Rob Dauster

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Blockbuster arrests not shocking to college hoops followers

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PHOENIX (AP) — Top-level basketball recruits played in gyms across Las Vegas over the summer, their final shot to impress college coaches during a live-recruiting period.

Around the same time in July, an undercover FBI agent was in a Sin City hotel room where more than $12,000 changed hands, money earmarked for influencing a high school player’s choice of colleges.

The meeting was one of several recorded by federal investigators during a three-year probe that led to the arrest of 10 people, including four assistant coaches at prominent schools. It also illuminated an aspect of college basketball the NCAA has failed to fully uncover for years: the shadowy world of recruiting.

“The NCAA’s never had the ability to enforce rules,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “I was told this summer by a coach, ‘If you’re not cheating, you’re cheating yourself.’ Certain conferences, I think, are notorious for doing that, and if you’re trying to compete in those conferences and you don’t do it, you’re going to be subpar. It’s a big egg on a lot of our faces.”

On Sept. 26, federal prosecutors announced the arrests of 10 people , including assistant coaches from Arizona, Southern California, Oklahoma State and Auburn. An Adidas marketing executive also was arrested, along with a tailor known for making suits for NBA stars in a case that alleges bribes were exchanged to influence high-level recruits’ choice of schools, agents and financial advisers.

The federal probe also implicated Louisville in paying a player to attend the school, leading coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich to be placed on administrative leave. Louisville has since started the process of firing Pitino for cause.

The arrests and accusations, though blockbuster in nature, were not exactly shocking to followers of the sport.

The shady side of recruiting has always been college basketball’s dirty little secret, standard operating procedure for numerous programs across the country about which little could be done.

The NCAA has had some success in uncovering the seamy underbelly of the sport.

In the 1990s, California coach Todd Bozeman was fired and the school was forced to vacate victories from two seasons after a pay-for-play scandal in which a recruit’s parents were given about $30,000. Kentucky was placed on probation for three years in 1989 after the NCAA found an assistant coach sent money to the father of a recruit to get his son to play in Lexington, among other violations.

Michigan was forced to forfeit 112 wins from five seasons, including a pair of Final Four appearances, after the NCAA found booster Ed Martin lent four players more than $600,000 as part of a gambling and laundering scheme. Coach Steve Fisher was fired in 1997 for violations involved in the scandal.

But for every NCAA takedown, countless others slip through the massive cracks in the system.

“When I did play, there was always rumors about guys getting this or that to be where they were, so this is nothing that is completely unexpected,” said Arizona State coach and former Duke standout Bobby Hurley. “It doesn’t appear to be a system that works right now, so I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of conversation about that.”

The conversation may start with the shoe companies at the grass-roots level of basketball.

It used to be that high school coaches were the conduits to top recruits. Now the shoe companies run the show.

Adidas, Nike and Under Armour — a relatively new player in the hoops game — are on constant lookout for the next LeBron James or Steph Curry to make them millions.

The courtship starts early.

Today’s recruits often identify with a brand at a young age, in part because the shoe companies are so involved at the lower levels of the game, sponsoring tournaments and travel teams.

The shoe companies hope the early bond holds so the players — the ones who are good enough reach the NBA — will sign sponsorship deals with their brand.

Paying a player to attend a certain school or sign with a particular agent comes with a risk. Projecting the future of teenagers is an imprecise business, so there’s no guarantee the player will ever reach the NBA.

But the high end-game stakes push some shoe company representatives to risk small payouts for a chance to get in with a million-dollar star.

In the recent case, federal prosecutors allege three high school recruits were promised payments of up to $150,000 with money provided by Adidas and James Gatto, director of global sports marketing for basketball at Adidas, was among those arrested.

“The depth of the problem remains to be seen, but clearly there is indication of behavior that must be corrected for the health of basketball and the integrity of college athletics,” Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey said.

It’s not a one-sided issue. Someone has to accept the money.

Many recruits come from low-income families and the promise of a lucrative payment can be enticing. A bidding war between schools is even better.

Assistant coaches or support staff can be easy targets for bribes. They don’t have nearly the salaries as head coaches, and the added income from a shoe company could be an appealing supplement.

The assistant coaches also have the added pressure of landing recruits. They are the ones who do all the legwork with the recruits and have the most contact with them, with the head coaches often coming in as the closer.

The federal arrests have illuminated this dark world as the NCAA never could have.

“I wasn’t sure in my lifetime that we were going to see anything of this magnitude where the lid got blown off,” Krystkowiak said. “I was hopeful that at some point somebody’s going to pay the price.”

