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College Hoops Contender Series: Can Sean Miller overcome scandal to (finally) get Arizona to the Final Four?

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Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.

Last week, we gave you our Final Four sleepers and talked about six different Final Four contenders – Louisville, West Virginia, Villanova, Wichita State, USC and Miami – that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.

There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the four or five best teams, the clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.

This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into five of those teams.

What makes them good enough to win a national title?

But why won’t they win a national title?

We’ve gone through Kentucky and Kansas already this week. Today, we’ll take a look at Arizona.

MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team

Allonzo Trier (Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WILL WIN

There are two ways to answer this question.

The first is relatively simple. Arizona has three things that, alone, would make them relevant in the Pac-12 title and Final Four discussion:

  1. They have a junior that will be a Preseason All-American, in the mix for National Player of the Year and could end up leading all of high-major basketball in scoring this season. His name is Allonzo Trier.
  2. They have the potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, and his name is not Allonzo Trier. It’s Deandre Ayton, who has a shot at earning those same accolades that Trier will be in the mix for.
  3. Those two will be coached by Sean Miller, who is the best coach in the country to never reach a Final Four and may be the best coach in the country, period.

But, and this may actually be more important than any of those three things individually, Arizona also has the perfect blend of ridiculous incoming freshmen talent and talented returning veterans that can provide the kind of leadership and experience that you don’t see from 18 and 19-year olds.

The Wildcats will likely start just one freshmen this season. Three of their starters — Trier, a junior, and seniors Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Carterwright — are upper-classmen. Sophomore Rawle Alkins should also slide into the starting lineup center he returns from a foot injury that is expected to keep him out for the first couple of weeks of the season.

The best teams during the one-and-done era — Kentucky’s title-winning team in 2012, Duke’s title-winning team in 2015, Kentucky’s Final Four team in 2015 — have all had that blend.

It’s why Arizona will be in the top three of every preseason top 25 you see coming out this month.

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Deandre Ayton (Getty Images)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN

Before we get into the off-the-court stuff, let’s talk on-the-court.

The way that I see it, there are four things to be worried about with this Arizona team. Let’s walk through each one of them, in order of the most concerning to the least concerning:

1. Point guard play: There are two point guards on Arizona’s roster as of today. One of them is a freshman named Alex Barcello, a borderline top 100 prospect that, in an ideal world, won’t be playing major minutes for a national title-contending team, at least not as a freshman. The other is Parker Jackson-Cartwright, a senior and former four-star recruit that has spent his entire Arizona career has the second option at the point.

The last two years, he played behind Kadeem Allen, a converted scoring guard and tenacious defender that turned himself into the kind of a player that piqued the interest of the Boston Celtics in last year’s NBA Draft. He was a physically imposing, 6-foot-3 menace that also happened to be a 43 percent three-point shooter. Before that, Jackson-Cartwright slotted in behind T.J. McConnell, another savvy, defensive menace that has carved out an NBA career for himself.

That is not the kind of point guard that Jackson-Cartwright is. He has some of the same skills offensively that McConnell had, and his ability to facilitate at the point without needing shots to be happy will be valuable on a roster that has enough guys that want to score, but can he have an impact defensively? Is he a leader the way that past Arizona point guards have been? The answer to both of those questions may be ‘yes’, but if they are ‘no’, will some combination of Barcello, Allonzo Trier and Emmanuel Akot rotating through those lead guard minutes be enough for Arizona to win a title?

We’ve seen what happens when title favorites — ahem, Duke — have question marks at the point, and until Jackson-Cartwright proves otherwise, he falls into that category.

2. Which Deandre Ayton are we going to see this year?: There has never been a question about the amount of talent that Ayton has. He’s 7-foot with a 7-foot-6 wingspan. He’s athletic, he’s fluid, he’s mobile and he has a back to the basket game and three-point range. He, quite literally, is the prototype for a big man in this modern era of basketball.

But he doesn’t always play like it.

The knock on him has always been his motor. When he decides to show up, like he did at Peach Jam during the summer of 2016, he dominates anyone that gets in his way — Wendell Carter, Mitchell Robinson, Marvin Bagley III — but we’ve yet to see Ayton consistently churn out those kind of performances. His detractors will say it is because he is lazy, or he isn’t competitive, or he doesn’t love basketball; you know the clichés. Others will tell you that it is because he was never challenged at the high school level and that when he was, he showed up to play. That idea is supported by the reports coming out of Tucson, that Ayton has been terrific to date.

The truth is that we won’t know which Ayton we are going to see until we actually see him. He might end up being the best player in college hoops. He also might end up being Perry Jones.

