Across the country, this usually is a time of excitement in college basketball. Instead, as practice begins Friday, recent events have produced a cloud that shows no signs of moving anytime soon.
A federal probe has led to the arrests of four assistant coaches, including Arizona’s Emanuel “Book” Richardson. On paper, the Wildcats look like a national-title contender, but today all anyone wants to know is whether coach Sean Miller will keep his job.
Was this a case of a rogue assistant? Or was Richardson simply operating with a do-whatever’s-necessary approach from Miller, one of the best coaches in the sport? Opinions vary. No one knows for sure how far this will go or how the sport will look when games tip in November.
In Tempe, Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley on Thursday declared it a “tough” time for a sport that shaped him into who he is today. In some ways, Hurley is synonymous with college basketball. A gritty point guard, he was a two-time national champion at Duke, finishing as the sport’s career assists leader.
Instead of talking about his program taking the next step, possibly playing in its first NCAA Tournament since 2014, Hurley opened with a statement on the scandal.
“In the aftermath of the other day, there’s just a lot of speculation about everything,” said Hurley, about to start his third season in Tempe. “… There were a lot of people that were impacted by what’s already happened. It’s tough, and you feel for a lot of people. There are a lot of victims here in this whole process. It’s a sport that’s been very good to me in my life. I love college basketball with my heart. It hurts that it’s going through a dark period.”
Already, Louisville’s Rick Pitino – a Hall of Fame coach – has been placed on administrative leave, the first step in the dismissal process. Arizona has started a similar process in regard to Richardson, alleged to have accepted $20,000 in cash bribes in exchange for agreeing to pressure top players to retain a particular management company when the players turned pro.
The complaint also alleges that some of the bribe money went to at least one prospective athlete to recruit him to play at Arizona. Another document suggests that the Wildcats may have been in a bidding war with another school over an elite recruit. A wiretapped adidas executive discussed concerns that Arizona was offering the player $150,000.
What this means for Miller is not known. Arizona has released three official statements – one each from the university, president and athletics department – but none have mentioned Miller by name. In addition, the school canceled its preseason media day, scheduled for Wednesday.
In the summer of 2013, the NCAA ruled that head coaches may be suspended for major violations committed by assistant coaches, a “buck-stops-here” measure that has been applied in some, but not all cases. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas – perhaps the sport’s most popular voice and a frequent NCAA critic – said the rule is unrealistic to start.
“I think it’s absolutely unreasonable, but what people choose to believe when they see the evidence is up to them,’’ Bilas told azcentral sports. “I’m not going to argue with somebody who says, ‘Well, I don’t believe Rick Pitino.’ That’s fine. But I’m one of those odd ducks that requires evidence before I make a judgment.”
Asked about Miller specifically, Bilas said: “I’ve known Sean Miller a long time. I don’t think he knew about it for one second. Not for one second.”
Others within the industry aren’t sure. Asked if it’s reasonable to assume a coach doesn’t know that an assistant is funneling money to recruits, one source told azcentral sports that it’s “unlikely.” Another simply said, “No f—–g way.”
Nearly everyone, however, is convinced that the scandal isn’t going away. Not anytime soon. No matter which schools get pulled into this, from Tucson to Tempe, from Seattle to Miami, the cloud will continue to hang over the sport.
“I think there’s going to have to be a wider examination of college basketball and the system when all the dust settles,’’ Hurley said. “Certainly it doesn’t appear to be a system that works right now. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of conversation about that in the next couple months.”