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College basketball’s biggest storylines heading into 2019

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2018 has been a wild year in college basketball.

We saw what might have been the best team in college basketball history win a title as Villanova landed their second ring in the last three years. We saw the sport get turned on its head as an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball led to trials, convictions and some of the secrets as to how the sausage is made in recruiting. That investigation also led to the NCAA changing a number of rules that don’t really make all that much sense. 

With 2019 now just around the corner, here are the biggest storylines to follow for the rest of the season and the upcoming year.

DUKE’S FRESHMEN

This is the biggest, most exciting story in college basketball this season. Zion Williamson is an absolute sensation, and rightfully so. We have never seen anything like him before in college hoops — there’s a reason that we are looking at him as the clear-cut favorite to be the No. 1 pick in June — and he is far from alone on this Duke roster. R.J. Barrett could be the No. 2 pick. Cam Reddish could be the No. 3 pick. Tre Jones could be a lottery pick. We’ve never seen anything like that.

But there is certainly some question as to whether or not this is a team that can win a national title. For starters, the other six teams that are currently sitting at the top of the college hoops hierarchy are loaded with veterans; there’s a reason that only two teams built around freshmen have won the title in the one-and-done era. It’s hard to do, and that’s before you consider some of the issues that Duke has had. For example: Reddish has struggled to figure out what, exactly, his role is and how, exactly, he fits as a guy wired to play on the ball while being asked to play off it. Another example: Can Barrett figure out how to be a playmaker while defenses get tailored to his tendency to barrel into defenders in the paint?

This is the most entertaining team in the country and loaded with talent. Seeing whether or not they can finish it off with a ring is the biggest story in the sport.

IS THE PAC-12 A ONE-BID LEAGUE?

If the season ended today, it probably would be. Outside of Arizona State, no one in the conference has done anything that would earn them consideration as an at-large bid. UCLA is such a dumpster fire that Steve Alford has already lost his job — more on that in a second. USC isn’t much better, as the Trojans have a matching 7-6 record while their star player, Kevin Porter Jr., may have disappeared. Oregon is losing buy games to Texas Southern. Washington is 8-4 on the season. No one in the league has less than three losses. As a league, they are just 7-9 against the WCC, and if you look at the conference ratings on KenPom, the conference belongs in the same tier as the American and the WCC, not the Big East or the SEC or the rest of the big boys.

This reminds me of the 2011-12 season, the year that Washington went 7-6 in league play, won the Pac-12 regular season title and missed the NCAA tournament as Colorado — a No. 11 seed — and Cal — a No. 12 seed — were the only two programs from the conference to get into the tournament.

That leads me into the next question …

HOW MUCH COACHING TURNOVER WILL THERE BE IF IT IS?

We already have an answer on one program in the Pac-12 — UCLA will be hiring in March, and who fills that job could be the kind of thing that launches the coaching carousel. For example, what if it is Notre Dame’s Mike Brey that gets the job? Or TCU’s Jamie Dixon? Or N.C. State’s Kevin Keatts?

(Also, what if it is Rick Pitino, although that is an entirely different — and much more interesting — can of worms.)

And that could end up being far from the only job that opens up in the league. Cal’s hire of Wyking Jones has been an abject disaster. Ernie Kent is in his fifth season at Washington State and has yet to win more than 13 games in a season. Andy Enfield has USC at 7-6 on the season after his program spent the last year in the FBI’s crosshairs. Wayne Tinkle is in year five at Oregon State and has as many NCAA tournaments to his name as he has five-win seasons. Even Washington is something to keep an eye on, as Mike Hopkins will be the obvious name to keep an eye on if this is finally the year that Jim Boeheim retires.

As one Pac-12 coach put it, the Pac-12 has only “two established, highly successful coaches.”

