College basketball is better than ever on the floor. Scoring is up, stars players fill every corner of the country and fan support is sky high.
Off the floor, it has an image problem.
A federal probe this summer uncovered the dark underbelly of college basketball, revealing a web of bribes and kickbacks from shoe companies funneled toward recruits. The arrests of 10 people, including assistant coaches at four prominent schools, casts a shadow over the sport heading into the 2017-18 season — and likely beyond.
“It’s a big egg on a lot of our faces,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “It kind of speaks for the entire entity, and we’re part of it.”
The federal investigation led to the arrests of assistant coaches from No. 3 Arizona, No. 10 Southern Cal, Oklahoma State and Auburn, along with an Adidas marketing executive. The probe has already taken down No. 16 Louisville coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich, and more shoes could drop as the investigation digs deeper.
The teams already in the crosshairs — Miami is also among them — will play with uncertainty; whether its players will remain eligible, if the investigation will reach all the way to the head coach, if NCAA sanctions are on the horizon.
The other major programs, particularly those with high-end recruits, could be looking over their shoulders all season to see if they will become ensnared.
“You have to eliminate the clutter and understand the class has to be tight,” Arizona coach Sean Miller. “You have to talk to people, but only we know what happens on a daily basis in our program.”
On the court, Miller has the type of team that could end his Final Four-less run. The Wildcats have a solid core of experienced players returning from last year’s Elite Eight team — preseason All-American Allonzo Trier among them — to go with a stellar recruiting class, highlighted by athletic big man Deandre Ayton.
Of course, there are plenty of deep, talented teams capable of making a run to San Antonio.
Duke is the preseason No. 1 for the second straight season with senior Grayson Allen back and the addition of Marvin Bagley III, coach Mike Krzyzewski’s latest one-and-done wonder.
Michigan State’s Tom Izzo always seems to get the most out of his team in March and has plenty to work with this season, playing with a stacked deck bolstered by the return of preseason All-American Miles Bridges.
No. 4 Kansas has reloaded and is gunning for Big 12 title No. 14 in a row. So has No. 5 Kentucky, but you knew that already; Coach Cal is never without a roster full of future NBA players.
Defending national champion North Carolina lost a lot from a year ago, but the return of point guard Joel Berry II was huge for the Tar Heels, even if he will miss the start of the season after breaking his hand punching a door.
“We’re not defending (the national championship) because it’s not the same team playing against the same teams, but we’re the only team that can go out and say we could do this a second year in a row,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said.
Don’t count out the mid majors, who have been major players since Butler reached consecutive Final Fours from 2010-11.
Gonzaga reached the title game a year ago and took the Tar Heels to the wire. The Zags lost a lot from that team, but came in at No. 18 in the AP preseason poll and coach Mark Few has another talented group.
This year it could be Wichita State. Coach Gregg Marshall, who has spurned offers from other schools to remain in Wichita, has his entire starting five back and a stronger schedule — for NCAA Tournament seeding purposes — after the Shockers’ move to the AAC.
“My job got better in terms of the profile of the league and the opportunity to get in the NCAA Tournament,” Marshall said.
And don’t forget about the freshman. Every year seems to bring bigger, more athletic players straight out of high school, and this season is no exception.
Bagley is 6 feet, 11 inches of do everything, making a good Duke team even better. Same thing with Ayton, though at 7-1, 260 pounds. Kentucky has five high school All-Americans.
The best of the bunch could be Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. He’s 6-10, can shoot, score off the dribble, is a preseason All-American, the projected No. 1 NBA draft pick and has been compared to a young Kevin Durant. He’s going to get plenty of shots in Columbia, too.
“He’s long and fast and skilled, got tremendous feel, I.Q.” Florida coach Mike White said. “He’s going to be a really good player.”
The 2017-18 season will be filled with them. Whether they’ll be enough to pull the sport from under the dark cloud hanging over it remains to be seen.
Follow John Marshall on Twitter @jmarshallap