College Hoops Contender Series: Three (flawed?) Final Four favorites

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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. Today, we talk Final Four contenders.

To me, there is a clear-cut line between the teams ranked in the top four or five and the rest of the top 25. Duke probably should be ranked No. 1 in your preseason poll, but their question marks at the point guard spot and the youth on the roster are enough that I can see two teams arguably being ranked above them.

I also think there is another clear-cut tier of teams, through the top 12, that are good enough that they are a decent bet to get to the Final Four in San Antonio while being flawed enough that we cannot consider them a true title contender, at least not in October.

Two of those teams won a national title in recent years: Villanova and Louisville. Another, West Virginia, has yet to make it out of the Sweet 16 as Press Virginia. Let’s take a dive into those three teams, shall we?

RELATED: Big Ten PreviewACC Preview | Perry Ellis All-Stars | Contender Series

Jalen Brunson (Eric Francis/Getty Images)

VILLANOVA

Over the course of the last four years, Villanova has done the following:

  • Won four outright Big East regular season titles, with each title coming by at least two full games.
  • In those four seasons, they’ve gone 63-9 in Big East play and 129-17 overall.
  • The next-best record in the Big East over those four years is Xavier’s 42-30 mark.
  • The combined-record of the conference runner-up during this Villanova dynasty is 52-20, 11 games worse than the Wildcats. Including Big East tournament games, Villanova has lost just 11 times to Big East teams during those four years.
  • They’ve won two Big East tournament titles.
  • They won the 2016 national title.

There has not been a more successful team in college basketball over the course of that four-year period, so why in the world would it make sense to assume that trend would change heading into the 2017-18 season?

Well, the Wildcats lost Josh Hart, a first-team all-american last season and a first round draft pick last June, as well as Kris Jenkins, the man who gave Villanova their first national title since 1985.

Those are big, big losses, and it would be silly to argue otherwise, but losing stars has not slowed Villanova down during this run. They lost James Bell and Jayvaughn Pinkston after the first league title. They lost Darrun Hilliard the year after. Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu graduated after the Wildcats won the title. Jay Wright has built a program that is as adept as any at handling turnover within a roster, and this season should be no exception.

It starts with Jalen Brunson, the former McDonald’s All-American point guard who was arguably Villanova’s best player for a stretch at the end of his sophomore season. I’m not sure there is a higher IQ player in the country than Brunson, who has done nothing but win throughout the entirety of basketball career, whether it was at the high school or college level.

He’ll be an all-american this season, the biggest reason that Villanova remains at the top of the Big East standings.

Even with the loss of Hart, Villanova will have some of the best wings in the sport. Phil Booth is back after missing last season through injury, and Mikal Bridges should take another step forward this year. The guy to watch here is Donte DiVincenzo, who had a terrific redshirt freshman season and will be atop every list of breakout players this year. Eric Paschall is back, former five-star center Omari Spellman will be eligible and Jermaine Samuels has all the makings of the next great Villanova wing.

Change doesn’t hurt this program.

I’m not sure what would actually hurt this program.

But I do know this: Villanova has one of the nation’s best coaches. They have one of the nation’s best point guards. They have three redshirt juniors and a redshirt sophomore that will rotate through on the wings. And they have a pair of freshmen that picked the Wildcats over the nation’s bluebloods.

The only thing that makes me hesitant to put Villanova on this list is the narrative. They won the 2016 national title. They didn’t get out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament in 2014, 2015 or 2017.

Can we really call them a Final Four favorite if all they do is win national titles or get upset?

MORE2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

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LOUISVILLE

Back in May, back before Donovan Mitchell had climbed his way into the lottery of NBA Draft boards and when it looked like there was at least a shot that he would be returning to school, Louisville was very much in the conversation to be the preseason No. 1 overall team in the country.

That, however, has changed just a bit.

Not only did Mitchell leave, and not only did Louisville find out that the banners that they hung in 2012 (Final Four) and 2013 (National Title) may end up coming down, but the Cardinals were implicated in last month’s FBI complaints that resulted in the arrest of ten people. Rick Pitino was fired. Star freshman Brian Bowen will probably never play college basketball.

And here we are.

The Cardinals still have a bevy of talent on their roster this season, enough that, in a vacuum, they would be able to make a return to the Final Four, a nice consolation prize should all of the 2012 and 2013 seasons get wiped off the books. But that is assuming that this group is able to band together playing for interim head coach David Padgett. That’s not out of the question. The Louisville players have been through more than any college team ever should have to go through. They lived through the escort scandal, the banners coming down and now the end of the Pitino era.

There is a chance the ends up being a story with a happy ending.

