To turn Texas around, Rick Barnes first needed to change the culture of his team

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source: Reuters
Rick Barnes (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we will be previewing the Big 12.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

In a vacuum, the 2013-14 season — a 24-11 record, a third-place finish in the Big 12, an ouster in the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament — was not a banner year for Texas.

This is a program that had made the NCAA tournament in the first 14 years of Rick Barnes’ tenure in Austin. They’ve been to a Final Four. They’ve been to two other Elite 8s. They’ve sent players like T.J. Ford and Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge to the NBA. They’ve won the Big 12 regular season title three times since 1999.

But what made that season so special, what earned Barnes the Big 12 Coach of the Year award and made Texas one of the nation’s feel-good stories, was the fact that the program had hit rock bottom the year before.

Players were transferring out. Elite, in-state recruits were going to Houston and Baylor, not to mention the ACC and the SEC, instead of playing for the ‘Horns. Barnes looked like he needed to start updating his resume.

Texas enters this season as the No. 8 team in the NBCSports.com Preseason Top 25. Barnes has resurrected this Texas program, but to do that, he first had to fix the team’s culture.

MORE: NBCSports.com’s 2014-2015 Big 12 Preview

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source: AP
Johnathan Holmes (AP Photo)

Rick Barnes had just finished the worst season of his 15-year tenure at Texas, a campaign that culminated in a seventh-place finish in the Big 12, their 16-17 record bad enough that the Longhorns couldn’t even get invited to the NIT.

But instead of cutting his losses and getting on with figuring out how he was going to turn Texas back into a Final Four contender, Barnes made the decision to accept an invitation to the CBI, a third-tier postseason event that struggles to attract brand-name programs; Santa Clara beat George Mason in the finals the year Texas participated.

“I think every possible experience that we can put these guys in, whether it’s going on the road to play games, we need to do that,” Barnes said at the time. “And to be where we want to be, you have to be able to win anywhere.”

They didn’t win, and things got worse from there.

Texas lost to Houston in the first round of the CBI, a result that was hard to ignore as a harbinger of the power shift in the state of Texas. At the time, the Longhorns weren’t landing much of the elite talent coming out of the state. Houston has just brought in a recruiting class that included in-state products Danuel House and Chicken Knowles, a five-star and four-star recruit, respectively.

The season had been an unmitigated disaster. Barnes was about to face an offseason chock full of scrutiny and rumors that Buzz Williams or Shaka Smart or whoever would be coming for his job. He wasn’t recruiting the way that he had as recently as two seasons earlier. There was never a more obvious pick for a ‘Coaches on the Hot Seat’ list.

But oddly enough, it was that loss, combined with some lucky scheduling, that turned the program around.

“We played in the CBI, which was tough to do and tough to get up for, but we played,” senior forward Johnathan Holmes told NBCSports.com last week. “We lost to Houston in the first round, and the very next day, we came back and we had to go to the football facilities because the NCAA tournament was at the Erwin Center.”

Think about that.

Instead of playing in the NCAA tournament, the Longhorns were getting kicked out of their own facility to allow Austin to host the second and third rounds of the event.

It left a bitter taste in the mouth of everyone left on the roster.

“We started working out and made it very clear from that day on, we were just going to have each other’s backs,” Holmes said. “We instilled that and we matured. We didn’t look to put all the blame on each other and on the coach. We looked ourselves in the mirror. We grew up.”

Barnes reiterated the same sentiment.

“There definitely was a different agenda. That was for certain,” Barnes told NBCSports.com. “Last year, we had a group of guys that made their minds up themselves that it wasn’t going to be about them. It was going to be about the program. They wanted to win. That, in itself, is the biggest difference.”

While Barnes made sure to note “there wasn’t anything wrong with the kids that we had in the program” the year before, it’s hard not to read between the lines of what the coach and his player are saying. Some of the players that Texas parted ways with after the Houston loss were addition by subtraction.

source: Getty Images
Cameron Ridley, Getty Images

Myck Kabongo, the team’s star point guard, was suspended for the first 23 games of the season after the NCAA determined that Kabongo had lied during an investigation into how an offseason workout was paid for. Shelden McClellan was benched multiple times during his two seasons in Austin, eventually transferring to Miami once the season ended. Julien Lewis left for Fresno State after losing his spot in the starting lineup to Demarcus Holland. Ioannis Papapetrou went pro in Greece. Jaylen Bond transferred closer to his Philly home.

