Column: Rick Pitino’s plausible deniability could not save him, and that is how the NCAA wants it

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Typically, when an NCAA investigation is looming and a head coach is pleading ignorance, claiming that it says nothing about the culture of his program and everything about a rogue staff member, that coach is, frankly, full of s***.

The term is plausible deniability.

Stay two steps away from the wrongdoing and they’ll never be able to connect you to it.

That is precisely what Rick Pitino has been saying and said again today, after the NCAA suspended him for the first five games of the ACC season and determined that they will be vacating 108 Louisville wins, including the 2013 national title. He had no idea that Andre McGee was bringing strippers and hookers in Billy Minardi Hall, and he had no idea that McGee was paying — more than $5,000 over the course of four years, according to the NCAA — for those strippers and hookers to provide “adult entertainment and/or sex acts” for three different players on the team and as many as 15 recruits, four of whom were 16 years old at the time.

And I believe him.

I believe every word he’s saying for no other reason than the fact that Pitino is not stupid and it would require him to be incredibly stupid to know that McGee was paying for strippers to dance for and hookers to have sex with members of his team, let alone with minors he was trying to entice to Louisville, and not put a stop to it.

Pitino is no angel. I’m not saying he is. But do you honestly believe that he would risk a job that pays him millions of dollars over this?

There’s no way.

What Pitino is guilty of is trusting the wrong man.

Because that is, essentially, what this comes down to.

Coaches intentionally keep themselves out of the loop when it comes to what happens with recruits on official visits, but typically that’s because the players on the team bring that kid along with them wherever they go that weekend. They’ll go to a few parties, have a few drinks, flirt with a few girls, maybe hit up a football tailgate. Think of what you do or did during a normal weekend in college, and that’s what these recruits do.

And those coaches don’t want to know about it just like Pitino didn’t want to know about it. They trust that the players on their team and the members of their staff coordinating the visits are smart enough to make sure the recruits don’t leave with anything other than a hangover.

Unfortunately for Pitino, this was not the case, but that does not matter.

“By his own admission, the head coach and his assistants did not interact with prospects from 10 p.m. until the next morning,” the NCAA said. “The panel noted that the head coach essentially placed a peer of the student-athletes in a position of authority over them and visiting prospects, and assumed that all would behave appropriately in an environment that was, for all practical purposes, a basketball dorm.”

“This arrangement played a role in creating a location where the former operations director’s activities went undetected.”

And as a result, Pitino pays the price for what happened in his program. That’s the way it worked for Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim and SMU head coach Larry Brown, who were both suspended for nine games for violations that occurred under their watch. Ole Miss football coach Hugh Freeze is probably going to end up feeling the NCAA’s wrath in the same way. Hell, Pitino got off light; he was only suspended for five games, and the NCAA accepted the program’s 2015-16 postseason ban. They’ll be able to play in the NCAA tournament this season.

So why is Pitino so mad?

Say goodbye to this (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Because barring a successful appeal that does not appear to be all that likely, Louisville will be losing their 2012 trip to the Final Four and their 2013 national title, the first time in NCAA history that a national title will be vacated. He’ll no longer be able to claim that he’s one of 14 head coaches to win more than one national title. He’ll no longer see a 2013 National Champions banner hanging above the court in the Yum! Center. It won’t be on any Louisville programs. It will be scrubbed from Louisville’s website. They will no longer be able to make ‘2013 National Champions’ be one of the first things you see when you arrive at the Yum! Center.

Generally speaking, I think that vacating wins is the dumbest thing in the world. What this punishment is essentially saying is that Louisville didn’t actually win the games they won from Dec. 2010 through July 2014. That 2013 run to the national title is one I’ll never forget, from Kevin Ware’s broken leg in the Elite 8 to the show that freshman Spike Albrecht put on in the first half of the national title game.

That happened.

But in this specific instance, I think that vacating wins — specifically, vacating the national title — is the worst punishment that the NCAA can hand down.

Think about the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry for a second. Big picture. In 2009, when John Calipari — Pitino’s archnemesis — took over at Kentucky — Pitino’s old stomping grounds and his biggest rival at the new gig — the running joke was that it would only be a matter of time because Coach Cal got Kentucky in trouble, right? It was only a matter of time before he had Kentucky vacating Final Fours the way that he left Memphis and UMass with vacated Final Fours, yes?

Fast forward eight years, and it’s Pitino and Louisville, not Calipari and Kentucky, that will be taking down Final Four banners and vacating a national title.

That indignity is worse than any punishment the NCAA could have given out to the program itself, and given the magnitude of the violations in the NCAA’s eyes, that’s just the way that they wanted it to be.

So even if Pitino didn’t know about what McGee was doing, it doesn’t matter.

In the NCAA’s eyes, the buck stops with him.

Pitino’s program was using prostitutes to recruit high school kids, and now he’ll have to pay the price.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.