3. Are there enough shots to go around?: Allonzo Trier is going to be Arizona’s go-to guy. He may end up being the best scorer in college basketball this season. He’s going to get his shots. Then there’s Rawle Alkins, a former five-star prospect that averaged double-figures as a freshman and opted to return to school to try and boost his NBA stock. He’s going to need shots, too. Ayton is going to need shots. Dusan Ristic is going to need post touches.

The bottom line is this: the hardest thing to do at this level of college basketball is to convince players to buy into a role. John Calipari is the best at it, but he doesn’t even have a perfect track record. In a perfect world, the No. 1 pick might end up being Arizona’s third option offensively this season. Is everyone going to be OK with that?

4. Who plays the four?: Like the point guard spot, the four is going to be something of a question mark for Arizona this season.

Ayton will likely end up starting there, because Ristic is a senior and because he is much more skilled on the perimeter than the 7-foot Serbian. But I still think that Ayton’s best position at the college level is as a small-ball five, and if he is playing at the five, who does Miller line up at the four? Keanu Pinder might be the answer, but he’s a JuCo transfer that played all of 12 minutes per game last season. It might be Ira Lee, but an all-freshmen front court isn’t always the easiest answer. Maybe Miller plays Akot there and fully dives into the small-ball era?

I don’t know.

And frankly, I’m less concerned about this than I am intrigued. I think Arizona has enough talent and enough different pieces that it should be fine however Miller decides it will come together.

Assuming the season goes as planned, which brings us to …

5. … Arizona’s involvement with the FBI investigation: Arizona is all over the FBI complaints that came down last month. Book Richardson, an assistant coach that had been with Sean Miller for 11 years, was arrested. Richardson allegedly took bribes to influence where players on the roster would invest their money and accepted a $15,000 payment that was earmarked for a Class of 2018 prospect named Jahvon Quinerly. Two players currently on the Arizona roster were mentioned by Richardson during the commission of the alleged crimes, although the FBI did not release their names, and another assistant coach, who was with the program as of last spring, was also involved in a dinner with the uncle of one of Arizona’s top recruits.

And we don’t know if that’s all that the FBI has. All we know is what they have released.

Are there going to be more Arizona players or coaches involved in this scandal? Will Arizona get wind of any potential arrests or players that may be deemed ineligible? Is this a situation where the Wildcats will try to fall on their own sword?

Only time will tell.

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami

Rawle Alkins (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

PREDICTION

Barring some kind of craziness – and craziness enveloping this Arizona season certainly has a greater-than-zero possibility – Arizona is going to end up winning the Pac-12 regular season title. That became a safe bet after the Pac-12 decided that the Wildcats will only be playing UCLA and USC once, and that both of those games will be played in Tucson.

But Arizona fans probably don’t care all that much about Pac-12 titles at this point.

They’ve been there.

What they want is a Final Four, which is more or less the only thing that Sean Miller doesn’t have on his coaching résumé at this point. The 48-year old currently holds the title of ‘best coach to never make a Final Four,’ something he inherited from Mark Few, who inherited it from Bill Self, who inherited it from Jim Calhoun.

Point being, sooner or later, Miller is going to make that run to the final weekend of the college basketball season.

And with the amount of talent, depth, experience and versatility he has with this group, I fully expect that this will be the year he gets it done.

If, you know, nothing crazy happens.

Report: FBI wiretaps shows Sean Miller discussing payment for Deandre Ayton

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Sean Miller was caught on an FBI wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment for his freshman star Deandre Ayton, according to a report from ESPN.

The conversations that were intercepted were between Miller and Christian Dawkins, a former runner for ex-NBA agent Andy Miller, in with the pair discussed a $100,000 payment that would ensure Ayton’s commitment to and enrollment with Arizona.

According to ESPN, when asked by Dawkins if he should work through former Arizona assistant coach Emanuel ‘Book’ Richardson to finalize a deal, “Miller told Dawkins he should deal directly with him when it came to money.”

Richardson was fired by Arizona after he was caught up in the original FBI complaints in September. He had worked for Miller for 10 years at Xavier and Arizona. He was alleged to have accepted $20,000 in bribes to steer players to Dawkins and another financial advisor.

Ayton committed to Arizona in September of 2016. He is currently averaging 19.6 points and 10.9 boards for No. 14 Arizona and is considered by many to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

There has been speculation all season long that Arizona’s ties to this investigation could cost Miller his job.

