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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.”

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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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

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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

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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.