Sea­son still un­der cloud of re­cruit­ing scan­dal

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Sports - BY JOHN MAR­SHALL

A fed­eral trial re­vealed more de­tails of a pay-to-play re­cruit­ing scan­dal, dark­en­ing the cloud hang­ing over col­lege bas­ket­ball for a sec­ond straight sea­son.

But will it make a dif­fer­ence? Out­side of a hand­ful of sus­pen­sions, the cur­tain pull­back of the sport’s worst-kept se­cret had lit­tle im­pact last year. The 2018-19 sea­son could take a sim­i­lar route.

Two tri­als are still com­ing and more de­tails could emerge from a fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tion into shady re­cruit­ing prac­tices, so col­lege bas­ket­ball may still feel a ma­jor jolt.

But the sport is per­haps bet­ter than ever on the court. Scor­ing re­mains up, more star-in-the­mak­ing fresh­men dot ros­ters across the coun­try, blue-blood pro­grams have re­stocked and the mid-ma­jors have more rea­son for op­ti­mism af­ter Loy­olaChicago’s Fi­nal Four run.

Un­less some­thing mon­u­men­tal arises from the in­ves­ti­ga­tion or the NCAA, don’t ex­pect too much to change.

“If it’s not the most-watched sport in Amer­ica, I’m not sure what is,” West Vir­ginia coach Bob Hug­gins said. “You have six games a night, so I think the state of our game is fine. If things hap­pened, we all know they shouldn’t have hap­pened, but that doesn’t af­fect the state of our game and the way peo­ple go about do­ing their busi­ness.”

Col­lege bas­ket­ball was rocked be­fore the 2017-18 sea­son started when 10 peo­ple, in­clud­ing four as­sis­tant coaches from prom­i­nent pro­grams, were ar­rested on ac­cu­sa­tions that they fun­neled up to six-fig­ure pay­ments to top-tier re­cruits to in­flu­ence their choice of schools, ap­parel com­pa­nies and agents.

More ac­cu­sa­tions came out dur­ing the sea­son and a fed­eral trial last month led to the con­vic­tions of three men on fraud charges. Tes­ti­mony dur­ing the trial re­vealed more ac­cu­sa­tions of pay­ing play­ers by Ari­zona, Louisville, Kansas, Duke, Ore­gon and North Carolina State, among oth­ers.

The NCAA has cre­ated new rules based on rec­om­men­da­tions by a com­mis­sion headed by Con­doleezza Rice in hopes of cur­tail­ing the pay-to-play prac­tices, but may not pun­ish any pro­grams or coaches en­snared in the probe un­til af­ter the fi­nal trial, which is sched­uled for af­ter the Fi­nal Four in Min­neapo­lis.

“Just like Wall Street, no mat­ter how many reg­u­la­tions there are, there are al­ways go­ing to be peo­ple that when the stakes are high and there’s a lot of money in­volved that don’t fol­low the guide­lines,” Cincin­nati coach Mick Cronin said. “Not that I don’t ap­pre­ci­ate what the Rice Com­mis­sion did and what they’re try­ing to ac­com­plish. I get all that, but you’re not go­ing to stop it. If peo­ple don’t want to do the right thing, you’re not go­ing to stop them.”

A few things to look for on the court dur­ing the 2018-19 men’s col­lege bas­ket­ball sea­son: The fresh­men: More high-level fresh­men seem to have huge im­pacts ev­ery sea­son and this year should be no dif­fer­ent. Duke has three of the top fresh­men on one team, with pro­jected No. 1 NBA pick R.J. Bar­rett, pro­jected rim wrecker Zion Wil­liamson and Cam Red­dish adding an­other five-star haul to Coach K’s loaded re­cruit­ing class.

In­di­ana coach Archie Miller got a huge boost to­ward get­ting the Hoosiers back to the NCAA Tour­na­ment by con­vinc­ing Romeo Lang­ford to stay in state.

North Carolina’s Nas­sir Lit­tle could be an NBA lot­tery pick af­ter this sea­son, Quentin Grimes is Kansas coach Bill Self’s lat­est high-level fresh­man guard and Kel­don John­son may be the best player among coach John Cali­pari’s lat­est stel­lar re­cruit­ing class.

Mid-ma­jor mark: Mid­ma­jor pro­grams should get a boost of con­fi­dence this year af­ter watch­ing UMBC beat Vir­ginia to be­come the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 and Chicago-Loy­ola’s im­prob­a­ble run to the Fi­nal Four.

This sea­son has plenty of deep-run-po­ten­tial mid-ma­jors.

No. 7 Ne­vada has its high­est pre­sea­son rank­ing and coach Eric Mus­sel­man has a loaded ros­ter in Reno. Buf­falo has five of its top six scor­ers back from a team that knocked off Ari­zona in the open­ing round of the NCAAs.

The fa­vorites: Kansas is the pre­sea­son No. 1 for the third time be­hind a loaded ros­ter that in­cludes a stel­lar re­cruit­ing class and pre­sea­son All-Amer­i­can Dedric Law­son, a trans­fer from Mem­phis.

No. 2 Ken­tucky has a sim­i­lar type of ros­ter, with for­mer Stan­ford for­ward Reid Travis now in Lex­ing­ton to lead a young, tal­ented team.

No. 3 Gon­zaga reached the Fi­nal Four two sea­sons ago and may have a more tal­ented ros­ter this sea­son, though it will have to play the first two months with­out do-it-all for­ward Kil­lian Til­lie due to an an­kle surgery.

CHRISTO­PHER KATSAROV AP

Duke’s R.J. Bar­rett was the lone fresh­man in­cluded in the As­so­ci­ated Press pre­sea­son All-Amer­ica team.

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