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  • With their roster trimmed by the FBI and their coach under constant suspicion, Bruce Pearl's Tigers are representative of this year's crazy college basketball season. Plus, winners and losers from the weekend slate of bubble games, a word on agent Andy Miller and the expense reports and more in Buckets, Brackets and Brisket.
By Andy Staples
February 26, 2018

Hi, I’m Andy. If you read about college football here at SI.com, you’ve read my Punt, Pass and Pork column. One week a year, I dedicate that column to college basketball and call it Buckets, Brackets and Brisket. With Dan Greene out for a brief recharge, I’m filling in with this year’s version. It’ll look slightly different than Dan’s column, but fortunately Dan left me with an interesting week to dissect.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As news broke Saturday afternoon that Arizona’s Sean Miller wouldn’t coach at Oregon Saturday night following an ESPN report that the FBI had Miller on tape discussing a potential $100,000 payment involving current Wildcats star Deandre Ayton, another head coach who had an assistant arrested by the FBI in September was preparing for a game he would coach.

“It was great,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said late Saturday night. “I got a little sun. … How can you not come down to Florida on a beautiful day like today and not? This morning, I got up really early at sunrise and I sat out by the pool and watched film. It’s pretty nice. I’m in Florida, aren’t I? That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

Pearl’s trip to Gainesville hadn’t ended the way he’d hoped. Needing a win to clinch the SEC regular-season title, the Tigers fell 72-66 to Florida. But given the week Auburn had—losing forward Anfernee McLemore for the season because of a dislocated ankle and broken tibia and then playing Wednesday against Alabama without star guard Mustapha Heron—Pearl wasn’t terribly upset with a gassed team that fell behind by double digits in the second and half but had the game tied at 66 with 41 seconds remaining. The Tigers can still clinch the league title with a win against Arkansas or South Carolina this week or with a loss by Tennessee to either Mississippi State or Georgia. Had anyone offered that scenario to Pearl in November, he’d have gladly taken it.

The situation in Arizona was especially intriguing because like Miller, Pearl also had an assistant coach charged when the Justice Department revealed its investigation into college basketball in September. Auburn assistant Chuck Person was accused of taking bribes to steer two Auburn players to specific agents and financial advisors. As a result of the investigation, two returning starters (forwards Danjel Purifoy and Austin Wiley) have not played all season. Meanwhile, two support staffers (Pearl special assistant Jordan VerHulst and video coordinator Frankie Sullivan) have been on administrative leave since November. Longtime Miller assistant Emanuel “Book” Richardson also was arrested in September as part of the investigation. Richardson was accused of taking bribes to steer players toward a financial advisor and a manager.

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

But while Miller’s name subsequently surfaced in an ESPN report that cited a recording of Miller on an FBI wiretap, Pearl has yet to be connected to the FBI investigation. Pearl already has a history with the NCAA, and reports out of Auburn in November claimed he was reluctant to cooperate with Auburn’s internal investigation into the scandal. But in an interview with ESPN’s Jeff Goodman earlier this month, Pearl said he has complied enough to keep his job. While everyone else has waited for the other shoe to drop, Pearl has stitched together the best coaching job of his career. He’s a semifinalist for the Naismith Coach of the Year Award, but it would be a stunner if he wins it. 

Pearl has been an NCAA snitch, an NCAA pariah and now finds himself in NCAA purgatory. He’s under a cloud from an investigation that has taken away two of his best players, but he’s also 24-5 overall and 12-4 in the SEC. Were he almost anyone else doing what he’s done given the circumstances of Auburn’s season, he’d probably be a lock for the Naismith Award. But he’s Bruce Pearl, and he probably has no chance.

