Rooney: FBI corruption trial provides drama, yet expect status quo for Pac-12 hoops

Sean Miller again under fire at Arizona

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Arizona head coach Sean Miller leaves the court after losing to Buffalo during the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
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What now?

For the past two weeks, the sordid details of the FBI’s college basketball corruption investigation have finally been put on the table during the New York trial of Christian Dawkins, the basketball middleman accused of bribing college coaches. Since the coaches arrested in the opening salvo of the investigation — including now-former Pac-12 assistants Book Richardson (Arizona) and Tony Bland (USC) — took plea deals, the past two weeks marked the first time the myriad under-the-table economy that permeates college basketball has been laid on the table in open court.

According to the reports that have filtered out of the courtroom, what a circus it was, often swinging from wildly compelling to a comical farce within a manner of minutes.  For coaches like Tad Boyle and programs like Colorado’s across not just the Pac-12 Conference but all of college basketball, the exercise had to be equally riveting and maddening.

Amid Dawkins’ testimony was his assertion that it would be counter-productive for him to use the money provided to him by the faux financier/undercover FBI agent calling himself Jeff DeAngelo to bribe coaches, essentially stating college assistant coaches don’t wield enough influence over NBA-bound college stars to steer such players to the desired agents and financial advisors. On the surface of things, this makes sense, and for Dawkins it might be a reasonable nugget of his defense. Yet it overshadows the reality that four assistant coaches — including Bland, Richardson, and Chuck Person from an Auburn program that reached the Final Four last month — have taken plea deals while admitting to taking such bribes without a sniff of NCAA ramifications falling upon the programs involved.

While a Friday report in the Arizona Daily Star indicated Arizona officials have admitted an NCAA investigation has been launched into the Wildcats’ basketball program, one could forgive CU Buffs fans if they aren’t exactly celebrating the news. Given the snail’s pace of NCAA investigations and the general nothing-to-see-here apathy that has oozed from the organization since the FBI probe first made headlines, along with Arizona’s own staunch support of head basketball coach Sean Miller, don’t expect any of the Buffs’ Pac-12 rivals to be handcuffed with sanctions any time soon.

Sure, the NCAA played some damage control with the formation of the Rice Commission last year. Yet the biggest results of that time-and-money consuming venture was the formation of regional “youth development college basketball camps” which will be launched in late July with the ill-conceived belief that limiting the influence of apparel company-sponsored showcase events will put college basketball’s black market economy into a recession. The commission also clamored for the elimination of the NBA’s one-and-done rule that requires players to play at least one year of college basketball before entering the draft. I’m on board with ending the rule, but the idea that move will eliminate the back-room shenanigans laid out in court the past two weeks is naïve at best.

For its part, Arizona issued a statement this week saying the university “remains committed to the highest standards of integrity and ethical conduct which includes competing within the rules of the NCAA and the Pac-12 Conference.” Of course, this comes from the same institution that last year saw a former assistant track coach sentenced to five years in prison for stalking and then threatening a former athlete with a box cutter; settled the subsequent civil suit for $999,000 while, according to the Daily Star, spending $2.65 million in state funds in defending the suit; and saw former football coach Rich Rodriguez leave a trail of sexual harassment allegations in his wake.

Clearly “the highest standards of integrity and ethical conduct” is a fluid notion in Tucson. Yet UA has stood by Miller so far, and despite Dawkins’ testimony this past week, which alleged that Miller himself was taking the lead in paying players like 2018 top overall NBA pick DeAndre Ayton, that seems unlikely to change before the 2019-20 season tips off short of a proverbial smoking gun like an endorsed check or an illicit ATM receipt.

Miller is set to welcome a recruiting class ranked second in the nation by 247Sports.com in hopes of returning the Wildcats to the top of the Pac-12. Corruption fatigue might be another reason why few are clamoring for coach Andy Enfield’s job at USC, which brings in the nation’s No. 5-ranked recruiting class in the fall.

A little controversy has done little to diminish the business of basketball at UA or USC. Keep in mind Buffs guard D’Shawn Schwartz sat out the season opener last year due to participating in a summer league game outside of the calendar guidelines set by the NCAA, and that forward Evan Battey was ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA for his true freshman year for having the audacity to repeat the ninth grade years earlier. Given USC’s DeAnthony Melton sat out the 2018-19 season for what generally was described as preemptive eligibility reasons after Bland’s arrest, and that Miller sat out one game voluntarily in February 2018 in the wake of an ESPN report stating Miller was paying Ayton, and CU arguably has felt the crush of NCAA rule-mongerers more harshly in recent years than the Pac-12 programs enveloped in the corruption scandal.

A Buffs squad loaded with experience and eyeing a big 2019-20 season probably doesn’t need to look at that injustice for extra motivation. Yet if they need it, there it is.