentucky for just so happens to be a remnant of the past, a relic of a foregone era that values friendship and loyalty and the life lessons that he’ll learn by spending another year in East Lansing over getting rich quick.
Izzo knows all of that.
“You writers got fancy terms,” he said, chuckling, after he was told that his star pupil will be named the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year. “My term: he’s a ******* weirdo.”
“I know this, one way or another, he’s an unbelievable kid,” Izzo added. “He’s a quiet kid. I don’t know if he’s a great interview, because he hates talking about himself. It’s one of his goals, but if you were sitting in front of him he would tell you about three teammates that were better than him.”
In fact, that is precisely what Bridges did. He told me that Josh Langford, who doubles as Bridges’ roommate and one of his best friends in the world, is “the best shooting guard in the nation”; that Cassius Winston was “one of the top guards”; that Kyle Ahrens is an incredible teammate that was happier Bridges was returning than anyone despite the fact that he and Bridges play the same position. When Bridges told his teammates that he would be returning to school for his sophomore season, they celebrated – Ahrens included – like they had just won a title despite the fact that Bridges’ presence on the roster cost everyone shots and many of them minutes.
That’s why Bridges loves Michigan State and the Spartan family. Everything about it. His coach, his teammates, his friends, his fans, his chance to be a kid. He also knows the history of the program. He’s friends with Draymond Green and Denzel Valentine and Gary Harris. He talks to them regularly. He knows how they’re viewed in the annals of Breslin Center lore.
And he knows that none of them will ever be up to par with Magic Johnson and Mateen Cleaves, the two Spartans that brought national titles back to East Lansing.
That’s the legacy he wants to leave.
“The only way I’m going to leave a stamp on the program is winning a national championship,” Bridges said. “The two guys that did it, Magic and Mateen, they’re never forgotten here. When we talk about winning, we talk about them two.”
That has been the goal since the first day he arrived on campus.
It’s why all the talk about his decision frustrates him.
“I never really had one and done in my mind. My whole focus was on wining a national championship,” Bridges said. “I never really made a decision to leave or to stay because staying was always in my head if we didn’t win the national championship.”
Miles Bridges is not a trailblazer. It’s uncommon for a one-and-done lottery pick to return to school, but it’s hardly unheard of. Marcus Smart did it. Harrison Barnes did it. Jared Sullinger, Perry Jones III, Ivan Rabb. He isn’t even the only player to make that decision this year; Texas A&M’s Robert Williams skipped out on the chance to be a lottery pick as well.
What sets Bridges apart from the rest of that group is there is more inherent risk in his decision.
Part of it has to due with his athleticism. His explosiveness and his quickness for someone his size is what makes him such an intriguing prospect. He’s more than capable offensively, but being ‘more than capable offensively’ while having the springs to protect the rim and the versatility to play and defend multiple positions is why he’s a commodity. He was built to play in today’s NBA, but if – God forbid – he were to pop his Achilles’ or blow out his knee, the impact that losing a step or a few inches off his vertical would have is much greater than if it were to happen to, say, Jayson Tatum or Lonzo Ball.
He’s putting a lot of guaranteed money at risk by delaying the NBA for a year. Bridges has reportedly taken out an insurance policy to protect himself in case of a catastrophic injury – the maximum the NCAA allows for is $10 million – but for a guy who looks to have a 12-to-15 year career waiting for him, that may not be 10 percent of his career earnings.
Injury is not the only risk Bridges faces.
To be frank, returning to school has almost always proven not to work out for a player whose draft stock is measured in potential. An extra year on campus means an extra season to poke holes in his game. Instead of picturing a world where that player reaches his ceiling, scouts have 12 months to break down what he can’t do and where he has yet to improve. You’re far more likely to be Melo Trimble than you are Blake Griffin if you return to school.
This is what Izzo wanted Bridges to understand.
This is why he kept trying to convince Bridges to listen to what people in the business had to say. Declare for the draft. Test the waters. Talk to NBA teams. Educate yourself before you decide.
“I told him no over and over again,” Bridges said. After Michigan State’s season ended, a loss to Kansas in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Izzo spent the better part of three weeks in Bridges’ ear. “It was probably after our third meeting, him asking me if I really wanted to stay. I just told him, ‘Coach, I don’t want to leave. I said, ‘I actually wrote down my goals and what I want to do at Michigan State and I’m not leaving until I accomplish those goals.'”
“And really, it’s the first time that I actually got mad at coach, and he realized it.”
The dynamic doesn’t make sense.
A Hall of Fame head coach trying to convince one of, if not the best player in college basketball that he shouldn’t play for him, that returning to school would be the wrong step to take.
Part of it is self-preservation. Izzo – and Bridges – know what the former’s reputation is at the college level. Michigan State is not Kentucky. It’s not Arizona or Duke or Kansas. That’s not the school to go to if you’re goal is to jump to the NBA as quickly as possible. Fair or not, that’s the way that the way that the Spartans are viewed.
“Our program isn’t going to force anyone out,” assistant coach Dane Fife said. “Izzo gives families and kids and people that he’s close to the best information that’s available. Experts, college guys, former players. Get them the best unbiased opinions possible and let them make that choice.”