The players that were left were not as highly recruited or as intriguing to NBA teams, which played a major role in the speculation surrounding Barnes’ imminent firing. Holmes, Javan Felix and Demarcus Holland weren’t good enough. Cameron Ridley was too out of shape. Isaiah Taylor wasn’t going to have enough of an impact as freshmen.

And as much as the players — and the coaching staff — tried to ignore all the negativity, they couldn’t. The same people that predicted the program’s downfall grilled them with questions about those very predictions at every media availability.

“Anybody that is in that situation is aware of it because they’re asked about it, just like you’re talking about it now,” Barnes said, clearly still bitter about the way that his future was portrayed at this time last year. “I think it’s wrong when the media is putting out lists of guys on the hot seat. My thing is, what does that have to do with anything other than people want to speculate and make news?”

“A lot of times, the media’s writing things that aren’t always true,” he added. “I can only tell you that from within, not one time did my athletic director tell me [my job was in jeopardy]. Not one time.”

It was hard for the players not to take that speculation personally, as criticism of Barnes was an indirect shot at the ability of his players. He wasn’t expected to win because his players simply weren’t good enough.

“We heard all the noise,” Holmes said. “We heard everybody talking about it.”

The only thing they could do was to get to work.

As a visitor in the football team’s weight room.

“Definitely humbling, especially at a place like Texas,” Holmes said. “To be [Barnes’] first team not to make the tournament, it was a hard time for us.”

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The expectations for this Texas team are back in full force.

They’re being projected as a potential Final Four team. They’re the trendy pick to end Kansas’ reign atop the Big 12 standings. Taylor, Holmes and Ridley are all-Big 12 caliber players, while incoming freshman Myles Turner — a top ten prospect nationally that hails from Euless, Texas — may be the best prospect of them all, ensuring that Austin will once again be a mandatory stop for roving NBA scouts.

And Barnes’ job security?

It’s as solid as it has ever been, Barnes says.

And while he’s happy that he has this program back to where it should be — nationally relevant both in-season and on the recruiting trail — that’s not what he is most excited about with this team.

“These guys really energized us as a coaching staff, the kind of people they are and the attitude they bring,” Barnes said. “That’s exactly what we’re looking for.”

“There’s nothing better, as a coach, than to have a group of guys that care about each other and that want to win.”

No. 13 Memphis lands rivalry road win against No. 19 Tennessee

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Tyler Harris and Alex Lomax came off the bench to combine for 19 points, 12 boards and three assists, providing a major spark as No. 13 Memphis overcame a dreadful start to land a come-from-behind, 51-47 win over No. 19 Tennessee.

Memphis scored five points in the first 11 minutes. They were down by as many as 12 points in the first half after missing 13 of their first 14 shots. To be quite frank, they opened this game playing like a team that was starting five freshmen in a rivalry game.

Tennessee finished the afternoon shooting just 25 percent from the floor and 4-for-26 (16 percent) from three. They scored just 0.723 points-per-possession, the worst performance since an 82-55 drubbing Tennessee took at South Carolina in February of 2017.

Here are the three things we can take away from this game:

1. THIS WAS VERY, VERY IMPRESSIVE FROM MEMPHIS

I don’t think that I can say that enough.

There was so much that did not go the Tigers’ way in this game, and so many built in excuses for the loss.

It was played in Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, the first time a Memphis team starting four freshmen was playing a true road game against a top 25 team. It was the first time those freshmen were playing in a rivalry game, and they spent the first 12 minutes or so looking like a team that was overwhelmed by the moment.

And they were doing it while their best player and the potential No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft missed his seventh game due to a suspension. Should I mention that their best shooter, Lester Quinones, was also out as he continues to recover from a broken hand?

