You can craft your own Elite Eight out of this this whole mess. And who wouldn’t pay to watch? Selection Sunday is no longer the only major thing looming over college hoops, as Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, Texas, USC and of course, Arizona have been among the teams drawn into the fast-evolving specter of the FBI’s investigation into the corruption sewn across the sport. The naming of head coach Sean Miller and star freshman DeAndre Ayton in a matter of impermissible benefits on Saturday thrust the Arizona program dead center into an NCAA crisis that’s unfolding on an unprecedented scale.
An ESPN report on Friday alleged that the FBI possesses wiretap evidence that Miller and Christian Dawkins, a runner working on behalf of former NBA power agent Andy Miller (no relation), had discussed an $100,000 payment to secure a commitment from Ayton, who leads the Pac-12 in scoring and rebounding and may end up the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft. That news followed a series of Yahoo! Sports reports detailing payments of varying value made by Dawkins and Miller’s agency, ASM Sports, to a wide number of players and their families. You’ll recall in September, then-Wildcats assistant Emanuel ‘Book’ Richardson was one of four Division I assistants arrested for their part in a bribery scheme designed to steer players to Dawkins and ASM for their representation.
Though Ayton and Miller were not named or alluded to in ASM’s financial spreadsheets, their reported involvement stands as the biggest revelation of the entire saga to date. As it stands, it’s unclear as to whether that payment was actually delivered to Ayton, or someone else on his behalf. Ayton’s family stated publicly Saturday that DeAndre told the FBI more than six months ago that he never discussed payment with Arizona, or any school or shoe company. In wake of the report, Miller agreed to stay off the sidelines for Saturday night’s game at Oregon. As things stand, the situation appears damning as it pertains to Miller’s return to the sidelines.
“I believe it is in the best interest of our team that I not coach the game tonight,” Miller wrote in an official statement. “I continue to fully support the university’s efforts to fully investigate this matter and am confident that I will be vindicated. For now, my thoughts are with our team. They are a great group of young men that will support each other and continue their pursuit of winning a Pac-12 championship.”
Amidst everything, Arizona deemed Ayton eligible to play on Saturday. The 7’1” Bahamian center showed up in Eugene with an emotional edge on Saturday night, posting 17 points and 11 rebounds by halftime in perhaps his best performance of the season. Oregon fans taunted, held signs and chanted ‘hundred-thousand’ as Ayton rumbled to a final line of 28, 18 and four blocks, though he did not score in the final 15 minutes. Arizona staved off a 13–0 Ducks run, but were unable to hang on in overtime, falling 98–93 in a game that twisted and turned. A win would have clinched a share of a regular-season conference title. It goes without saying there’s much more to worry about.
For what it’s worth, the tone of Arizona’s responses has been defiant. No evidence fingering either Miller or Ayton has gone public. The ESPN report states that Dawkins asked Miller if he should deal with Richardson (who had been on his staff for 10 years, dating back to their time at Xavier) to finalize a financial agreement for Ayton, and that Miller asked to be dealt with directly. That Miller would want to handle the payment by himself in the highest-profile recruitment of his career is somewhat bewildering. Presumably, a conversation took place, but this is simply a piece of it. Though it may not matter in the court of opinion, there are elements that don’t make total sense.
Moreover, Dawkins’s spreadsheet of expenses was made public this week with numbers but few details, no receipts and little context as to how the costs were incurred. In the case of Duke forward Wendell Carter, coach Mike Krzyzewski said Saturday that Carter’s parents had a brief lunch meeting with Dawkins. You don’t even have to buy the alibi to understand that there’s a spectrum when it comes to potential violations here, and that it’s difficult to find a great conclusion based off what’s been reported. More than 20 Division I programs were implicated in Yahoo! Sports’s reporting, but these developments, names and dollar signs only serve to raise further questions.
Given the well-established precedent for caution in matters of player eligibility, the speed at which high-profile stars like Ayton, Carter, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges and Kentucky’s Kevin Knox were cleared internally is not without significance. These decisions came down fast. Individual teams’ decisions to push through and allow them to take the court may be indicative of the fact that at this point, with the sport already on the precipice of widespread punishment, there’s little for programs to lose by letting them play, and little to gain for punishing kids who are already victims of a deep-rooted, flawed system. Many will head to the NBA draft in a matter of weeks regardless.
USC’s De’Anthony Melton and Auburn’s Austin Wiley were among players held out all season after the initial wave of FBI-related coach arrests. Neither was directly named in the first place. After stringing Melton out and ending his college career out of fear, the Trojans allowed Chimezie Metu to play on Saturday after being implicated in ASM’s payment records. What gives? Either the reported FBI evidence isn’t substantial enough for teams to warrant holding these players out, or programs are content to let them hoop knowing the house is burning down regardless. Perhaps some degree of lenience is coming from the NCAA given the breadth of parties involved. From a business standpoint, the thought of a March Madness without star players and coaches benefits nobody.
In reality, anyone who’s ever spent time with an ear to the ground in the world of college hoops has a base understanding of how business gets done under the table. At bare minimum, there’s a widespread awareness that it takes place. Any level of shock and awe at the proceedings or heavy-handed moral posturing coming from the basketball punditry at-large is more surprising than the news itself. NBA teams conduct thorough background checks into prospects, and given past precedent, are unlikely to frown heavily upon a player for taking cash. For better or worse, cheating has been standard practice in an intricate ecosystem, at least until someone gets caught.
It’s worth spelling out as clearly as possible that payments to players do not necessarily constitute breaking of the law—on a base level, it is only a violation of NCAA rules that pertain to player eligibility, amateurism and what programs can and cannot do. With ASM’s multi-layered scheme involving Richardson, there were bribery charges and other related felonies levied. As Sports Illustrated legal expert Michael McCann explained, there is a gray area with Miller’s situation that must be sorted out in further detail.
Taking over at Arizona in the interim is associate head coach Lorenzo Romar, who was head coach at Washington from 2002–2017. Adding a layer to the intrigue is the naming of former Washington guards Markelle Fultz and Dejounte Murray in the Yahoo Sports report as having been paid by ASM during Romar’s tenure, although the connection there appears tangential at this stage. With two home games remaining, Stanford on Thursday and Cal on Saturday, Arizona needs to win out (or see USC lose) to clinch the conference.
The future of the program is wholly uncertain, but the collateral damage has begun, with highly-rated recruit Shareef O’Neal, son of Shaquille, decommitting Saturday. The crises have run deep with this team all season, from injuries to suspensions. Just Thursday, second-leading scorer Allonzo Trier was ruled ineligible after a trace element of a banned performance-enhancer resurfaced in his system (it’s now, rather literally, a footnote in the story). Given his absence and with Miller in limbo, an eligible Ayton equals the last sliver of hope for March. And for the Wildcats, and the sport on whole, it’s shaping up as quite the dance.