With Deyonta Davis, Michigan State lost a piece that could have changed the course of the 2016-17 season after he was taken with the first pick in the second round of the 2016 NBA Draft. With Gary Harris, it meant that the Spartans got a player back that put them in a position to make a run at the 2014 national title. Harris dropped to 19th in the 2014 NBA Draft, but he not only was the youngest sophomore to get selected – he didn’t turn 19 until November of his sophomore season, making him younger than many of the freshmen that were picked that year – that extra time on campus helped him mature and get ready to be a professional; is it a coincidence that Harris, who has earned just under $5 million in his three years in the NBA, is getting ready to sign an extension that could top $20 million annually?
“Where you get picked is your ego, not where you’re going to end up,” Izzo said, and he wanted to make sure that Bridges understood this point. The real money is made when you sign that second contract. “You’re better off being picked 7th and going to the right team than being picked first and going to the wrong one.”
“I did a three week study on him to say, ‘Are you sure?'” Izzo continued. “There’s no question in my mind, there’s no remorse. No seller’s or buyer’s remorse. He did what he wanted to do. He did it for the right reasons. It wasn’t just to win a national championship. It wasn’t just to be player of the year. To get to a Final Four. It wasn’t just to try and up his draft status. He enjoyed college, he wasn’t ready, he didn’t want to be a G League player, he wanted to be as prepared as he could be when they took him, and I feel so comfortable about that.”
The other issue that Bridges is facing is that he will be changing positions this season.
This is a topic that isn’t going to be discussed much, but part of what made Bridges just so good last season is that he is the perfect small-ball four at the college level. He’s a perimeter player with perimeter skills offensively, but he played his freshman season at 240 pounds. Combined with his athleticism, he was built for playing in the paint defensively. It created mismatches everywhere on the floor, and instead of having to go up against a team’s best perimeter defender, he was being guarded by college four men.
It was perfect.
But it won’t be the way that it works this season.
Bridges is going to be playing the three for much of the year. There will be times where matchups or foul trouble or poor play dictates that Bridges ends up playing at the four, but Michigan State’s best lineup this season will feature Bridges at the three with Cassius Winston and Josh Langford in the back court while Jaren Jackson and Nick Ward man the paint.
Offensively, it should not be that big of an issue. Bridges is going to be getting the same shots that he got last season, only they’ll be coming from different spots on the floor. Instead of, say, shooting threes as a trailer in transition or as a floor-spacing four, he’ll be coming off of down-screens and getting isolations on the wing. Instead of being the screener in ball-screen actions, he’ll be handling the ball. He also had a knack for making tough, contested shots. They’re not worried about him offensively.
Nor are they worried about Bridges in transition. Running a wing will give him more opportunity to make a play in transition, while the added depth of Michigan State’s front court means that Izzo will unleash Bridges on the offensive glass. Expect to be wowed by his athleticism at least once a week this season.
The defensive end of the floor is a different story.
Bridges has never really defended on the perimeter before. There are different reads to make, different instincts to have, different muscles to use. Bridges is going to have to be quicker, less-inclined to use his size on smaller defenders, more willing to chase a shooter around a pin-down or over the top of a ball-screen than he has been in the past. He’ll be moving a lot more than he has in the past, which is why this offseason’s no-sugar and conditioning-heavy training regimen is so important. Bridges is now a streamlined 225 pounds.
“There will be some new adjustments. The fours in most of these programs, including ours, he didn’t post up very much, he was on the perimeter the whole time, so it’s not like it’s going to be a foreign subject,” Izzo said. “Miles has the athletic ability and the brains to do it.”
“It’s my job in practice. Better passer? Work on your passing. Better ball handler? Work on your ball handling. Better shooter? Work on your shot. Stronger guy? Work in the weight room. Better defender? He ain’t going to be working on his slides down in the gym in the summer. That’s going to be done with us [in practice], and I owe him to just pound the **** out of him and get him to be a better and better defender.”
“So I don’t see that as an issue at all.”
Looking back on it, people around the Michigan State program will tell you that it makes sense that Bridges opted against the one-and-done route.
Throughout the year, he would drop hints, making off-hand remarks about his sophomore season or skipping the draft that no one really took seriously. “It was subtle stuff,” Fife said. “We thought he was joking, that he didn’t want to talk about it.” The jokes, they believed, were his way of avoiding a conversation that he wasn’t ready to have.
Here’s an example Izzo gives: There is a tradition at Michigan State where the freshmen carry the bags for the upperclassmen. One day midway through the season, Izzo looks at his crop of blue-chippers, saying, “Boy, this is going to be nice next year. You guys aren’t going to have to be carrying bags, there will be some other freshman carrying your bag. Well Miles, you’ll probably be carrying bags in the NBA.”
“Why are you trying to get rid of me?”
Leaving was never a part of his plan. Listen to Bridges tell it, and he never even realized that he had a shot to be a one-and-done player until the first game of the season, when he put up 21 points on Arizona. I know, I’m incredulous as well, but Bridges is different. He’s not into worrying about himself. He also wasn’t considered a can’t-miss, one-and-done prospect until later in his high school career. He wasn’t a Golden Boy gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated as an eighth-grader.
He still views himself that way.
When I told him he was being named the NBC Sports Preseason Player of the Year, he was polite. He was gracious. And, frankly, I don’t think he cared.
“National Championship. Big Ten championship. Big Ten outright.” Those are the three goals Bridges wrote down for this season. Those are the three things he wants to accomplish in his final season in East Lansing.
“I don’t have individual goals,” he said, “because I know that individual goals will come with team accomplishment.”
And there isn’t a better way to sum up the enigma that is Miles Bridges than that.