We don’t know whether the FBI has anything else that could tie back to Pearl. We do know that Pearl’s history suggests he knows better than to deliver sensitive information over the phone. In 1989, Iowa assistant Pearl secretly recorded a conversation between himself and Chicago high schooler Deon Thomas, who would later attend Illinois. The NCAA received a six-minute clip of the 14-minute call, and in that clip Pearl guided Thomas through a conversation regarding his recruitment by Illinois assistant Jimmy Collins. Pearl mentioned Collins promising $80,000 and a Chevrolet Blazer if Thomas would sign with Illinois. Thomas didn’t exactly respond in the affirmative, but he also didn’t deny the accusation. Depending on your reading of the participants and their perspectives, Pearl is either a whistleblower or a Machiavellian operator trying to get a player he wants declared ineligible at one school so that player would attend the school where Pearl worked. At any rate, Pearl’s actions got him blackballed from moving up in the coaching ranks for years. He wound up becoming the head coach at Division II Southern Indiana and stayed there from 1992-2001.

Pearl’s other brush with the NCAA suggests he’s no mastermind in these matters. When he coached at Tennessee in 2010, NCAA investigators wanted to ask Pearl about a photo that had been sent to the NCAA offices. The photo appeared to show Pearl and point guard recruit Aaron Craft inside Pearl’s home following a 2008 Florida-Tennessee football game at Neyland Stadium. Craft, who would go on to play at Ohio State, was on an unofficial visit. Future Volunteer Jordan McRae and future Kansas one-and-done Josh Selby also were there on unofficial visits. Because the visits were unofficial, the coaching staff wasn’t allowed to entertain the prospects off campus or provide food for them. The photo suggested Tennessee coaches had broken the rules by having the prospects over for a cookout at Pearl’s house. 

Had Pearl simply admitted that’s what happened, he and his program would have been punished. It wouldn’t have been too harsh, though. The Vols might have been docked a few official visits or pulled off the road for an evaluation period. The penalties would have been annoying but not devastating. Instead, when presented with the photo, Pearl pretended not to recognize his own house or the wife of one of his assistant coaches. Pearl also spoke to Craft’s father after the NCAA interview and attempted to reconcile the stories. When the elder Craft informed Pearl that he intended to tell the truth, Pearl was sunk. Unlike the FBI, the NCAA doesn’t have subpoena power. The enforcement staff can’t catch coaches doing much. But if the NCAA can prove a coach lied to the NCAA, the Committee on Infractions will respond with extreme prejudice.

Pearl was fired at Tennessee in March 2011. That August, he received a three-year show-cause penalty from the COI. Pearl was banned from any recruiting activities until August 2014, effectively rendering him unemployable. 

For most coaches, that would end a career as a head coach in a Power Five league. They might get hired as mid-major or high-major assistants after the penalty period ended, or they might finish out their working lives as low-major head coaches far from the spotlight. Not Pearl. He had done such a good job at Tennessee—where football and women’s basketball had thrived but men’s basketball had languished—that schools counted down the days until they could hire him. How good was Pearl? When Florida won consecutive national titles in 2006 and 2007, Pearl’s teams went 3–1 against the Gators. He took Tennessee to the NCAA tournament every year he worked there, and the Vols reached the Elite Eight in 2010.

Pearl not only got another Power Five head coaching job. He got one in the same league. Auburn hired him in March 2014, five months before his show-cause penalty expired. Auburn was a much bigger reclamation project, but this season explains why the Tigers were so keen to hire Pearl despite his considerable baggage. 

Pearl can flat out coach. For most of his career, he’s run a high-pressure, run-and-gun scheme. He would prefer to play 10 players for double-digit minutes and guard for 94 feet. Purifoy and Wiley were supposed to be starters, so players who weren’t intended to be in the rotation have logged major minutes. Much of the time, the Tigers begin defending at midcourt. Guards Jared Harper and Bryce Brown spark the offense. McLemore handled the rim protection, but now that duty falls to 6’8” junior Horace Spencer, who played only seven minutes in a win against Kentucky before McLemore got hurt. McLemore’s injury reduced the Tigers’ rotation to eight. When Heron caught a stomach virus ahead of the Alabama game, the Tigers were down to seven. Auburn still won by 19. “We’re not the most talented team in this league, but we’ve brought it every night,” Pearl said. “We’ve found ways to scrap and win.” Then, perhaps sensing he hadn’t given the likely SEC champs the proper amount of credit, Pearl edited himself. “We’re talented enough,” he said.