Oh, and the game was played at Tennessee’s pace. The Tigers want games to be frenetic. They want to be able to get out and run in transition. They want to force turnovers, get more possessions and have a chance to let their athletes avoid having to attack set defenses by playing on the break. None of that happened. This game had 65 possessions, which will go down as the fewest possessions in a game for this team this season.

And they still won.

I can fully admit that I did not think that Memphis had a win like this in them.

2. ALEX LOMAX AND TYLER HARRIS WERE THE DIFFERENCE-MAKERS

The Memphis freshmen are the guys that get all the hype and attention, but the two guys that changed this game on Saturday were Harris and Lomax. Harris provided the offensive spark in the first half, hitting a pair of threes and scoring eight of his 11 points in the final nine minutes to wake up a team that looked like they were still working their way through the itis.

Lomax was involved, too. He forced a couple of first half turnovers and he settled the team in the second half, making a couple plays in the halfcourt when it looked like Tennessee was on the verge of getting a critical stop.

Credit does have to be given elsewhere. Precious Achiuewa had 13 rebounds and two blocks and played with four fouls for the final five minutes of the game. D.J. Jeffries had a couple important drives down the stretch, including one where he found Damian Baugh for a three to give Memphis the lead back. Boogie Ellis was trapped in the corner in the backcourt with the Tigers up by two, less than 15 seconds on the clock and no timeouts left and found a way to get the ball out without committing a turnover.

This was very much a team effort, and an impressive one at that, but the catalysts were the two little guards that were relegated to Penny’s bench when he brought in a vaunted recruiting class.

3. TENNESSEE HAD SOME SERIOUS ISSUES ON THE OFFENSIVE END

The Vols shot 25 percent from the floor on Saturday. They were 4-for-26 from three. Josiah-Jordan James got off to a hot start to the game, but beyond that, their best offense ended up being post touches for Yves Pons and John Fulkerson.

The question that needs to be asked is whether this is just an off-night or if this is a sign of a larger issue for a program that is still working through how to replace Grant Williams, Jordan Bone and Admiral Schofield.

Lamonte Turner was 1-for-11 from the floor on Saturday and did not make his first shot until there were four minutes left. Jordan Bowden was 2-for-10 from the floor. That is not normal, and they missed a number of good, open looks. They are Rick Barnes’ two-leading scorers, so I tend to think that this is the kind of thing where you just chalk it up as one of those nights shots didn’t go down.

The larger concern might be that the last time Tennessee played a tough, athletic and defensive-minded team, Turner and Bowden combined to shooting 7-for-24 from the floor and 3-for-11 in a loss. If anything, I think the answer is that the Vols need to find a way to score on the nights where two are off.

Balanced effort leads No. 16 Michigan State past Oakland

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DETROIT — Michigan State and Oakland have one of the most lopsided rivalries in college basketball. It also is one of the friendliest.

With Saturday’s 72-49 victory at Little Caesars Arena, Tom Izzo and the No. 16 Spartans (7-3) are now 18-0 against Greg Kampe’s Golden Grizzlies, with all 18 games coming in the last 21 years.

“I love this game, but there’s nothing I love about beating a team 18 straight times, especially when it means beating a good friend,” Izzo said. “It’s just so good to come down here, because we get a great crowd of Spartans who don’t usually get to see us play.

“And it is great to see what is happening in this city.”

For Kampe, who started his Oakland (5-6) career when the then-Pioneers were still in Division II, a victory over Michigan State remains one unchecked box on his coaching bucket list.

“I’m not trying to beat Tom — that’s not what these games are all about,” he said. “This is about Oakland trying to beat Michigan State — one of the best programs in the country.”

The game was a defensive struggle, with both teams having offensive troubles. Oakland’s size forced Michigan State into 33 3-point attempts, while the Golden Grizzlies tried and failed to score in the paint.

“Taking 33 3s is a joke, but most of those were because of the way Greg guarded us,” Izzo said. “It was a good idea, because Cassius (Winston) went 1-for-9 and Gabe (Brown) went 0-for-5. We’re not used to that.”

