Editor’s note: This article is part of the Star’s 2017-18 basketball guide, which runs in Sunday’s paper.
Basketball season started five days early for the Arizona Wildcats this fall, and there wasn’t even an actual basketball involved.
The FBI didn’t need one of those.
Agents showed up at Book Richardson’s house early on the morning of Sept. 26 and arrested the longtime UA assistant coach on federal bribery and fraud charges. He is one of 10 figures implicated in the FBI’s sweeping investigation into college basketball.
Five days later, after Richardson made an initial appearance at federal court in Tucson, the Wildcats officially opened the season behind closed doors with their first full practice.
UA officials made a flurry of statements and announced they had commissioned an independent investigation into allegations contained in the federal complaint. The Wildcats kept the doors shut to the court until the Oct. 20 Red-Blue Game, breaking out what could be the nation’s top team for the first time publicly.
The sudden visual change was striking: At the Red-Blue Game, the Wildcats showed off their powerful combination of experience, talent, size, length and quickness — everything except a consistent 3-point shot — and drew excitement from the usual sold-out crowd and a host of top recruits.
“They came to Arizona to play at McKale Center and play in a Red-Blue Game,” Miller said of his players afterward. “A lot of them were in the crowd watching as a recruit, and this is the beginning of college basketball season. It’s a very, very exciting part of their lifetime and certainly we don’t want to do anything to dim that.”
For the moment, nothing did. And maybe that will be the case much of this season — one that could still end in San Antonio, for the UA’s first Final Four appearance in 17 years.
But whatever happens, Richardson, Miller’s longest-tenured aide, will not be there. The UA has moved to fire him, and uncertainty surrounding the federal allegations could follow the Wildcats not only all season but beyond.
Wildcats fans are used to heartbreak on and off the court, of course. Arizona has run into NCAA issues twice in the past two decades, after Jason Terry was found to have taken money from an agent in the late 1990s and after violations were found at the end of the Lute Olson era that largely related to the now-defunct Cactus Classic recruiting event.
On the court, the UA hasn’t reached the Final Four since 2001, losing Elite Eight games in 2003, 2005, 2011, 2014 and 2015, plus a Sweet 16 upset loss to Xavier last season when the Wildcats had a favorable path to the Final Four .
They may get there this time, but they will need to fly through some dark clouds to make it.
The timing of the federal complaint suggests Arizona probably won’t face any potential NCAA penalties until after this season, but the federal allegations did touch on a number of potential NCAA issues.
Richardson accused of taking $20,000 in bribes from a sports agent in exchange for the promise of trying to steer UA players to him for professional representation. The agent also said a current UA player has already been paid. In addition, a shoe company rep was quoted as saying Arizona offered another five-star recruit $150,000.
If it is proven that a current UA player took payments from an agent, that player could be ruled ineligible — and if he was found to have taken money before he played in a college game, those wins could be retroactively vacated. Arizona was forced to vacate its 1999 NCAA Tournament appearance after Terry was found to have taken over $11,000 from sports agents.
The UA could also face institutional penalties, such as scholarship reductions or even a postseason ban, while Miller could face discipline, even if it is found he didn’t know rules were being broken. NCAA rules now hold head coaches accountable for their direct and indirect reports.
But, for now, the season moves on.
UA President Robert Robbins said Miller had not been charged with or accused of any wrongdoing and said, “Based on the facts that we know at this time, we support Coach Miller and intend to provide him with all of the tools necessary to meet our goals and expectations.”
Miller declined to say if any of his players might be suspended this season or whether he knew anything about what Richardson reportedly did. After a week of silence, Miller issued a statement on Oct. 3 saying he was “devastated” to hear of the allegations against Richardson and that he supported the university’s efforts to probe the allegations against him.
He held firm to that stance through subsequent news conferences held at Pac-12 media day in San Francisco.
“I’m going to stand by the statement that I gave,” Miller said eight separate times in one form or another during Pac-12 media day.
Maybe for the players, it’ll be different. UA players typically don’t have to face rapid-fire questions from the media, usually being brought forward for interviews only in formal group settings once every week or after games. And since Sept. 26, Arizona has only allowed veterans Dusan Ristic, Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Allonzo Trier to speak.
What’s more, Miller said players are “able to move on sometimes easier than adults because they’re so new, so innocent. They have a lot of things going on in their life for classes, practice, expectations.”
But they’ll likely still face some heckling ahead, as Trier did last season, when he was suspended for half a season over a positive PED test. Already, UA’s Twitter handle “@aplayersprogram” has generated mocking hashtags of “#apayersprogram” and #uofpay,” and opposing student sections will have had months to think of something else even more creative.
But maybe that’s not all bad for the Wildcats. Maybe, on top of all their immense talent, skill and experience, they’ll feed off that external fire. Maybe an us-against-the-world kind of thing.
Maybe that gets them to San Antonio as much as anything.
“We’re gonna focus on what we can control now and that’s how much better we can get every day,” Trier said. “We’re trying to get the best out of each other. I think this will all bring us closer together in the end.”