NEVADA’S UNDEFEATED RUN

I don’t know if the Wolf Pack is actually good enough to go undefeated heading into the NCAA tournament, but I do know they have the best chance of anyone in college basketball to get it done this season. The Mountain West is actually deeper than anyone initially thought — both Utah State and Fresno State should give Nevada a fight when they play, and both have a shot at getting an at-large bid should they upset Eric Musselman’s program — but Nevada is going to be the heavy favorite every night they take the court the rest of the season.

Personally, I want them to make a run at an undefeated record in the regular season. It would be great for the sport the same way that Wichita State, Kentucky and Gonzaga going on prolonged undefeated runs in the last five seasons was.

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CAN VIRGINIA GET TO THE FINAL FOUR?

They are coming off what may be the most embarrassing loss in college basketball history, becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament. This season, they may actually be better than they were last year, as Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter both look like first round picks while the rest of that program is as solid as you would expect a Virginia team to be. Three years ago, we all thought Villanova were choke artists. You can’t win the big one until you win the big one.

TEXAS TECH TO MAKE ANOTHER RUN AT KANSAS?

The Red Raiders would have won the Big 12 last season if Keenan Evans hadn’t broken his toe. This year, with Jarrett Culver running the offense, can Chris Beard’s team make another run at knocking off Kansas? I’ll say this: Tech is the best team in the Big 12 that is not named Kansas, and while the Jayhawks have struggled through the start of the season, I do think their upside is immense. Udoka Azubuike is back and Quentin Grimes illl, eventually, get right. (Right?) Either way, I’m hoping that Texas Tech at least makes it interesting.

OFF-THE-COURT

There are still two more trials scheduled to happen stemming from the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball, although at least one of those defendants — former USC assistant coach Tony Bland — is on the verge of taking a plea. Will either of those trials take place? If they do, what kind of dirt is going to arise from the evidence that the FBI has collected? Will any of this impact coaches that are currently employed at powerhouse programs (looking at you, Bill Self)? When will the NCAA investigations begin in full, and what is the timetable for those investigations to be completed?

RULE CHANGES

The FBI investigation changed the way that a lot of things happen in college basketball. For starters, if high school kids are allowed to take $125,000 to go play in the G League, is this something that the elite of the elite are truly going to consider? If they don’t, will the extra scrutiny on recruiting as a result of this investigation change where some of these kids end up? No rule change the NCAA has implemented has been ripped more consistently than their changes to the recruiting calendar, which goes into effect in the coming months. Will the NCAA backtrack on those changes?

Oh, and what about the NET rankings? They looked like an abject failure a month ago, but not so much today. How will they turn out come March, and will it change the way that teams are determined for the NCAA tournament?

Race and Sports in America: Steph Curry, Charles Barkley on impact of George Floyd’s death, Black Lives Matter

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Stephen Curry and Charles Barkley were among the athletes that say down and spoke with NBC about the intersection of sports and race in America.

The Black Lives Matter movement reached a crescendo in late May, when a police officer knelt on the neck of a Minneapolis man named George Floyd for eight minutes and 46 seconds, suffocating him while knowingly being recorded. The murder, which followed the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbary, set off weeks of riots and has led to two months of protest across the country and around the world.

Race and Sports in America: Conversations is a one-hour show with two segments that debuts on NBCSN on Monday, July 13 at 8 pm ET.

It will be simulcast on Golf Channel, Olympic Channel, and the regional sports networks. Along with Curry and Barkley, Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, San Diego Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, golfer Troy Mullins, tennis player James Blake, former Saint Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith and former Pittsburgh Steeler Jerome Bettis participated in the discussions.

Below, you can find an excerpt of Barkley and Curry discussing the way they are treated by white America as famous, Black athletes.


DAMON HACK:  It’s interesting.  You guys have all played at the highest level.  You’ve had people that would cheer for you when you were in uniform.  But if you were walking down the street and not wearing your uniform and you had a hoodie on, they might look at you a little bit different.

How do you navigate that?

CHARLES BARKLEY:  The notion that rich and famous Black people are treated like regular Black people, that’s not right.  We get treated great.  But I always worry about how we treat poor Black people.