Aaron Henry put up 10 points and six assists but was the only Spartan to reach double figures. Xavier Tillman added nine points and 13 rebounds.

“I never thought I’d lead us with 10 points, but that’s just how it was today,” Henry said. “We couldn’t hit any shots.”

Xavier Hill-Mais led Oakland with 10 points. The Golden Grizzlies, who have come close to upsetting their in-state rivals in past years with a high-speed, 3-point-heavy offense, shot just 26%, including 31% (7-22) on 3-pointers.

“We expected to have two of the top shooters in the country coming back this year, but they didn’t, and they left when it was too late to replace them,” Kampe said. “We’re not a good shooting team and we’re going to have to find a way to win without threes.”

Michigan State took control early, using an 18-3 run to take a 24-9 lead with eight minutes left in the first half. The Spartans led 34-19 at halftime, holding the Golden Grizzlies to 23% shooting, including 1 of 6 on 3-pointers.

The Spartans made only 21% (3 of 14) of their 3s in the first half but hit a pair on their first two possessions of the second half to go up by 21.

Kampe picked up a technical foul with his team down 52-30 midway through the second half, and his team struggled to keep the game from getting out of hand down the stretch.

Izzo put son Steven into the game for the final moments, and he delighted the crowd with three rebounds.

“Those rebounds didn’t mean much in the context of the game, but it meant a lot to see how the fans reacted to them,” Izzo said. “Memories last a lifetime and those memories will last two lifetimes.”

BIG PICTURE

Spartans: Although Michigan State was cheered by most of the 18,145 fans, it was officially a road game for the Spartans. MSU will play Oakland for the next six seasons, with the game alternating between the Breslin Center in Lansing and Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.

Golden Grizzlies: The first Michigan State-Oakland game opened the “O”-rena in Rochester in 1998, but the Spartans have never been back. All of Oakland’s subsequent “home” games have been hosted at the Palace of Auburn Hills or Little Caesars Arena.

A LOT OF COACHING EXPERIENCE

Kampe (36 seasons) and Izzo (25 seasons) have combined for 1,263 wins and 61 seasons in the only head coaching jobs they’ve ever held. Izzo, though, wasn’t thrilled when asked about the duo being at their schools for “70 years.”

“I shouldn’t even answer that question, because you made me absolutely terrible when you said I’d been here for 75 years,” he said. “We’ve extended the series contract for six more years, so I guess you’ll say we’ve been here for 90 years by then.”

KAMPE GRUDGINGLY PRAISES OFFICIALS

Oakland’s three post players — Hill-Mais, Daniel Oladapo and Brad Brechting — were a combined 8 of 34 from the floor. Kampe felt it was all due to the good officiating.

“The officials called a good, consistent game, which is what you want,” he said. “But they called a physical game, and we can’t beat that team in a physical game.”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

A comfortable win on national television won’t hurt Michigan State’s No. 16 ranking, but Oakland isn’t a high-caliber opponent. The Spartans will be tested more on Wednesday when they face Northwestern on the road.

UP NEXT

Spartans: At Northwestern on Wednesday.

Golden Grizzlies: At Syracuse on Wednesday.

No. 1 Louisville bounces back 99-67 rout of Eastern Kentucky

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville rebounded from a lackluster defeat that will end its stay at No. 1 with the offensive patience and accuracy that fueled its rise to the top.

Jordan Nwora scored 26 points, Steven Enoch had a career-high 23 and the Cardinals shot 63% in both halves to blow out Eastern Kentucky 99-67 on Saturday.

After taking their first loss Tuesday against Texas Tech in the Jimmy V Classic behind 34% shooting, the Cardinals (10-1) responded with baskets from all over the floor. They made 17 of 27 from the field before and after halftime, including 9 of 19 from long range, to pull away from their in-state opponent.

That wasn’t easy against an EKU defense that consistently pressed the Cardinals.

“We wanted to make sure we didn’t just settle for the first shot or the quickest shot we could get,” Cardinals coach Chris Mack said. “We weren’t perfect, but thought we made some really good decisions.