CBT Podcast: Michael Porter Jr. is back, Duke and Kentucky might be back, Allonzo Trier’s gone

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Fun episode today. Rob Dauster was joined by one of the up-and-coming stars at ESPN, Dalen Cuff, to talk through the changes that Duke and Kentucky have made in recent weeks and whether or not that changes our perception of those teams moving forward. They also discussed Trae Young’s regression as well as the root of their soccer fandom, and all of that happened roughly 90 minutes before news broke that Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. was cleared by doctors to play while Arizona’s Allonzo Trier was once against ineligible for a positive PED test, so Travis Hines of NBC Sports jumped on the podcast to talk through all of that. The rundown:

OPEN: Should Michael Porter Jr. play this season?

10:05: Did Allonzo Trier get screwed by the NCAA?

16:55: Why did Dalen Cuff sully his name by becoming an Arsenal fan?

26:20: Why has Duke been better without Marvin Bagley III?

34:05: Is Jarred Vanderbilt the key to unlock Kentucky’s potential?

39:25: Have you changed your outlook on Duke or Kentucky in the long-term?

43:45: Texas Tech losing Keenan Evans was a bummer.

48:00: So let’s talk about this Trae Young slump.

Duke, Michigan State and Kentucky respond to report connecting players to agent payments

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Duke, Michigan State and Kentucky are the three most visible programs that have had their program connected to today’s report from Yahoo Sports that linked current players to potential NCAA violations involving ex-NBA agent Andy Miller and a former employee, Christian Dawkins.

According to the report, the mother of Duke freshman Wendell Carter had lunch with Dawkins at a Longhorn Steakhouse where Dawkins spent $106 on the meal. The parents of Michigan State sophomore Miles Bridges are alleged to have received a mean with $70 from Dawkins as well as a $400 cash advance. Kentucky freshman Kevin Knox or a member of his family is listed as receiving a meal from Dawkins, although his father has already denied that this happened.

All three programs have denied wrongdoing.

“Duke immediately reviewed the matter and, based on the available information, determined there are no eligibility issues related to today’s report,” read a statement released by Duke AD Kevin White.

“We are aware of the report in Yahoo! Sports,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said in a statement. “While we will cooperate with any and all investigations, we have no reason to believe that I, any member of our staff or student-athlete did anything in violation of NCAA rules.”

“I have no relationship with Andy Miller or any of his associates,” John Calipari’s statement read. “Neither my staff nor I utilized any agent, including Andy Miller or any of his associates, to provide any financial benefits to a current or former Kentucky student-athlete. We will cooperate fully with the appropriate authorities.”

Cal also said in a press conference that he believes Knox will play on Saturday against Missouri.

San Diego State suspends Malik Pope after reports of loan from agent

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San Diego State announced on Friday that they have provisionally suspended senior forward Malik Pope for allegedly receiving $1,400 from a former NBA agent.

He did not travel with the team for Saturdays game against San Jose State.

According to documents from the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball, documents that were obtained by Yahoo Sports and published on Friday morning, Andy Miller provided Pope with a loan of $1,400 that was to be repaid when Pope turned pro and signed with Miller.

Loans from agents are considered impermissible benefits.

Pope is the first player to be provisionally suspended by his team as a result of today’s news. USC’s De’Anthony Melton and Auburn’s Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy have not played this season having being referenced in the complaints released by the FBI in September. Alabama’s Collin Sexton as well as Oklahoma State’s Jeffery Carroll were initially suspended as their program’s attempted to get their eligibility reinstated.

Mark Emmert refuses to acknowledge NCAA’s fundamental issue: The sham of amateurism

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The concept of amateurism has been around for nearly two centuries.

It started back in the 1800s, when organized sport was first beginning in England. The upper class, the one-percenters of that time, lived a lifestyle that allowed them to do things like play rugby, or polo, or soccer, and succeed at it.

When you don’t have to worry about working six or seven days a week in a factory you have the time to practice kicking with your weaker foot. But those blue collar workers, the ones that spent six or seven days a week doing manual labor, they were the better athletes. Bigger, stronger, faster. Those rich guys didn’t stand a chance, which is why amateurism was born.

You cannot be paid to play sports, they said. You have to play sports for the love of the game, which those rich guys were able to do because they didn’t have to spend their days trying to work enough hours to put food on the table for their wives and children.

Amateurism, the core tenet of the NCAA, was quite literally created to keep rich English guys from getting their asses kicked by poor English guys.

Today, that concept, that farce, trumps all else in college athletics.

It’s why, in 2018, the NCAA has contracts that guarantees the association roughly $13.5 BILLION dollars over the next 14 years to broadcast a tournament that Duke’s Wendell Carter may not be able to play in because his mom allegedly had a $106 lunch paid for by a recruiter for an agent two years ago.

On Friday morning, hours after Yahoo Sports published a bombshell report that included documents and spreadsheets detailing the recruitment strategy of former NBA agent Andy Miller, NCAA president Mark Emmert released a statement addressing the evidence presented.