You know, there’s a great thing  and Spike Lee, who I really admire and respect  in that movie, “Do The Right Thing,” that’s a perfect illustration what Ozzie is talking about, what I’m talking about, when the guy says, you know, you hate Black people.  He says, yeah, I hate Black people.  He says, who is your favorite entertainer.  He says Michael Jackson.  He says, who is your favorite jock.  He says, Michael Jordan.  He’s says, they’re Black.  And he said, well, they’re not “Black.”

And that’s the disadvantage that us four we’re at a disadvantage because White people treat us great.  And, like I say, I’m not worried about how they treat us because it really comes down to economics, too, at some point, because rich Black people aren’t treated like poor Black people.  And that’s the thing we’ve got to really engage conversation.

How can we get more Black people and poor White people also, but they’re in the same boat, give them economic opportunity.  That’s what America’s really got to grapple with.

STEPH CURRY:  I think one thing you said, too, is the preconceived notions of how they view rich, successful Black people as anomalies and our intelligence and our well spokenness, that’s always the first thing you hear.  If somebody knows how to be articulate, if they know how to

ALL:  So well spoken.

STEPH CURRY:  Come into a room  that’s the subtle racism and prejudice that kind of starts to add on itself.  And if another White person hears that comment, they’re going to think the same thing.  And it’s not going to trickle down to anybody else, and be able to create opportunities for somebody else to get that in that room and prove their value, prove their worth.

It’s just shifting perspectives and, again, holding everybody accountable whether it’s a private conversation, whether it’s a tweet, whether it’s a video.  Whatever it is, to do the right thing, no pun intended, but to see everybody as equal and that’s all we’re asking for.

Kara Lawson hired as new Duke head coach

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Duke announced on Saturday that Kara Lawson, a former Tennessee guard and ESPN commentator, has been hired as the new head coach of the school’s women’s basketball team.

Lawson, 39, had been an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics before accepting the job at Duke, where she will be replacing Joanne McCallie. McCallie announced earlier this month that she would not be returning to the program.

Lawson is the first Black head coach in the program’s history, the second Black head coach hired by an ACC school this offseason and the third Black woman coaching an ACC women’s team. In total, there are five Black head coaches in the league on the women’s side.

Zion’s attorneys: Court filing claiming $400K payment contains fraudulent information

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Attorneys representing Zion Williamson in a lawsuit filed by former his marketing agent Gina Ford have claimed that the allegations set forth in her latest court filing are “fraudulent” and “a desperate and irresponsible attempt to smear Mr. Williamson.”

Ford claimed to have obtain “newly-discovered evidence” regarding her lawsuit against Zion, specifically that the player and his stepfather accepted $400,000 from a marketing agent named Slavko Duric in October of 2018. Zion signed a contract with Ford and her company, Prime Sports Marketing, on April 20, 2019, five days after he declared for the NBA draft. Less than two months later, he backed out of that deal to sign with CAA, the most powerful agency in the business that will also be representing his basketball interests. Ford is suing Williamson for breach of contract.

The outcome of the case hinges on a law in the state of North Carolina known as UAAA — the Uniform Athlete Agent Act — that requires a contract to make it clear to a student-athlete that by signing with an agent, they forfeit their remaining eligibility. This marketing contract did not have that language in it, and Williamson’s lawyers are arguing that this made the contract itself invalid. Ford’s attorneys, on the other hand, are attempting to prove that Zion was actually ineligible at the time, meaning that he was not protected by UAAA, and this evidence is their latest attempt to do it.

Except, according to the attorneys representing Zion Williamson’s family, all of the evidence in the latest filing in this lawsuit is fake.

Included in the exhibits attached to the motion filed by Ford’s lawyers is a statement from a man named Donald Kreiss, who claims that he invested in a company owned by Duric called Maximum Management Group. MMG purportedly had an exclusive marketing agreement with Williamson, the proof being an agreement that was allegedly signed by Williamson, a letter of declaration to repay the $400,000 that was paid in 2018 and a copy of Zion’s driver’s license.