Nwora had the hot hand throughout, making 6 of his first 8 to finish 10 of 14 and 3 of 5 from behind the arc. The junior forward certainly sought improvement after a 4-of-16 performance epitomized the Cardinals’ night against the Red Raiders in New York.

“My mindset was just being efficient, getting back in the gym and just continuing to get better,” said Nwora, who also had seven rebounds, three assists and two steals. “Games like that happen. You just have to move on to the next one.”

Enoch, meanwhile, made his first seven attempts to finish 9 of 10 and surpass his previous career best by a point. He was also 5 of 6 from the line, with his miss the only one by Louisville in 23 attempts.

Enoch also grabbed six rebounds as Louisville controlled the Colonels (3-7) 35-24 on the boards and 42-18 in the paint. Malik Williams made a pair of 3s for 11 points with six rebounds.

EKU began 7 of 13 from the field to stay close before several cold spells created a 20-point hole before halftime that steadily grew in the second half. The Ohio Valley Conference school shot just 37% — including 33% in the second half in losing their fifth straight.

Ty Taylor had 13 points, Tre King 12 and Jacquess Hobbs and Jomaru Brown nine each for EKU.

“They made shots and we didn’t shoot the ball well like we should have,” Hobbs said.

MILESTONE

Louisville senior forward Dwayne Sutton had 11 points to surpass 1,000 in his career between the Cardinals and UNC Asheville.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Though Louisville will fall from No. 1 come Monday, this win should minimize its drop in the Top 10.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels made nine 3-pointers, but those 18 misses along with struggles inside the arc led to Louisville scoring opportunities. Their trapping defense contributed to 16 turnovers, but their 14 miscues also led to 34 Cardinals points.

“We couldn’t capitalize off some turnovers we forced,” second-year coach A.W. Hamilton said. “We missed some shots we can make. They are hard because there is not a lot of room for error with them. If you make a couple of mistakes, they can go on a 10-0 run on you in a second.”

Louisville: After three games of 36% shooting or worse, the Cardinals got healthy against the Colonels. They worked the ball around for 22 assists, displayed better shot selection and went deep in their bench. They sometimes struggled against the trap, but figured it out often enough to get the ball in the hands of their top two scorers. Allowing 16 offensive rebounds concerned Mack, but his team handled the defensive boards 23-8.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: Visits Marshall on Thursday to complete a four-game road swing.

Louisville: Hosts Miami (Ohio) on Wednesday in its final game before Christmas and will have 10 days off before visiting rival No. 8 Kentucky.

No. 10 Oregon knocks off No. 5 Michigan in a thriller in Ann Arbor

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Payton Pritchard scored 15 of the final 17 points for Oregon and Michigan missed two shots at the rim on the final possession of the game as the No. 10 Ducks held on to beat the No. 5 Wolverines in overtime, 71-70.

Pritchard shook off a slow start to the game before taking over down the stretch. He finished with 23 points, four assists and three steals on 11-for-19 shooting despite being defended by Zavier Simpson, one of the best in the country. One of the few times that Simpson was actually able to get a stop came on the final possession of regulation, when he knocked the ball loose before it ended up with Anthony Mathis. Mathis, who had 19 points and hit six threes on the night, buried a 30-footer, but after a review the officials determined the shot game just after the buzzer.

Franz Wagner led the way for Michigan with 21 points while Isaiah Livers scored all 13 of his points in the second half. Michigan was down by as many as 16 points in the first half and trailed 31-23 at the break.

Here are three things that we can take away from this game:

1. YOU CANNOT HAVE A PLAYER OF THE YEAR CONVERSATION WITHOUT PAYTON PRITCHARD

Pritchard did not put up monster numbers on Saturday. He finished with 23 points, four assists, three boards and three steals, which is really good but not the kind of performance that typically makes you get up out of your seat and start screaming “THAT IS YOUR NATIONAL PLAYER OF THE YEAR!”

But let’s put this into context.

Michigan’s Zavier Simpson is one of the best on-ball defenders in college basketball. There may not be anyone in the sport that is better at disrupting an offense at the point of attack that he is. And Pritchard just torched him over the final five minutes of regulation and in overtime.