Strictly in terms of basketball, the way I see it there are three specific issues that are going to have to be addressed in one way or another for Louisville this year:

  1. Who get better? After a freshman season that went to ruin because of injury, Deng Adel quietly had a good sophomore year that was particularly impressive down the stretch of the season. Will he take another step forward this year? Will V.J. King, a former five-star prospect that Rick Pitino has said is in line for a Mitchell-esque jump as a sophomore this season? What about Ray Spalding and Anas Mahmoud? Both front court players have NBA measureables and unique skillsets, but neither have been able to put together consistent performances.
  2. Just how good are the freshmen? The star of this class was Brian Bowen, a five-star recruit that fell into Pitino’s lap after stars at Arizona and Michigan State opted not to enter the NBA Draft. But he will likely end up ineligible as fallout from the FBI complaints last month. The next name to know, then, is Malik Williams, who was something of a late-bloomer and, like Spalding and Mahmoud, has some intriguing longterm potential. Jordan Nwora is a floor-spacing forward and Lance Thomas is another big body up front, but the most interesting guy here may be Darius Perry because …
  3. … point guard is still a problem position. Quentin Snider has had moments of brilliance for the Cardinals. He was sensational in last year’s win over Kentucky and, after returning from injury, was really good for U of L down the stretch of last season. But he also put together a disastrous performance in the upset loss against Michigan in the second round of the Big Dance and, frankly, he’s not exactly what you think of when you think of a Rick Pitino point guard. Perry, however, is. He’s quick, he’s athletic, he’s a pest defensively and he’s aggressive going towards the rim. It will be good for Louisville if Perry pushes Snider for playing time, even if Snider remains the starter.

It’s impossible to know what to expect from David Padgett in his first season as a head coach, but the good news is that he’ll have the pieces to put together a good team. I still expect the Cardinals to be pretty typical Louisville — a nightmare for opponents on the defensive end, at times unwatchable offensively, potentially in the mix for an ACC title come February.

And if you’re in the mix for an ACC title, you have the kind of talent that could can together and make a deep run in March.

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

Jevon Carter (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

WEST VIRGINIA

I have a theory, and it dates back years and years and is the biggest reason that VCU fans generally despise my being.

In reality, it’s pretty simple, and to date I’ve been proven nothing but right: Teams that survive on a full court press inevitably have a ceiling.

Why?

Because the way that those teams play is built around the idea that they are going to out-effort, out-athlete and out-tough their opponent for 40 minutes. They win by wearing opponent’s out and by forcing ball-handlers into bad decisions. They need their opponent to make mistakes, and, generally speaking, the better a college basketball team is, the better their guards are. Better guards are less prone to making mistakes or getting flustered by a trapping press.

Put another way, why do you think that there are no full court pressing teams in the NBA?

Over the course of the last three seasons, West Virginia has redefined themselves as Press Virginia, playing as aggressive and as intense of a full court press as you’ll find anywhere in the country. The results have been impressive: at least 25 wins in three straight years, a 36-12 record in the Big 12 and back-to-back-to-back top-five seeds in the NCAA tournament.

But despite all that, West Virginia has yet to make it past the Sweet 16 despite ranking as a top-eight team on KenPom in each of the last two seasons.

Will this year be the year that the narrative changes?

It may be. Jevon Carter is back and may end up being the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year. With Esa Ahmad and Daxter Miles Jr. alongside, him, the Mountaineers have experience and leadership to lean on. That said, the key to the success that Bob Huggins’ has had playing this style hasn’t been his stars, it’s the depth and the myriad bodies that he has at his disposal. That depth is going to be young this year, but Huggins does add a couple of JuCo wings while bringing along redshirt sophomore James Bolden, who showed flashes of potential last year. Throw in a half-dozen front court pieces, and the Mountaineers have the bodies.

They’ll miss Nathan Adrian’s shooting and his effort at the top of their zone. They’ll miss Teyvon Myers and Tarik Phillip torturing opposing ball-handlers. But we also thought they’d miss Devin Williams and Jonathan Holton and Jaysean Paige.

The program just keeps humming along.

This year should be no different. The question is whether or not it will end in the Sweet 16 once again.

Big Ten Preview Podcast

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Scott Phillips and Travis Hines join Rob Dauster today to breakdown everything about the Big Ten this season.

Here is a timecode for each team:

Illinois: 2:01
Indiana: 6:57
Iowa: 11:03
Maryland: 16:42
Michigan: 20:45
Michigan State: 28:46
Minnesota: 39:00
Nebraska: 43:25
Northwestern: 47:05
Ohio State: 51:08
Penn State: 53:18
Purdue: 55:55
Rutgers: 1:01:02
Wisconsin: 1:02:48

CAA Preview: This is the year for Charleston to take control of the league race

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the CAA.

