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Pearl, Auburn face cloud of uncertainty as season approaches

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Bruce Pearl’s efforts to infuse a once-moribund Auburn basketball program have been derailed after his associate head coach’s arrest as part of a nationwide federal bribery investigation of college basketball.

Chuck Person, one of the greatest players in Auburn history, faces fraud charges as part of the probe that has led to the arrests of four college basketball assistants , an Adidas executive and Louisville placing head coach Rick Pitino and longtime Cardinals athletic director Tom Jurich on administrative leave.

The excitement of selling out season tickets, arrival of top recruits and possible NCAA Tournament bids have been replaced with uncertainty as the Tigers fan base await any potential fallout to Pearl or the program.

With practice set to begin Friday, some fans have already been granted refunds on season tickets, which had sold out for the fourth consecutive year and fifth time in Auburn history.

“They had sold out tickets in September and you’re talking about Auburn basketball,” said SEC Network analyst Dane Bradshaw, who played for Pearl at Tennessee. “So the momentum was obviously sky-high, higher than it’s been as long as I’ve been following SEC basketball for Auburn. Obviously that momentum took a big blow here.”

It remains unclear how a big blow it is for the school.

Pearl has canceled scheduled public appearances the last couple of days and neither the coach nor Auburn athletic officials have commented on the situation. The university has announced that Person is suspended without pay.

Louisville placed Pitino and Jurich on administrative leave . Like Pearl, Pitino wasn’t named in an indictment. They both have resumes tainted by NCAA violations, though Pearl has served his penalty while Louisville’s case is ongoing.

Pearl’s three-year show cause penalty for recruiting violations — and subsequent lies to investigators — while at Tennessee expired in August 2014, more than five months after his hiring by Auburn.

Pitino and Louisville, by contrast, are still appealing NCAA sanctions handed out in June following a sex scandal that unfolded nearly two years ago — and could cost the school its 2013 national title.

Documents state Person received $91,500 in bribes to steer Auburn players to financial advisor Martin Blazer and Rashan Michel, a former NBA referee turned high-end clothier, once they turn pro.

Person said he gave $18,500 of the bribe money to the families of two recruits, according to the federal documents. In the documents, Person touted a recruit who was the “ninth-ranked kid in the country” and would only “play a year and a half” at Auburn before turning pro. He arranged a meeting with the player, Blazer and Michel.

The player wasn’t named, but center Austin Wiley joined the team last December and was a five-star recruit.

Pearl, who proclaimed to Auburn fans at his introductory news conference that “I’m back,” quickly made clear then his expectations for the future but didn’t dodge questions about his past either.

“We will play for championships,” he said after his hiring.

Athletic director Jay Jacobs said he “would not have even considered him” if he hadn’t felt Peal’s apologies were sincere.

Jacobs and Pearl agreed not to contest the show-cause penalty so he could possibly hit the recruiting trail earlier. Pearl said he decided not to appeal initially, in 2011, because “it would lessen my position of accountability.”

Bradshaw, who has stayed in touch with Pearl and has “a great relationship” with him, said it appears the coach still has the confidence of Jacobs. He said the unknown is the immediate issue Pearl and his staff must confront with recruits and current players.

He said Auburn must brace for a season-long story line if it does stick by Pearl.

“Because the NCAA can take so long, it can become an exhausting PR distraction for your team and your athletic department,” Bradshaw said. “As the athletic department and the administration make the decision to support Bruce, if that’s the case, then they have to be willing to ride this out and understand that it could be a year of the story throughout the basketball season.”

Follow John Zenor on Twitter @jzenor

Christian Vital going back to UConn for junior season

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Dan Hurley is keeping his roster intact at the top.

Christian Vital, UConn’s second-leading scorer a season ago, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, he announced Monday via social media.

“Great Talk Today Coach! Appreciate The Wisdom You Have Let Me In On!” Vital wrote “I Think It’s Time To Get Back To Winning Ways In Storrs! I’m Going To Need That #1 Back ASAP! WE GOT (UNFINISHED) BUSINESS!”

The 6-foot-2 junior-to-be Vital joins Jalen Adams, who was the Huskies’ top-returning scorer, back in Storrs in Hurley’s first year. Vital averaged 14.9 points on 38.3 percent shooting. Adams previously announced he would return to school without declaring for the draft.

The return of UConn’s top two scorers underscores an even bigger trend under Hurley as the Huskies appear to have avoided any major defections from last year’s roster despite the coaching change.

UConn is coming off a 14-18 season that proved to be the last of coach Kevin Ollie’s six years with the Huskies that included a national championship but also back-to-back losing seasons.

Chris Silva returning to South Carolina for senior season

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South Carolina is getting an first-team all-SEC performer back.

Chris Silva, who led the Gamecocks in scoring and rebounding last season, is returning to school after declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, the school announced Monday.

“I’m thankful for the experience of going through the draft process,” Silva said in a statement. “I want to thank all of the teams that gave me the opportunity to workout for their organization. I’m excited to announce that I’m returning to South Carolina for my senior season. I can’t wait to get back on the court with my brothers and continue to work on my game.”

The 6-foot-9 Silva, who did not get an NBA draft combine invite, averaged 14.3 points and 8 rebounds per game as a junior.  He shot 46.7 percent from the floor.

