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Trial expected to explore ‘underbelly’ of college basketball

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NEW YORK — When Brian Bowen Jr., one of America’s brightest high school basketball stars, announced in June 2017 that he would attend the University of Louisville, a school that had not been on anyone’s radar as his possible destination, sportswriters called it a coup that “came out of nowhere.” Louisville coach Rick Pitino agreed.

“In my 40 years of coaching,” he said, “this is the luckiest I’ve been.”

In a trial that begins Monday, federal prosecutors will argue that the signing wasn’t luck at all but the result of a payoff to Bowen’s father.

Former sports agent Christian Dawkins, former Amateur Athletic Union coach Merl Code and former Adidas executive James Gatto have all pleaded not guilty to charges they plotted to pay Bowen’s father $100,000 in exchange for his son’s promise to commit to Louisville.

It is the first trial related to an FBI investigation that exposed the sleazy side of big money in college basketball and led to charges against multiple people involved in making payments to student athletes. Other defendants, including former assistant coaches from Arizona, Auburn, the University of Southern California and Oklahoma State, face separate trials.

Neither Bowen, now 19, nor his father, Brian Bowen Sr., have been charged. Nor has Pitino, who was fired by Louisville along with athletic director Tom Jurich after the investigation became public.

The indictment says Adidas played a role in helping lure star players to its affiliated teams and keep them from going to teams sponsored by competitors like Nike. It also includes allegations that recruiters talked about using money from Adidas to pay two other families of prized high school basketball recruits, besides Bowen.

Lawyers for the defendants say any recruiting issues should have been the NCAA’s problem, not fodder for a federal prosecution.

In one episode central to the case, investigators recorded a meeting at a Las Vegas hotel in which Dawkins met with an assistant coach at Louisville and the director of an amateur team to talk about making backdoor cash payments to players, with the expectation that he could manage their business affairs once they turned professional.

The men didn’t know that another person in the room was an FBI informant.

At the meeting, Dawkins was overheard warning how an Adidas competitor was “coming with a higher number” for Bowen’s family, the criminal complaint said. It said he also claimed he’d been in touch with the Louisville head coach about how to come with more money.

Prosecutors say the defendants settled on a plan to pay the Bowen family four $25,000 installments, with the money coming from Adidas, but disguised by routing it through an amateur team run by Merl Code.

They contend that the secret payments defrauded colleges because Bowen and other young athletes would not have qualified for generous scholarships if they were known to have accepted outside payments. Also, the basketball programs might have to forfeit games or lose tournament eligibility if they were found to have used ineligible players.

Defense lawyers plan to challenge this argument.

The defendants, they wrote in a recent court filing, “were not trying to cause financial harm to these schools, but rather were trying to help them recruit a great basketball team that would bring in millions of dollars in revenue and bolster their national reputation.”

Prosecutors haven’t ruled out calling recruits or their family members as witnesses. And it’s likely that Pitino’s name will come up in testimony at a trial expected to last at least three weeks.

While the case has generated headlines, college basketball largely remained business as usual last season. No teams were declared ineligible for the NCAA Tournament.

Bowen, who has not been accused of having any personal knowledge of payments to his family, may have suffered more than anyone associated with the case so far.

Louisville suspended him before he ever played a game. He transferred to the University of South Carolina, but after it said he couldn’t play this season, he signed with a professional team in Australia, effectively ending his college career and dimming his hope of playing in the NBA.

Pitino has insisted there was nothing suspicious about how the teenager was recruited.

“Some people will believe it, some people won’t,” Pitino told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “That I don’t care.”

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.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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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.