The CAA has been UNC Wilmington‘s league over the course of the last three seasons, as Kevin Keatts built the Seahawks into a powerhouse. They won a share of the league’s regular season title in his first two season’s on campus before winning the outright league title this past year. Throw in two straight NCAA tournament appearances – where the Seahawks gave both Duke and Virginia a run for their money in the opening round – and it’s no surprise that Keatts landed himself a job in the ACC.

It also should come as no surprise that UNCW looks like they will take a bit of a step back in C.B. McGrath’s first season at the helm. Chris Flemmings, the Player of the Year in 2016, and C.J. Bryce, the Player of the Year in 2017, both left the program, Flemmings to graduation and Bryce to N.C. State along with Keatts. With two other starts gone along with the man who built the roster to fit his style of play, McGrath is going to have his work cut out for him this year.

What that means is that the top of the CAA is going to be wide open this year, and on paper it seems as if two teams are in the driver’s seat to take over the title of ‘CAA’s Best’.

The obvious pick is College of Charleston, who finished last season just a game off of UNCW’s pace. The Cougars return essentially everyone from last year’s team, including the best one-two punch in the conference in Joe Chealey and Jarrell Brantley. Throw in rising sophomore Grant Riller, who was one of the best newcomers in the league a season ago, and Earl Grant’s club as plenty of firepower to go along with being the league’s best defensive team last year, according to KenPom.

I firmly expect Elon to be in the mix for the CAA title as well. Like Charleston, the Phoenix essentially bring back their entire roster, led by junior forward Tyler Seibring. The difference, however, is that Charleston simply has more firepower. Seibring could end up being the CAA Player of the Year if he can lead this group to a league title. Charleston has two players that could end up being the league POY and a third that is a sleeper to finish as a first-team all-conference player.

If there is a sleeper to win the league, it’s probably Towson. The Tigers bring back Mike Morsell and DeShaun Morman, but replacing Arnaud William Adala Moro and John Davis is going to be a difficult thing to do. Beyond that, the CAA is tough to project. Northeastern lost T.J. Williams, who came out of nowhere to be arguably the best player in the conference last season, but they return a number of veteran players, get some guys back from injury and add Tomas Murphy, the youngest brother of Alex and Erik.

Hofstra brings back the league’s best scorer (Justin Wright-Foreman) and best rebounder (Rokas Gustys), and Delaware has some young talent on the roster, led by last year’s Freshman of the Year Ryan Daly, but then the rest of the league gets pretty ugly. William & Mary is going into full rebuilding mode with Omar Prewitt and Daniel Dixon gone. Drexel still is in full rebuild mode, while James Madison loses just about everyone not named Jackson Kent or Ramone Snowden.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON CAA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Joe Chealey, Charleston

Chealey was the best player for the Cougars a season ago, and that isn’t going to change this season. A senior point guard on a team that returns, essentially, everyone from a group that finished second in the CAA a year ago, Chealey is the easy pick for Preseason Player of the Year.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-CAA TEAM

  • Justin Wright-Foreman, Hofstra: Wright-Foreman should end up leading the CAA in scoring this season. The Pride should end up being better than they were a year ago with the amount of talent that is returning.
  • Tyler Seibring, Elon: The Phoenix return all five starters, but the most notable is Seibring, a 6-foot-8 junior who will likely end up being the CAA Player of the Year if Elon can find a way to win the league.
  • Devontae Cacok, UNCW: UNCW lost a ton this offseason but they did return Cacok, who is one of the most dominant interior presences in the mid-major ranks. He’ll be asked to do a lot more this season.
  • Jarrell Brantley, Charleston: Brantley was a first-team all-CAA player last season and he’ll be back, which is a major reason why the Cougars seem to be the favorite to win the CAA this year.

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Charleston
2. Elon
3. Towson
4. UNCW
5. Hofstra
6. Northeastern
7. Delaware
8. William & Mary
9. James Madison
10. Drexel

Louisville’s two remaining assistant coaches placed on administrative leave

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Louisville announced on Friday that the only two remaining assistant coaches on the staff, Jordan Fair and Kenny Johnson, have been placed on paid administrative leave as the school continues to investigate their involvement in allegations made in last week’s FBI complaint.

Fair had been with the program for just over a year after being hired away from Oldsmar Christian, a high school in Florida. Johnson was with Louisville as an assistant since 2014, when he was hired away from another Adidas school, Indiana.

Louisville head coach Rick Pitino was put on unpaid leave on Sept. 27.

