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AP Exclusive: SEC’s Sankey refuses to step down in UNC case

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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey has denied a request seeking his removal as head of the NCAA infractions panel handling North Carolina’s ongoing academic case because of a conflict of interest.

Sankey stated in an April 14 letter obtained by The Associated Press that the panel would “fairly decide this case.”

“The panel, including me, will hear and decide this case based on the case record and the membership’s bylaws,” Sankey wrote to all involved parties.

Elliot Abrams — a Raleigh attorney representing a retired office administrator charged with violations — had written the NCAA saying Sankey had a “personal, professional and institutional interest” in the outcome as SEC commissioner while comparing it to “refereeing a championship game between an (Atlantic Coast Conference) team and an SEC team.”

UNC faces five top-level charges, including lack of institutional control, in the multiyear probe centered on irregular courses in an academic department.

The case stalled in March after Abrams wrote the NCAA to say his client, Deborah Crowder, was willing to talk with investigators for the first time. Crowder, who graded many of the papers for problem classes, filed an affidavit defending the courses’ quality.

In his letter last week to the NCAA, Abrams said a third Notice of Allegations outlining revised charges against Crowder and UNC should be tossed out as the result of “inappropriate pressure from a conflicted hearing panel.” He also said an “arbitrary” April 14 deadline for Crowder’s interview wouldn’t allow adequate preparation for questions about years-old documents.

Sankey responded that Crowder’s interview should occur in coming weeks within the new schedule, adding: “There will be no further delays, and the case will be heard on this schedule.”

Sankey also referenced “misstatements of facts” in Abrams’ letters while reiterating investigation details must remain confidential.

“The NCAA claims that no appearance of a conflict of interest exists and that the hearing panel did not direct the enforcement staff to issue the third Notice of Allegations,” Abrams said in a statement to the AP. “Interestingly, the NCAA attempts to keep these assertions from public view, even though its letter is plainly a public record.

“These positions intensify our concerns that the NCAA does not feel bound by its bylaws and that this process is merely a show designed to reach a predetermined result. Nevertheless, Ms. Crowder looks forward to correcting the record by giving an interview in the next few weeks.”

The NCAA Committee on Infractions issued a statement Friday to the AP on Friday saying that “committee composition is appropriate.”

“Rules put in place and supported by our membership call for confidentiality in infractions cases and the continued leaks of partial and inaccurate information in this case are disappointing,” the committee stated.

In an email to the AP, UNC spokeswoman Joanne Peters said the school will make its case to the panel according to the NCAA’s schedule.

Sankey’s letter also details a new timetable of completion for the oft-delayed case. UNC must respond to the latest charges by May 16. The NCAA enforcement staff then has until July 17 for its own response. Sankey wrote that his panel will hear the case in August with “anticipated” dates of Aug. 16 and 17.

Rulings typically come weeks to months later.

The focus of the case is independent study-style courses misidentified as lecture classes that didn’t meet and required a research paper or two in UNC’s formerly named African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) department. They featured significant athlete enrollments and typically high grades.

The case is an offshoot of a 2010 probe into the football program. The NCAA reopened its investigation in summer 2014, filed charges in May 2015, revised them last April and again in December.

In his April 4 letter seeking Sankey’s removal, Abrams cited the “appearance of partiality” from an NCAA conflicts-of-interest bylaw. Abrams added Sankey could be a witness regarding an Auburn case featuring similarities while Sankey was an SEC associate commissioner. The NCAA investigated claims a sociology professor helped athletes stay eligible through independent studies in 2005 and 2006 but found no major violations.

Abrams later sought details of communication between the NCAA and former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein during Wainstein’s 2014 AFAM investigation. Crowder cooperated with that probe, which estimated more than 3,100 students were affected between 1993 and 2011, with athletes across numerous sports accounting for roughly half the enrollments.

In his letter, Sankey responded that saying he “previously investigated (an SEC) institution on an academic matter” was inaccurate but didn’t address the Wainstein inquiry.

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

Kansas freshman Josh Jackson says he is entering NBA draft

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LAWRENCE, Kan. (AP) — Kansas freshman Josh Jackson has announced he will enter the NBA draft.

Jackson, who released a statement on Monday, was the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year after averaging 16.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. He helped the Jayhawks to a 31-5 record and a berth in the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight.

The 6-foot-8 Jackson has signed with former NBA player B.J. Armstrong of Wasserman Media Group.

Jackson arrived at Kansas after a stellar prep career in Detroit and Napa, California. He says in the statement that after “consulting with my family, I have decided to enter the 2017 NBA Draft and pursue my dream of playing professional basketball.”

He added that he was thankful for “all of the support I have received from my coaches and teammates at Kansas.”

Kansas sharp-shooter Svi Mykhailiuk to test NBA draft waters

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Kansas guard Svi Mykhailiuk is entering the NBA draft, but is not hiring an agent and could decide by May 24 to withdraw his name and return for his senior season.

The 6-foot-8 Mykhailiuk started 25 games last season, averaging 9.8 points and shooting 39.8 percent from beyond the arc. The native of Ukraine made at least three 3-pointers in 11 games.

Kansas coach Bill Self said Wednesday that he supports the decision “100 percent,” and that Mykhailiuk will “get accurate feedback and make an informed decision” whether to remain in the draft.

Jayhawks guard Devonte Graham has already announced that he will return for his senior season, while star freshman Josh Jackson is expected to declare for the draft.