“The alleged ‘agreements’ and driver’s license attached to these papers are fraudulent,” read a statement from Jeffery Klein, Zion’s attorney and obtained by Daniel Wallach of The Athletic. “Neither Mr. Williamson nor his family know these individuals nor had any dealing with them. We had previously alerted Ms. Ford’s lawyers to both this fact and that we had previously reported the documents to law enforcement as forgeries, but they chose to go ahead with another frivolous filing anyway.”

Here is a photo, courtesy of Wallach’s twitter feed, of Zion’s license.

Via @WALLACHLegal

Speaking as someone that bartended on a college campus for a decade, I would not accept this ID. The ‘E’ at the end of LICENSE is not in bold. The last three digits of his zip code are a different font than the first two. There is no shadow behind his ears in the picture, which is the first thing I was taught to look for on an ID I thought was fake. Most conspicuous? His weight is listed as a height and his height is listed as a weight.

Furthermore, Zion’s attorneys claim that Duric is the same man that tried to run a similar scam on Luka Doncic.

“A simple Google search reveals that Slavko Duric, whose ostensible sports marketing entity has no online presence, purportedly attempted to defraud Luka Doncic … using a scheme in which he forged Doncic’s and his mother’s signatures on a contract,” read a letter, obtained by Wallach. that Williamson’s attorney sent to Ford’s attorney before the motion was filed.

The intrigue into Zion Williamson’s lawsuit is about smearing Duke basketball’s image

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This column was originally published on May 11th of 2020.

The public intrigue into Zion Williamson’s current lawsuit and legal battle has nothing to do with Zion Williamson himself and everything to do with smearing the glossy veneer of the Duke basketball program.

That’s the truth.

The numbers involved in this litigation — reportedly up to $200 million is at stake — will certainly raise some eyebrows, but contract disputes are rarely interesting for anyone that isn’t in law school. That’s what this is. Zion signed a contract with Gina Ford and Prime Sports Marketing on April 20, 2019, five days after he declared for the NBA draft. Less than two months later, he backed out of that deal to sign with CAA, the most powerful agency in the business that will also be representing his basketball interests. Ford is suing Williamson for breach of contract.

The outcome of this civil case is going to hinge on a law in the state of North Carolina known as UAAA — the Uniform Athlete Agent Act — that requires a contract to make it clear to a student-athlete that by signing with an agent, they forfeit their remaining eligibility. This marketing contract did not have that language in it, and Williamson’s lawyers will argue that this made the contract itself invalid.

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(And no, I don’t, for a second, think that Zion was ever returning to Duke. Neither does Ford, or anyone with any common sense. It’s why I wrote this “column” last May, when the rumors of Zion returning to school started rolling through the basketball world. That said, if I was a cynic, I would take a close look at that timeline. Rumors of Zion returning to school just happened to start circulating right around the time that he was trying to find a way out of a marketing contract to sign with a bigger agency? Hmm. Interesting. But I’m not a cynic, so I certainly won’t suggest that it was nothing other than a well-orchestrated PR ploy knowing that this would inevitably end up in the court system one day. Wouldn’t dream of insinuating anything like it.)

Which brings us to Mother’s Day.

That’s when Daniel Wallach of The Athletic first published snippets of the latest Zion Williamson lawsuit that was filed by Ford and her attorneys. Among them were requests for admission that Zion and his family received all kinds of money, benefits and gifts to play at Duke and to induce him to wear Nike and Adidas at different points during his high school career. The legal ploy is simple, really: If Zion or his parents are forced, under oath, to admit that they accepted illegal benefits at any point during his recruitment or while on the roster at Duke, it would mean that he was retroactively ineligible. If he was actually ineligible during his one season in Durham, then the UAAA wouldn’t be relevant. The contract, which, according to Ford’s lawsuit, could only be terminated with cause, would stand and Zion would be on the hook for a lot of money.