“We are in the process of executing our due diligence as it relates to an ongoing investigation and feel that this an appropriate step at this time,” Louisville interim athletic director Vince Tyra said. “Our university will continue to fully cooperate with federal authorities in their investigation.”

Big South Conference Preview: Nick McDevitt, UNC Asheville just keep winning

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big South Conference.

At some point, a big school is going to figure out that UNC Asheville head coach Nick McDevitt is better at his job than most coaches are at their’s. After reaching the NCAA tournament in 2015-16, McDevitt lost his two best freshman – Dylan Smith and Dwayne Sutton – to Arizona and Louisville, respectively. In 2016-17, despite losing those two, McDevitt’s Bulldogs won three more conference games and a share of the Big South regular season title.

Better yet, McDevitt returns almost his entire rotation from that team, which includes a pair of first-team all-conference performers in Ahmad Thomas and MaCio Teague. With veterans like Kevin Vannatta and Alec Wnuk back and Donovan Gilmore, a transfer from College of Charleston, eligible up front, there’s no reason to believe UNCA will do anything other than push for the league title once again.

After reaching the NCAA tournament a season ago, Winthrop very nearly lost head coach Pat Kelsey to UMass, but after agreeing to a deal and having a press conference scheduled to announce the hire, Kelsey backed out and returned to the Eagles. He’s going to have his work cut out for him repeating last year’s success, as Keon Johnson, who averaged 22 points, is gone, along with four of their top seven from last year. But Xavier Cooks is back, and Kelsey will have a veteran-laden roster around him.

If Winthrop takes a step back, look for Liberty to take a step forward in the conference standings. They finished 14-4 in the Big South and return a number of key pieces, including Ryan Kemrite, a fifth-year senior a,d Lovell Cabbil. Ritchie McKay will also have a couple of younger players looking for bigger roles, namely Myo Baxter-Ball, but their ceiling will be determine by the health of Caleb Homesley. He was averaging 12.9 points, 6.3 boards and 2.9 assists when he tore his ACL, the second such injury he’s suffered, in December.

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Another contender to keep an eye on will be Campbell, who got Chris Clemons back for his junior season. The 5-foot-9 Clemons was the third-leading scorer in the country a year ago, but it is his supporting cast that makes the Camels promising. A year ago, they were young, with the majority of their rotation being freshmen and sophomores. Now, guys like Marcus Burk and Cory Gensler are sophomores, while there is still a nice blend of veterans on the roster; Shane Whitfield, Mogga Lado, Andrew Eudy.

Radford will also be an interesting team to track. They return everyone of consequence from a team that went 8-10 in the league last season. Charleston Southern is going to be interesting with Christian Keeling, who averaged 17 points and seven boards as a freshman, returning with Cortez Mitchell, but losing Armel Potter to transfer was a blow. Gardner-Webb would have had a shot had they not lost LaQuincy Rideau to a transfer during the offseason. Ande Fox and Jamal Wright are both good young pieces for High Point, but it won’t be easy replacing three of their top four scorers.

Presbyterian is going to be hoping that a change in leadership will change the fortunes of the program, former Wofford assistant Dustin Kerns has taken the reins. Longwood won three games last season and lost their two best players this offseason.

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MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON BIG SOUTH PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chris Clemons, Campbell

This one was easy. Clemons, a dynamic 5-foot-9 scoring guard, was the nation’s third-leading scorer a year ago, checking in at 25.1 points per game. The Camels finished last season just 7-11 in Big South play, but they did make a run to the final of the Big South tournament and they do return essentially their entire rotation.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-BIG SOUTH TEAM

  • Xavier Cooks, Winthrop: Cooks proved to be one of the most versatile bigs in the league last season, averaging 16.5 points, 9.1 boards, 2.8 assists and 1.7 blocks for the Eagles as they reached the NCAA tournament.
  • MaCio Teague, UNC Asheville: No one is better at finding under-the-radar talent than Nick McDevitt, and he worked his magic again, as Teague averaged 15.4 points as a freshman with the Bulldogs.
  • Ahmad Thomas, UNC Asheville: Thomas was not only the leading scorer for last year’s regular season co-champions, but he also, at 6-foot-3, might have been the best perimeter defender in the conference.
  • Christian Keeling, Charleston Southern: As a 6-foot-4 freshman, Keeling averaged 17.4 points and 7.1 boards for the Buccaneers.

PREDICTED FINISH

1. UNC Asheville
2. Liberty
3. Campbell
4. Winthrop
5. Radford
6. High Point
7. Gardner-Webb
8. Charleston Southern
9. Presbyterian
10. Longwood