The team Auburn has now is all it will have. While other schools are rapidly getting players who got caught up in the FBI investigation cleared by the NCAA, there seems to be no sense that Purifoy and Wiley will be back. The eight Auburn has in the rotation now will, barring injury, be the eight that plays in the NCAA tournament. The players don’t have much of a secret to their success. They win a lot on pure effort. “First and foremost, just try to have fun doing it,” Heron said. “They help us carry through.”

Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images

Pearl doesn’t expect any surprises the rest of the way for his team. There may be issues to work through when the season ends, but he feels confident now in the team he has and in his own future prospects. “For us, it’s been a great year,” Pearl said. “We feel terrible that Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy were caught up in this… But the guys that are remaining are all in good standing. And we’ve just taken that and done the best we possibly can with it. We worked our way through the process. We’re way ahead of the process. I feel really good about coming out on the other end in good shape.”

Whether Pearl comes out on the other end in good shape remains to be seen. But even though he probably won’t win the coach of the year award he’d claim if he were almost anyone else, he’s in better shape than Miller is right now. And Pearl likely will be in better shape than any other coach who gets a March surprise.

He may have a suspect history and a suspect reputation, but Pearl is sitting prettier than many of his peers. The Tigers might be the poster children for this odd season. Their roster trimmed by the FBI and their coach under constant suspicion, they enter the regular season's final week poised to claim a title and then play for more.


A Random Ranking

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said last week that the league wouldn’t compress its conference schedule again just to hold its tournament at Madison Square Garden. The Big East has MSG booked for the week that power conferences usually hold their tournaments, and it doesn’t intend to give up that slot anytime soon. So the Big Ten probably won’t be playing its tournament in Manhattan after this week. In honor of this arena drama, here are the top five arenas as ranked by the imagination of nine-year-old Andy watching WWF Primetime Wrestling in the late ‘80s.

1. The Cow Palace — San Francisco

I assumed it was full of actual cows.

2. Viking Hall — Bristol, Tenn.

I assumed it was full of actual vikings.

3. The Salt Palace — Salt Lake City

I assumed it was made of salt.

4. The Rosemont Horizon — Rosemont, Ill.

I’m not sure what I assumed, but I know that on my first actual visit to Rosemont I ate Lou Malnati’s for the first time.

5. The Sports Arena — Los Angeles

I’m a sucker for a name that describes the purpose of a place precisely.

Three Points

1. You may consider my proposed solution—which covers college basketball and football—to the NCAA’s current issues a tad extreme. It doesn’t hurt my feelings. A lot of people feel that way. For a more restrained commentary, read this excellent column from Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News.

DeCourcy takes NCAA president Mark Emmert to task for his tone-deaf response to Friday’s Yahoo! report detailing some of the evidence the FBI collected from agent Andy Miller’s office. DeCourcy astutely points out that Emmert’s response suggests he doesn’t know what the actual problems plaguing college basketball are. 

I find it difficult to believe that Emmert and his favored university presidents don’t understand the underlying reasons for the issues facing the sport. These are not stupid people. But I have noticed a sort of willful blindness among people who work in college sports who seem to be stuck in the past and unwilling to admit that the black market that exists in college basketball recruiting has two root causes:

• The NCAA’s amateurism rules. (Which the schools can control.)
• The NBA’s age limit. (Which the schools can’t control.)

Emmert and the others running college sports can impanel all the blue-ribbon committees they want, but if they try to manage this with changes designed to stop old-school booster bagmen, they’ll be hopelessly out of their depth. The people they’re trying to control don’t work in college sports and don’t care a lick about their rules. The FBI may be investigating now, but it probably won’t be back to bail out the NCAA enforcement staff again. The schools and NCAA need to meet reality on reality’s terms, but if we are to take Emmert’s statement at face value, he isn’t ready to do that.