“These allegations, if true, point to systematic failures that must be fixed and fixed now,” Emmert, who made at least $1.9 million in 2015, began in the statement, and he is absolutely, 100 percent correct.

If, as Emmert put it, “we want college sports in America,” we need to do away with amateurism rules. We need to do away with the archaic notion that these athletes do not have any value. We need to do away with the idea that these athletes — athletes with the potential to earn, quite literally, hundreds of millions of dollars in their playing career, mind you — having access to professional representation before they turn 19 years old is some sort of problem.

The simple truth is this: If you do not allow players to access their fair market value without breaking NCAA rules, you are perpetuating the underground economy that is already flourishing. There is too much money in the game, and the numbers that you are seeing tossed around today are simply on the agent side, and from just one agent. Yahoo did not gain access to all of the evidence that the FBI has gathered during this investigation, and even if the did, the network built by Miller is a fraction of the black market created by the NCAA’s insistence that amateurism reign supreme.

Think about it like this: If basketball’s underground economy was a movie, then what we saw today was the shortened trailer that airs three weeks after the movie was actually released.

We’re just scratching the surface.

What you are not seeing now is the money that shoe companies spend to funnel players to certain schools that will help build their brand. Brian Bowen taught us that players that don’t reach the top 20 in a recruiting class can be worth $100,000 to a company like Adidas. If Brian Bowen is worth $100,000 to Adidas, what is a talent like Marvin Bagley III or Deandre Ayton worth to them?

What you are also not seeing is the money that flows from boosters to the players. You don’t think that a booster for, say, Big Tech would love to spend a few thousand dollars to land a player that will help keep them above Big State in the standings? Think about how much you love your favorite team. Now think about how much money you’d be willing to part with every year to help that team get the players they need to get to a Final Four if you had $30 million in the bank.

Say it with me now:

That.

Is.

Never.

Going.

Away.

It doesn’t matter how many smart people Emmert tries to put on a committee.

Boosters are never going to stop wanting their team to win. Shoe companies are never going to stop spending billions of dollars to help build their brand. Coaches are never going to stop looking the other way because getting those good players is how they win, and winning is how they get better jobs and longer contracts.

The fix is so damn easy, too.

Go to the Olympic model.

Schools don’t have to play the players. There won’t be any Title IX issues, which is the crux of the issue when it comes to the “schools should pay the players” debate; it’s not exactly a secret football and men’s basketball subsidizes the rest of an athletic department.

The athletes will be able to receive their fair market value because their ability to profit off of their own name and their own likeness will not be artificially capped by an association that wants to keep all of that money for themselves.

And therein lies the problem.

Think about it like this: Adidas currently has a deal with the University of Louisville that will pay the school $160 million over the next decade for all Cardinal athletes to be decked out head-to-toe in nothing but the three stripes. This deal is far from unique. Under Armour has a deal with UCLA worth $280 million. Nike’s new deal with Michigan is valued at roughly $173 million.

Lamar Jackson (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The goal there isn’t necessarily to get every player covered head-to-toe in their brand. The goal is to get, say, Lamar Jackson wearing Adidas while he’s at Louisville, or Josh Rosen wearing UA while he’s at UCLA. With basketball, it’s even more specific. Nike wants, say, Michael Porter Jr. wearing the swoosh in high school and college so that they can sign him when he gets to the pros and make billions off of his brand if he happens to turn into the next Kevin Durant, or LeBron James, or Kyrie Irving, or Steph Curry.

If amateurism didn’t exist, if Nike could go straight Porter or Adidas could go straight to Jackson when they were 15 or 16 years old, would the incentive to invest billions of dollars in sponsorship deals with the schools still be as strong? There would still be money there, but there wouldn’t be as much because a good chunk of it would be going to the players those companies actually want.

It works on a micro-level, too.

A car dealership in Lexington or a restaurant in Lawrence is going to advertise with the school — on the local broadcasts, with promotions at the game, on the coach’s radio show, etc. — instead of being able to put, say, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander on a billboard to help sell Toyota Camrys or, say, Devonte’ Graham in a commercial touting a new Happy Hour special.

Let’s put this another way: If you let the labor get paid, then the profits of the company and the salaries of the decision-makers within that company take a hit.

Emmert ended his statement on Friday like this: “We also will continue to cooperate with the efforts of federal prosecutors to identify and punish the unscrupulous parties seeking to exploit the system through criminal acts,” blissfully aware that he and his cronies are the unscrupulous parties exploiting the system, without a f*** to give when that direct deposit hits this afternoon.