LSU guard Antonio Blakeney declares for draft

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BATON ROUGE, La. — LSU guard and leading scorer Antonio Blakeney says he’s declaring for this summer’s NBA draft after two seasons with the Tigers.

Blakeney, who announced his decision in a written statement released by LSU on Tuesday night, leaves the Tigers shortly after the hiring of coach Will Wade.

Wade, who previously coached VCU, came to LSU after the firing of Johnny Jones, who coached the Tigers the previous five seasons.

Blakeney, a sophomore, averaged 17.2 points this season. He arrived at LSU as a highly regarded recruit, having been named Florida Mr. Basketball while with Oak Ridge High School.

Blakeney says he appreciates the opportunity LSU gave him and that leaving is “bittersweet,” but says he’s also decided it’s time for him to “take the next step” in his basketball career.

Sex charges reinstated against ex-Michigan State hoops star

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FLINT, Mich. (AP) — Former Michigan State basketball star Mateen Cleaves will face trial on sexual assault charges after a judge reversed a decision and reinstated the case Monday.

Genesee County Judge Archie Hayman said he’s not judging whether Cleaves is innocent or guilty of assaulting a woman at a Flint-area motel in 2015.

“This court is here merely to decide whether or not there is enough evidence for this case to go to trial,” Hayman said.

The legal standard to send someone to trial in Michigan is probable cause. It’s a lower threshold than beyond a reasonable doubt. District Court Judge M. Cathy Dowd had dismissed the case in December after hearing days of testimony.

“I think it was a disservice both to the victim and to Mr. Cleaves that she did not provide proper analysis and record it,” Hayman said of Dowd.

Cleaves, 39, is charged with unlawful imprisonment, assault with intent to commit sexual penetration, second-degree criminal sexual conduct and third-degree criminal sexual conduct.

A witness testified that she saw the woman try to escape a room at a Knights Inn. But a police officer summoned to the motel said the woman never indicated that she was assaulted.

The woman testified in December that she never said “no” to Cleaves “but I told him I wanted to go home.” They met at a golf event that day, and she later sent him a text message to join her and others at a bar.

Defense attorney Frank Manley has called it a case of “regret,” not “rape.”

Cleaves, a Flint native, led Michigan State to the NCAA basketball championship in 2000 and appeared in 167 games with four NBA teams.

Investigators looking into hundreds of threats against official who worked Kentucky loss

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OMAHA, Neb. — An investigator for a Nebraska law enforcement agency said Wednesday he is reviewing hundreds of confirmed or possible threats against an Omaha basketball official who worked Kentucky’s NCAA tournament loss to North Carolina.

Matt Barrall of the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Department said he was in his fifth day of working full time on the case and that no end was in sight.

“We are taking this very, very — extremely — seriously,” Barrall said. “Some people might say, ‘Oh, it’s just a basketball game.’ But what if some mentally unstable person decides this is the way to make a name for himself?”

Referee John Higgins’ roofing company was inundated with harassing emails, phone calls and voice mails — including death threats against Higgins and his family — starting shortly after Kentucky’s 75-73 loss to North Carolina on March 26. Kentucky coach John Calipari criticized the officiating during his postgame news conference.

Barrall said he has identified 450 phone calls or messages and another 200 to 300 messages on social media or in emails that were “of a threatening nature.”

Some of those met the criteria to be considered terroristic threats under Nebraska law. Barrall said he wouldn’t disclose how many until after he reviews all the messages. Under Nebraska law, making terroristic threats is a felony punishable by up to three years in prison.

“This case offers up a lot of potential offenders, most of whom made a stupid decision in joining in on a prank, but serious injuries are possible, and we should draw the line at the law,” Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

About 3,000 phone calls came into Higgins’ office in the two days following the Elite Eight game, Barrall said. He estimated 75 percent were from Kentucky area codes.

Higgins’ business also received a flood of bogus negative online reviews, causing his Google rating to plummet. Higgins’ website got more than 28,000 hits in the days after the game, and he was forced to take down his business’ Facebook page.

Barrall said he also has been listening to about five hours of audio from Kentucky sports radio shows with an ear for threatening comments toward Higgins, whether by hosts or callers. Barrall also continues to monitor Kentucky fan websites.

Barrall said he suspected a video showing contact information for Higgins and posted on fan websites sparked the harassment. That video has been removed, he said.

“There is a lot of mass anonymity once something like that goes viral,” Barrall said. “People that on their own wouldn’t do something, their social values change when a lot of other people do it, and they decide to join in. This is the 21st-century version of a mob mentality because of social media.”

The next phase of the investigation likely would require subpoenas to be issued for phone records and other records of those suspected of making terroristic threats.

“It was not that long ago where courts were reluctant to convict when offense was not initiated in our jurisdiction, but we do not face that anymore,” Polikov wrote. “Also, depending on the facts, we would collaborate with the local authorities where the offenses were initiated. I have not studied the federal options but would consider turning to the FCC if in fact a talk show created the environment for harassment.”

The sheriff’s department has provided extra patrols around Higgins’ office, and Omaha police have done the same near Higgins’ residence. Higgins has not returned phone messages from the AP.

Higgins told Omaha radio station KFAB on Wednesday that he initially was wary of working the Final Four game between Gonzaga and South Carolina on Saturday and that his wife has talked to him about giving up officiating. He said he wouldn’t let fans who act inappropriately get the best of him.

“I’ll continue it. It’s fun. I’m competitive,” he said. “I’ll be fine going forward.”