2. Though the off-court stuff dominated the news cycle, games were still played this past weekend, and some of them were quite Bubblicious. Here are a few winners and losers from two busy days on the bubble.

Winners

Creighton: Saturday’s win against Villanova leaves the Blue Jays (No. 28 KenPom, No. 32 RPI) feeling very comfortable about an at-large bid.

Florida: By beating Auburn, the Gators added a home Quadrant 1 win to a weird resume that looked much better away from Gainesville. Winning at Alabama or at home against Kentucky this week could give Florida some breathing room.

Louisville: The 2013 Cardinals got bad news last week, but the 2018 Cardinals came through with a huge win at Virginia Tech on Saturday.

Nebraska: The Cornhuskers still probably need to make a deep run in next week’s Big Ten Tournament, but beating Penn State on Sunday kept their hopes alive.

Oklahoma: The Sooners snapped their six-game losing streak by beating Kansas State in Norman. Their strong pre-conference resume should keep them afloat, but beating Baylor and Iowa State this week should help.

Losers

Baylor: The Bears’ visit to TCU on Saturday had a bit of a play-in game feel, and the Horned Frogs got the win. Baylor is now 4-10 in Quadrant 1 games, and a loss to either Oklahoma or Kansas State would doom the Bears to a Big 12 record below .500. 

Marquette: A loss to DePaul means Marquette probably needs to do some damage in the Big East Tournament to earn an at-large bid

Virginia Tech: Losing to Louisville hurt the Hokies’ case, but they still should be in good shape if they can beat Duke in Blacksburg or win at Miami this week. 

3. Wisconsin still fell 68-63 to Michigan State, but Badgers guard Brad Davison put on a show—after briefly leaving the game to have his separated shoulder popped back into place. Davison finished with a game-high 30 points.

What’s Eating Andy

I had to spend all weekend writing about scandal in college basketball when I could have been covering a mullet festival in Australia.

What’s Andy Eating

The Yahoo! report that dropped Friday morning detailing what was found in a raid of agent Andy Miller’s office contained some fascinating entries on the expense reports of Miller associate Christian Dawkins. Dawkins logged meals with players and/or their family members, leading to several schools calling the NCAA to ensure their players were still eligible. (They were, because it would be awfully nitpicky to derail these players’ careers over some mediocre chain restaurant meals they might not even have attended.)

One such player was Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr. Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski said Carter’s mother told school officials that she and Carter’s father met briefly with Dawkins, but Carter’s father left almost immediately and she stayed only a few more minutes out of a sense of politeness. According to Krzyzewski, Carter’s mother told school officials neither she nor Carter’s father ate anything. If that’s true, that means Dawkins racked up a $106.36 bill at a LongHorn Steakhouse all by himself. 

That would be a truly impressive feat, but if Carter’s parents did leave as his mother reported, perhaps Dawkins needed to eat his feelings.

Because we handle scandal news a little differently, co-host Barrett Sallee and I spent a good portion of our Sunday morning show on SiriusXM trying to build the perfect LongHorn Steakhouse order for one person that would total $106.36. 

Mine turned out to be an epic meal that I’m not even sure I could finish.

Appetizers: Chili cheese fries, $6.49, and sweet chili calamari, $8.99

Main course: The Outlaw Ribeye, a bone-in ribeye that clocks in about 26 ounces, $25.49 (Sides: Steamed broccoli and Steakhouse mac and cheese.)

Desserts: Key lime pie jar, $2.99, and chocolate peanut butter jar, $2.99

Drinks: (3) Patron platinum margarita, $9.49 each

That’s a subtotal of $75.42. We’re assuming this meeting took place in Georgia, where Carter is from. So adding in a 7.2% tax, we get a total of $80.85. That means the server is getting a tip of $25.51 (31.5 percent), which only seems fair because that’s a lot of food to lug. 

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