Oregon’s offense down the stretch was, essentially, giving the ball to their star and getting out of the way, and it worked. Pritchard scored the final nine points in regulation for the Ducks, and if Anthony Mathis is able to get a buzzer-beating three off just a split-second earlier, than it would have been enough to give the Ducks a win. In the extra frame – playing in front of a raucous home environment as a short-handed team that just blew a 16 point lead – the Ducks probably weren’t considered the favorite.

But Pritchard scored six of Oregon’s eight points, and that was enough to get the win.

Entering Saturday, Pritchard was averaging 18.8 points, 6.1 assists and 4.2 boards for a team that now has wins over Memphis, Seton Hall, Houston and at Michigan. This is not the first time that he’s made big plays late to win a game (Memphis) or to get his team to overtime (Gonzaga). He’s going to be the guy that carries this Oregon team as far as they go, and given what he’s proven that he can do, I think that’ll be pretty far.

I’m not sure who the Player of the Year favorite would be as of today, but I know for a fact that there is no way to talk about who it should be without including Pritchard in that conversation.

2. FRANZ WAGNER AND BRANDON JOHNS SHOW UP FOR MICHIGAN

On a night where Zavier Simpson struggled, Jon Teske forgot to show up and Isaiah Livers was non-existent outside of a six-minute heater at the start of the second half, the Wolverines got massive production from a couple of guys that haven’t shown the ability to do it just yet.

Wagner was Michigan’s leading scorer on Saturday. He finished with 21 points, he hit four threes and he made a number of plays down the stretch that kept Michigan from getting run. This was the guy that the Wolverines thought they were getting when Wagner committed. He was terrific.

Johns’ numbers are not as impressive, but his impact was just as important. He finished with eight points, nine boards, two assists and two blocks – solid production from a five coming off the bench – but it was the fact that he allowed Michigan to play small without losing any of their defensive mettle. Johns is a former top 50 recruit, a burly, 6-foot-8 forward with tantalizing athleticism, but he has struggled finding the confidence to allow him to tap into that potential.

We’ve seen it in flashes. This was more than that.

If Wagner and Johns continue to play like this, then maybe Michigan won’t be so worried about No. 3 …

3. MICHIGAN WILL LIVE BY THE THREE AND DIE BY THE THREE ALL SEASON LONG

Heading into Saturday afternoon’s showdown with the Ducks, the Wolverines were shooting 42.3 percent from three in their eight wins and 6-for-37 from three in their two losses.

In the first half against Oregon, Michigan shot 2-for-12 from three, trailed by as many as 16 points and entered the second half with a 31-23 deficit at home. In the second half, the Wolverines were 7-for-9 from beyond the arc, came roaring back and, if they had been able to stop Pritchard in the final five minutes of regulation, would have won this game.

That’s more or less how this team is built.

Since so much of their offense is based on the ability of Zavier Simpson to make something happen out of ball-screens, when the guys on the perimeter are forcing defenses to pay attention to them – and punishing them when they don’t – the Wolverines are going to be that much better.

Rocket science, this is not.

USC receives notice of allegations from NCAA in federal corruption case

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Southern California’s basketball program has received a notice of allegations from the NCAA following a federal investigation into corruption and bribery in the sport.

The school said in a statement Friday night it has “cooperated with the NCAA since it first became aware of the issues” raised in the notice, and it “looks forward to an expeditious resolution of this matter.”

The notice had been expected, but the NCAA’s timeline for ruling on USC’s case is uncertain. The NCAA opened similar cases against North Carolina State, Kansas, and Oklahoma State this year.

The university statement referred to a “former coach in the men’s basketball program,” which presumably is former assistant Tony Bland. He was fired by USC in January 2018. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit bribery last January. As part of his plea, Bland acknowledged accepting a $4,100 bribe and received two years’ probation.

Bland said in court he received payments for directing USC players to retain the services of certain financial advisers and business managers.

Bland and nine others were arrested and faced charges of fraud and bribery following the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. USC and several other schools were caught up in the inquiry.