By AARON BEARD
The Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. — College basketball has spent an entire season operating amid the specter of an FBI corruption investigation that led to criminal charges against assistant coaches, agents, apparel company employees and others.
The scandal rocked the sport, which seemed set to implode.
It still might, but it won’t impact Selection Sunday this weekend.
Many named or connected to the probe will hear their teams called when the March Madness field of 68 is unveiled.
“March Madness and the Final Four, it’s supposed to be one of the best times to be a sports fan,” said Michael L. Buckner, a Florida-based attorney who has worked on infractions cases. “This is when men’s basketball is celebrated — it takes over sports for that one month through the first week of April. It takes over the fascination of everybody, even people who aren’t college basketball fans.
“Now it’s going to have this cloud hanging over it, so that’s why I say it’s a little surreal.”
The fallout from the projected storm has been minimal on the court. Only a few have been penalized in a case tied to hundreds of thousands of dollars in alleged bribes and kickbacks designed to influence recruits on choosing a school or an agent.
Selection committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen has said the federal investigation won’t be a factor in determining tournament invitations.
“Our committee is intensely focused on selecting and seeding and bracketing the right 68 teams,” said Rasmussen, Creighton’s athletic director. “We’re not going to pay any attention to that because it’s not in the purview of our committee.”
So the three-week tournament could have a business-as-usual feel to it.
It’s been that way in college basketball since federal prosecutors announced in September that they had charged 10 men , including assistant coaches at Arizona, Auburn, USC and Oklahoma State along with a top Adidas executive, in the fraud and bribery scandal. Prosecutors have since withdrawn the criminal complaint against one defendant, the rest are all out on bond and all four charged assistant coaches have been fired.
Two of the four schools that fired assistants are locks to be in the tournament, the other two are squarely on the bubble.
No. 15 Arizona and No. 16 Auburn likely have high seeds awaiting them. That comes after Wildcats head coach Sean Miller recently faced questions about his own job security, and Tigers players Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley being held out all season in connection with the case.
USC, which never had De’Anthony Melton in the lineup due to eligibility concerns tied to the case, is likely to earn an NCAA bid anyway. The 6-foot-4 Melton, who started 25 games as a freshman and averaged 8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists, announced last month he was leaving school so no matter what happens to USC down the road, it won’t impact Melton.
As for Oklahoma State, the Cowboys are a bubble team that twice topped ninth-ranked Kansas, beat No. 14 Texas Tech and won at No. 18 West Virginia.
A host of other schools have been impacted by the case, most notably Louisville. The school fired Hall of Fame Cardinals coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich — neither were named in prosecutors’ criminal complaints —as the investigation became public amid the school’s appeal of NCAA sanctions from its embarrassing escort scandal.
The Cardinals also lost five-star freshman Brian Bowen, who was held out of practices and games before transferring to South Carolina. Still, they emerged from this week’s Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament on the bubble with 20 wins under interim coach David Padgett.
And while the selection committee may not pay much attention to federal case, NCAA President Mark Emmert has.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Emmert said he expects the NCAA will receive recommendations in April from the commission led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seeking ways to reform and modernize rules in college basketball.
Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford said at the ACC Tournament in New York that he is hopeful the Rice Commission will be “bold” in its recommendations for reform of college basketball. He said the NCAA needs to consider ways to be involved in AAU and summer camps that right now fall outside the association’s purview.
“The agent thing, I think we need to take a real look at that and consider liberalization of some of our rules, which is something we control,” Swofford said, “and give more freedom to players, elite players, so they can get the kind of information they need to get.”
Emmert said the NCAA is working with schools to resolve any eligibility questions involving current players before Selection Sunday “so that everybody knows — the public, the schools, the players themselves, they all know what their status is.”
That includes Michigan State star Miles Bridges, who was cleared to play after donating $40 to charity for reinstatement after his family had dinner with an agent last winter without his knowledge.
“I hope that it’s possible that we can remember these are college kids playing a game that they love and that this is the moment of their lifetimes,” Emmert said. “Let’s give them their due.”
Emmert should get his wish — barring any developments in the investigation.
The probe was recently back in the headlines after Yahoo Sports revealed bank records and other expense reports that listed impermissible payments from agents to at least two dozen players or their relatives.
ESPN reported Arizona’s Miller was caught on an FBI wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to Deandre Ayton to attend the school.
Miller, who missed a game and sat out three practices as the school investigated, will coach in the tournament. He has vehemently denied wrongdoing in a public statement.
With Miller back on the sidelines, Arizona — a preseason Final Four favorite that peaked at No. 2 in the AP Top 25 in November — won the Pac-12 regular-season title outright.
The surreal feeling looming in the background during March Madness stems from the federal investigation being unchartered territory for college basketball. It’s not an NCAA probe, so the usual actions such as self-policing violations could have little to no impact on the outcome.
“I would presume if I was a compliance officer at one of these high-profile schools, I would be holding my breath right now,” Buckner said. “Yeah, I checked it out the best I can, it looks as if everything’s good, the NCAA signed off on these athletes are eligible. But what’s going to happen next week? What’s going to happen next month? I don’t know. No one knows.”