At this point, it does not appear that there is much evidence proving that Zion accepted illegal benefits. When asked by Dana O’Neil of The Athletic if they have any proof of wrongdoing, Ford’s attorney said, “We have ideas, opinions and some leads of our own. We are looking for information to support our case. This is what we want to know.” Requests for admission are, essentially, fact-finding missions during discovery in civil cases. Put another way, at this point, these requests are nothing more than proof that Ford’s lawyers have heard the same rumors and read the same court docs that people in basketball circles and on college basketball message boards have.

But no one actually cares about the legalese here, because if they did, they’d realize that Zion is under no obligation to answer, and even if he is somehow forced to, nothing will come of this for a long, long time.

The people that care this case care about catching Coach K in a lie. They care about proving that the holier-than-thou way that Duke carries itself is fraudulent. They care about finding a way to get something — anything — to stick to the program that recruits better than anyone else in an era where recruiting is the Wild, Wild West.

Do you remember when Lance Thomas dropped $30,000 in cash as a down payment for $67,800 in jewelry a year before Thomas and Duke won the 2010 national title? Nothing came of it. Remember when Corey Maggette admitted to receiving payments from Myron Piggie before becoming a member of the team that made it to the 1999 national title game? Nothing came of that, either. Nothing happened when Wendell Carter’s name popped up on expense reports submitted by Christian Dawkins. Nothing happened when Michael Avenatti alleged that Nike paid Marvin Bagley’s family.

All told, there are 13 high-major programs that are dealing with the fallout from the FBI’s investigation into college basketball: Alabama, Arizona, Auburn, Creighton, Kansas, Louisville, LSU, Memphis, N.C. State, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, TCU and USC.

Duke, despite a cloud of smoke surrounding Zion that would make Seth Rogen envious, has been hit with … nada.

The public is looking for their pound of flesh, and nothing would satiate that bloodlust quite like an admission from Zion Williamson in this lawsuit that he was paid to go to Duke.

Ivy League calls off fall sports due to outbreak

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The Ivy League on Wednesday became the first Division I conference to say it will not play sports this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic, a person with knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press. The league left open the possibility of moving some seasons to the spring if the outbreak is better controlled by then.

The decision was described to the AP by a person speaking on the condition of anonymity in advance of the official announcement.

Although the coalition of eight academically elite schools does not grant athletic scholarships or compete for an NCAA football championship, the move could have ripple effects throughout the big business of college sports. Football players in the Power Five conferences have already begun workouts for a season that starts on Aug. 29, even as their schools weigh whether to open their campuses to students or continue classes remotely.

The Ivy decision affects not just football but everything before Jan. 1, including soccer, field hockey, volleyball and cross country, as well as the nonconference portion of the basketball season.

Power Five conferences told The Associated Press on Wednesday that they were still considering their options. But it was the Ivy League’s March 10 decision to scuttle its postseason basketball tournament that preceded a cascade of cancellations that eventually enveloped all major college and professional sports.

“What’s happening in other conferences is clearly a reflection of what’s happening nationally and any decisions are made within that context,” said Dr. Chris Kratochvil, the chair of the Big Ten’s infectious disease task force, adding that there is no “hard deadline” for a decision.

“Clearly, regardless of what happens in the fall, sports are coming back eventually,” he said. “So we want to make sure that whenever that time (is) right to return to competition, that we have the infrastructure and the recommendations in place to be able to do so safely for the student-athletes, staff, coaches, fans, students.”

Ivy League schools are spread across seven Northeastern states that, as of mid-July, have seen some success at controlling the COVID-19 outbreak. But most of those states still ban large gatherings; under the Massachusetts reopening plan, Harvard would not be allowed to have fans in the stands until a vaccine is developed.

Harvard has already announced that all classes for both semesters will be held virtually; dorms will be open only to freshmen and seniors. Yale said it would limit its dorms to 60% capacity and said most classes would be conducted remotely. Princeton will also do most of its teaching online, with dorms at half capacity.