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Cat Scratch Fever Hits the PAC 12

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The conference standard bearer is teetering on the edge of scandal.

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Oregon State Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor’s note: since the drafting of this editorial, it was announced that Arizona head coach Sean Miller has been suspended by the school. Lorenzo Romar will coach Arizona against Oregon on Saturday)

Rick Pitino is about to have some company.

If reports from ESPN are to be believed, Arizona Wildcats men’s basketball coach Sean Miller is about to join Slick Rick as the face of corruption in men’s college basketball.

The details are sketchy, but the gist is this: ESPN is reporting that the FBI has in their possession hundreds of hours of wiretap recordings of Miller with representatives of the sports agency firm AMS. Contained in those recordings, reportedly, is evidence of Miller discussing a $100,000 payoff to ensure that star Deandre Ayton was steered to the University of Arizona and to Miller.

$100,000 is a lot of scratch, even for a freshman who is in the discussion for National Player of the Year.

I suppose you could call it serious “cat scratch”.

Ok, I know. Too cheesy. Especially since I used the same line in the headline to the article.

Still, it is hard to get sanctimonious about this revelation which, by the way, is not backed up by any evidence that a reporter has laid eyes - or ears - upon (yet). Especially since we had Yahoo! Sports just the day before dropping the bombshell story about several players, both current and moved on, who also received payments from AMS Sports. Turns out that Washington star Markelle Fultz was on that list having received $10,000 from AMS despite not signing with the sports agency upon his departure from UW.

This story has been festering for the last several months around a sport that has been festering for decades. We already knew that the FBI had opened up an investigation into several schools around recruiting practices. They were focused on how funds were being shifted from schools to sports agents and sports agents to players in order to influence both where star recruits decided to play basketball and who they selected as representation before becoming professionals. The FBI, as the investigative arm for the Department of Justice, is interested in rooting out the crimes of wire fraud, money laundering and bribery among the apparel companies, the programs, the players, the agents and the middle men involved. Their targets to date have included Adidas, AMS and several assistant and head coaches across major college programs. Former assistants from Auburn, USC, Oklahoma State and Arizona, in fact, have already been arrested while Pitino was forced out as a result of these investigations.

The scheme itself if Elliott Ness and the Untouchables kind of stuff. SB Nation has a nice breakdown of the entirety of the scandal right here. It’s so convoluted, the Southern District of NY felt compelled to tweet a summary to help people understand:

You’d expect to be reading about these kinds of cloak and dagger schemes more commonly in the latest John LeCarre, not your local sports pages. That assumes, of course, anybody still reads words typed on paper.

And these are just the opening salvos in what is sure to be a long and bloody battle to clean up a sport that, right now, looks as pure as a combination of WWF, WBC boxing (Don King era), cycling and cock fighting all rolled into one.

If you are a basketball fan, all I can say is hold on.

Arizona will obviously be affected here. They just fired a football coach for a #MeToo incident. I don’t think they are going to wait too long to part ways with the emerging face of evil across all of the NCAA (even if they have to pay him a boat load to get the hell out of Tucson). Allonzo Trier is already suspended (again) for drug use and it is hard to see how Ayton avoids suspension pending a proper airing of the facts which will surely result in his disqualification. Everybody from local columnist Greg Hansen (here) to Jay Bilas (here) to former UA star Jason Terry - who he himself was known to have taken money from agents while in college - has called for Miller’s ousting.

At this rate, Lorenzo Romar may well be the coach of the Wildcats by the time this article makes it to print.

(By the way, how bad of an AD does Greg Byrne look like right now? He hires himself a couple of mercenary style coaches in Rich Rod and Miller, gets almost nothing out of them in terms of differentiated on-the-field performance and then bails on Arizona just before it all goes to shit. I’m sure Alabama feels so lucky to have him right about now.)

That this battle is now being fought so visibly in the PAC 12 with the conference’s standard-bearer in the cross-hair is sure to draw attention to just about every other program. We already know about USC given that one of their assistants was among the four arrested last year. And now we have news about Bennie Boatwright having been paid which, if true, will sure disqualify him (though he is out for the year with a knee injury). UCLA had its experience with the Ball clan. Oregon has Dana Altman and a long trail of sexual assault issues laying out there. Washington hired a star recruit’s dad to be a coach and had another assistant (current UW assistant Cameron Dollar) already once before run afoul of the NCAA.

We can go on here, but I think you get the picture.

A culture of corruption has taken over the NCAA and, in this case, Men’s Basketball. It’s obviously not a new problem. Rather, it is one that has slowly spread like disease across a wide swath of quality human beings - both players and coaches - who have favored arguments about the so-called “grey area” over proclamations of the spirit of the law. Our programs now more closely resemble the Enrons and the Tycos of the world than they do the prideful academic institutions that so many of us are inextricably bonded to.

I can feel myself going down the very track of sanctimony that I promised you all I wouldn’t do in this piece. So I will pause here and say that I firmly believe very fine people are going to find themselves getting caught up in the muck among the miscreants who have perpetuated this particular set of infractions. I think it is going to suck for them. But they will ultimately become collateral damage in an effort otherwise designed to shine daylight on the shadowy world of amateur basketball. This seems like a trade that most fans would be willing to concede in the spirit of getting this thing fixed once and for all.

As for the PAC, I think they will ultimately end up just fine. Sure, I think Arizona is heading quickly towards significant sanctions which could include a loss of scholarships. The rest of the conference is sure to get sullied in the process. Players like Boatwright, Ayton and others are sure to move on in an inglorious fashion. But the game will survive.

And it may again thrive. As long as the NBA is still filling arenas. As long as March Madness remains the sports event of the year. As long as there are kids out in the schoolyard playing pick-up games, there will be an interest in college basketball. That interest can be cultivated, developed, coached and honed into a craft. The kind of craft that still thrills fans and amazes audiences everywhere.

That day will come again just as soon as the sun comes out and shines its light on all that is in front of us.