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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.”

Four-star 2019 forward flips commitment from Big Ten to SEC program

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Four-star 2019 forward Tray Jackson flipped his verbal commitment from Minnesota to Missouri on Friday night.

The 6-foot-8 forward announced his decommitment from the Golden Gophers on Twitter and then announced a commitment to Missouri a little more than two hours later. Regarded as the No. 96 overall prospect in the Class of 2019, Jackson reclassified from the Class of 2018 and saw his recruitment blossom in the summer.

While decommitting happens in basketball recruiting semi-frequently, flipping a commitment to a new school within a matter of hours is a very uncommon practice. Typically associated with football recruiting, Jackson’s switch is a big deal for Missouri.

His pledge gives head coach Cuonzo Martin an athletic and versatile frontcourt player with upside as Jackson could play multiple positions. The Tigers missed on E.J. Liddell, but Jackson is a nice prize to land instead. Missouri now has two four-star prospects in the Class of 2019 as Jackson joins four-star guard Mario McKinney.

Minnesota needs to replenish its recruiting efforts as they are now without a commitment in the Class of 2019. With head coach Richard Pitino facing pressure to win this season, this isn’t good for the future of Golden Gopher basketball either.

West Virginia lands five-star 2019 center Oscar Tshiebwe

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West Virginia pulled in a major commitment on Saturday as five-star 2019 center Oscar Tshiebwe pledged to the Mountaineers.

A late-developing, high-motor big man who ascended into a national recruit this summer, the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Tshiebwe represents an important grab for West Virginia. Tshiebwe represents a potential replacement for Sagaba Konate in the middle as the Mountaineers beat some pretty impressive programs to land him. That includes Baylor and Kentucky.

Tshiebwe is quick off the floor and a good athlete, as he could be a very dangerous player in Bob Huggins’ system because of his brand of basketball. Regarded as the No. 21 overall prospect in the Rivals Class of 2019 national rankings, Tshiebwe also took official visits to Baylor, Illinois and Kentucky during the recruiting process.

Tshiebwe joins three-star guard Miles McBride in West Virginia’s 2019 recruiting haul.

VIDEO: Marshall’s Taevion Kinsey easily clears three teammates on ridiculous dunk

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Marshall freshman Taevion Kinsey put down one of the preseason’s best dunks on Friday night. With the Thundering Herd hosting Herd Madness, the 6-foot-5 Kinsey put down a ridiculous dunk that easily cleared three teammates.

Most dunkers use an arm on the shoulder during the dunk. Kinsey didn’t need any sort of help as he glided over his teammates.

Kinsey is going to be a dunker to keep an eye on in the future. His teammates certainly think highly of his dunking ability, as most of them projected Kinsey to win the dunk contest before the event even started.

VIDEO: Zion Williamson impresses Duke fans in Cameron Indoor debut, downplays link to trial

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Duke freshman Zion Williamson made some ridiculous dunks look effortless in his Cameron Indoor Stadium debut on Friday night. As part of Duke’s annual “Countdown to Craziness” event, Williamson took part in a scrimmage against his Blue Devil teammates.

That included Williamson going head-to-head with fellow freshman R.J. Barrett in a scrimmage. And more absurd dunks in the warm up line.

But besides for the on-court action, Williamson was also asked about his family’s link to the college basketball corruption trial. On Tuesday, a transcript of calls was read to the New York courtroom that allegedly included Williamson’s stepfather on FBI tapes asking for money and a job from Kansas men’s basketball coaches. The tapes were not admitted as evidence.

“Honestly, I’ve paid no attention to it,” Williamson said to reporters, including ESPN’s David M. Hale, about the trial. “I’m just a college kid, out here having fun with my classmates, looking forward to stuff like Countdown and our first game. You only get one chance at the college experience, and I want to enjoy it.”

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski also downplayed Williamson’s link to the trial, pointing to the NCAA eligibility center’s “exhaustive” process to vette incoming recruits.

“They have an eligibility center now that these kids and their parents go through — and they go through everything,” Krzyzewski said. “We feel very comfortable with him and all our freshmen.”

We’ll likely hear more about Williamson, Kansas and this trial, as time goes on. Williamson also might legitimately not know much about this if it was his stepfather on the call. For now, Williamson is making a huge impression with Duke fans every time he steps foot on the floor.

(H/t: Lawrence Davis III and Duke men’s basketball)

Louisville lands commitment from Irish basketball star

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For the sixth time since Chris Mack took over the Louisville program, the new Cardinal head coach has landed a commitment from a member of the Class of 2019.

On Friday, it was Aidon Igiehon, a top 50 recruit, that announced he will be playing his college basketball for the Cardinals.

He followed in the footsteps of fellow four-stars Samuell Williamson, David Johnson, Jaelyn Withers and Josh nickelberry, not to mention three-star forward Quinn Slazinski.

And all this has happened over the course of the last five months.

Mack got the job in April, after he finished his final run with a Xavier program that he had been in charge of for the last nine years. That came just six months after Hall of Fame head coach Rick Pitino was fired for a series of scandals that had enveloped the university in the last few years, not the least of which was their involvement with the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball.

That may be the most impressive part of all of this.

No one really knows what is going to happen with Louisville and the NCAA as a result of the way that they were able to entice Brian Bowen on campus. What we do know is that while Louisville was on probation due to the fact that a member of their coaching staff was paying for strippers and sex workers for players and recruits, an agreement was made for Adidas to pay the family of Brian Bowen $100,000 to get him to enroll at Louisville. Bowen’s father said under oath that, in addition to that money, he also accepted at least one $1,300 payment from former Louisville assistant Kenny Johnson.

Those are NCAA violations committed while the program was on probation.

And those are the kind of things that the NCAA does not take lightly.

Everyone involved with the reason that Louisville was on probation and that actually committed those violations has moved on, but that hasn’t stopped speculation that the Cardinals could be facing even more punishment from the NCAA, which is what has made this recruiting job by Mack so impressive.

He’s filled up an entire class of prospects before he’s even coached a game for the program all while this nonsense is swirling around his program.

Was there ever any doubt that the Cardinals hired the right guy?