“Going through the evaluation process was an unbelievable experience for Chris and us,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said in a statement. “He comes back to a place he loves with some knowledge on some of the things that we have to help him improve on in his efforts to one day fulfill his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA.”

In addition to being South Carolina’s leading scorer, he was the SEC co-defensive player of the year last season after averaging 1.4 blocks per game. His return to Columbia gives the Gamecocks a potential contender for SEC player of the year in 2018-19.

Kansas fires athletic director Sheahon Zenger

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Kansas has fired athletic director Sheahon Zenger, effective immediately, citing a lack of progress in key areas within the athletic department.

“Sheahon has been a loyal Jayhawk, and our athletics department has improved in many areas under his leadership,” Kansas Chancellor Doug Girod wrote in an email to KU faculty and staff. “But athletics continues to face a number of challenges, and progress in key areas has been elusive. To achieve the level of success we need and expect, I have determined a change in leadership is necessary.”

Zenger had been in the role of AD since 2011.

The issue, of course, is not the play of the Kansas basketball program. The Jayhawks have won every Big 12 regular season title since 2004, and head coach Bill Self has taken the program to two Final Fours since Zenger was hired.

The football team is still a disaster, but one can’t help but wonder whether or not the real issue at hand here is Kansas’ getting tied into the FBI’s investigation into college basketball.

The Jayhawks were not mentioned in the initial indictments that were handed down, but Kansas was a central figure in the superseding indictments that were dropped after the national title game. The mother of Billy Preston, who did not play for the Jayhawks this season, was alleged to have been funneled $90,000 by Adidas, while Silvio De Sousa’s status is currently in question after the FBI alleged his guardian was paid at least $20,000 to help offset money that the family had already accepted from a rival shoe company.

All of that came in the aftermath of dealing with Cheick Diallo and Cliff Alexander, both of whom had their one season in Lawrence reduced due to off the court issues.

“Since becoming chancellor, I have spent countless hours with higher education peers and Jayhawks to hear their perspective on KU,” Girod wrote. “A common thread in these conversations is that, as a major public university with national aspirations, we must continue to strive for excellence in all areas — including athletics. As I have said many times, a successful athletics department is inextricably linked to our broader mission as a flagship research university.”

Louisville, ex-AD Tom Jurich reach $4.5M settlement

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The University of Louisville has reached a $4.5 million settlement with former athletic director Tom Jurich, who was fired in the wake of a national federal corruption investigation of college basketball.

Jurich disputed his Oct. 18 firing for cause after nearly 20 years as AD and had considered suing the school. The University of Louisville Athletic Association and Board of Trustees on Friday approved the settlement. Jurich’s employment ended “without cause” as a result of his resignation, also described in the settlement as “retirement.”

He’ll also receive another $2.6 million in accrued employment benefits, along with home game tickets and parking for Louisville football and basketball for 20 years.

An audit of the University of Louisville Foundation released last June showed that Jurich averaged annual compensation of more than $2.76 million from 2010-16, including more than $5.35 million in 2016.

Then-interim president Greg Postel had placed Jurich on paid administrative leave in September after the school’s acknowledgement of its involvement in the investigation. Trustees voted 10-3 to fire Jurich, two days after the ULAA unanimously fired Hall of Fame men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino.

The former AD said in a joint statement that he “spent the better part of my career” working with dedicated athletes, coaches and staff to elevate Louisville. He added, “I am proud of what we accomplished, which is well documented.”

Jurich’s legal team had stressed that the ex-AD did nothing illegal and hadn’t violated NCAA rules.

Trustee chairman J. David Grissom said in the statement that “Everyone is pleased that this matter has been successfully resolved. All parties can move forward to begin the next chapter.”

Jurich played a major role in Louisville’s success on the field and how the school handled issues off it. He led the school’s 2014 entry into the Atlantic Coast Conference and oversaw numerous program and facility upgrades, including a $63 million expansion of the football stadium due for completion by fall.

He also hired several successful coaches including Pitino, who guided the Cardinals to the 2013 NCAA men’s basketball championship. Louisville ultimately vacated that title in February as part of NCAA penalties for a sex scandal after an escort’s book allegations that former basketball staffer Andre McGee hired her and other dancers to strip and have sex with players and recruits.

Pitino has filed a $38.7 million federal lawsuit against Louisville, alleging breach of contract.

Georgia Tech’s Okogie to sign with agent

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Georgia Tech guard Josh Okogie, one of the big winners from this past weekend’s NBA combine, announced on Monday that he will be signing with an agent and remaining in the NBA Draft.

The 6-foot-4 Okogie finished his sophomore season averaged 18.5 points and shooting 38.4 percent from three. The numbers he posted during the athletic testing at the combine, as well as his 7-foot wingspan, makes Okogie an ideal 3-and-D wing at the NBA level.

“Josh is a tremendous young man and an excellent student-athlete,” said head coach Josh Pastner. “He has set a tremendous example, making the Dean’s List this past semester, and deserves a lot of credit for making himself a much better player over the course of his two years here. We will miss him in our program in many respects, from his performance on the court to the energy he plays with and brought to our team. We fully support his decision to take this next step, and wish him all the best.”