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Federal trial pulls back curtain on basketball recruiting

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The curtain to college basketball’s worst-kept secret pulled back even more in a New York federal court last week, revealing a shady world of bagmen, secret payments and bags of cash.

New allegations were made and more programs ensnared as witnesses took the stand in the trial of an Adidas executive and two others facing wire fraud and corruption charges.

As the trial moves forward, the behind-the-scenes view into the black-market world of youth and college basketball will likely cast an even wider net, each day of testimony leaving athletic departments across the country wondering if their program will be next.

“You can rest assured there will be a few coaches sweating this trial out,” former LSU coach Dale Brown said.

The trial stems from an FBI investigation into the seedy side of college basketball recruiting. Ten people, including four assistant coaches at prominent programs, were arrested in September 2017, accused of funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars in shoe-company money to top recruits to influence their choice of schools, agents and apparel companies.

Former Adidas executive James Gatto, former AAU coach Merl Code and aspiring agent Christian Dawkins are standing trial in the Manhattan federal court, accused of plotting to pay $100,000 to the family top recruit Brian “Tugs” Bowen Jr.

Prosecutors have portrayed the schools as the victims, at risk of NCAA sanctions and the loss of millions of dollars in the pay-for-players schemes. Defense attorneys placed the blame on the schools for a win-at-all-costs mentality while trying lure top recruits, countering that only NCAA rules were broken, not federal laws.

“This is what corruption in college basketball looks like,” U.S. Attorney Eli Mark said in his opening remarks. “When you lie, cheat and deceive in order to get a college to issue financial aid, that is a crime.”

Paying top recruits has long been college basketball’s dirty little secret, but only in a handful of cases had it been exposed. The federal probe, with the heft of wiretaps, subpoenas and threat of jail time, allowed investigators dig into places the NCAA cannot.

Testimony during the trial has shed more light on the dark underbelly of recruiting, sounding at times like a movie plot as one bagman-turned-witness described an envelope full of cash and Bowen’s father nonchalantly discussed paying for his son’s services as if it were a normal part of the process.

“Tugs was one of the top players in the country,” Bowen Sr. testified. “Every shoe company wants good players on their teams.”

Bowen Sr. outlined the range of potential payments offered by schools: $50,000 from Arizona, $100,000 from Creighton, $150,000 from Oklahoma State. He said there was interest from Oregon, which had previously not been linked to the corruption, and that Texas could help him with housing.

Bowen Sr. also outlined a cash payment from an Adidas representative at an AAU event, money to switch AAU teams and for a car.

Bowen Jr. ended up at Louisville, where already-embroiled-in-scandal coach Rick Pitino was fired, before transferring to South Carolina. Bowen Jr. was never cleared to play college basketball and pursued a professional career in Australia.

“Obviously, if you’re a cheater you’re going to just cheat,” Brown said. “We can’t just blame the kids for taking stuff. For a coach to buy somebody, barter somebody or use them is totally unacceptable. I think the percentage who do that is low, but they say if one does it, it’s too much.”

The NCAA ratified a reform package in August to address the issues raised by the FBI case, including stiffer penalties for rules violations, allowing players to work with an NCAA-certified agent while testing the NBA draft waters and changes to recruiting evaluations.

Any NCAA investigations and action against rule-breaking programs likely will not come until after the federal trials, which may not be until next summer, so the 2018-19 season may play out before any sanctions hit.

“Is anything going to change? I don’t know,” Brown said. “I’m hopeful, but it’s been a long, slow process. The organization is making improvements, but needs revamping.”

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.