Once again Saturday, McKale Center will show off the best in college basketball.
The Wildcats will host their first game against a major-conference opponent, Alabama. Over 14,000 people will watch in person and ESPN2 will beam the game nationwide. There will be videos, music, cheering and dancing, on top of whatever electricity the players produce.
Both teams are on the cusp of the top 25. Both have elite freshmen expected to go in next June’s NBA draft lottery: Arizona’s Deandre Ayton and Alabama’s Collin Sexton.
And, behind the scenes, both have been touched by the sweeping federal investigation into what U.S. attorney Joon Kim called the “dark underbelly of college basketball.”
You may have heard how Kim described that.
“Coaches at some of the nation’s top programs soliciting and accepting cash bribes, managers and financial advisers circling blue-chip prospects like coyotes, and employees of one of the world’s largest sportswear companies secretly funneling cash to the families of high-school recruits,” Kim said at a Sept. 26 news conference.
While four schools had assistant coaches arrested as a result of the investigation, including Arizona’s Book Richardson, another four schools popped up in one form or another. In all, the list to date includes: Auburn, Louisville, Miami (Fla.), South Carolina, Oklahoma State, USC, Arizona and Alabama.
Saturday’s contest will be the first time that two teams from that list have played each other.
While it is pretty well documented around Arizona why the Wildcats made the list — Richardson was charged with federal bribery and fraud charges, while other potential NCAA issues surfaced in the federal complaint — here’s how Alabama popped up:
The Crimson Tide didn’t have an assistant coach arrested, but associate AD Kobie Baker resigned the night of Sept. 27, the day after the federal complaint was released.
According to the Tuscaloosa News, Alabama’s internal investigation indicated Baker may have been involved with a plan to take money in exchange for directing an Alabama player to later sign with an agent as a pro.
The federal complaint said an unidentified school administrator accepted $5,000 and arranged an August meeting between advisor Rashan Michel, an undercover federal witness and “the father of a highly regarded incoming freshman” from the Atlanta area, where Sexton is from.
Before Avery Johnson was hired as the Tide’s coach, Baker had worked as the assistant director of enforcement for basketball development at Alabama and, between October 2014 and September 2015, he worked as an associate director of amateurism certification for the NCAA.
That prompted Yahoo! College basketball writer Pat Forde to write: “When former NCAA compliance workers are part of the fallout, the sport is in uncharted territory of trouble.”
Upon Baker’s resignation, former Arizona AD Greg Byrne, now doing the same job at Alabama, issued a statement saying his athletic department immediately initiated a review of the program after the FBI allegations came out.
“Our review has not identified any NCAA or SEC rules violations nor the involvement of any other coach or staff member,” Byrne’s statement said. “We have notified both of the governing bodies of the actions we have taken. As always, we will continue to be proactive in our compliance efforts.”
Asked Friday if the dismissal had an effect on his team or if it was not a big deal, Johnson didn’t take it lightly.
“Anytime a situation like that comes up that costs an administrator his job, you can’t ever say it’s no big deal,” Johnson said. “It is a big deal. But we did everything we were supposed to do and now we’ve got it behind us and all we do is focus on playing Alabama basketball, which is playing with competitive spirit and composure, and playing with a high degree of character on the court and even off the court, in the community, doing well in the classroom.
“You’ve gotta make sure you’re operating a first-class program that fans of Alabama basketball, fans of the University of Alabama, can be proud of. We feel we’re doing that and we’re glad all of that stuff is behind us now.”
It is now, though the Tide also had to deal with the allegations around Sexton. He was suspended for an exhibition and one regular-season game after the NCAA did not reinstate his eligibility.
Not only was Sexton’s father alleged to have met with Michel and Baker in Atlanta, but an ESPN report said Sexton also had a relationship with agent Christian Dawkins, a former travel-ball coach who was heavily implicated in the report — including a scheme to funnel money to Arizona players through Richardson.
But Sexton returned after the regular-season opener, and once unleashed, scored 22, 25 and 29 points in his first three games. Sexton now averages 20.8 points and 3.5 assists while shooting 46.4 percent from 3-point range and is shooting 9.3 free throws per game.
“He plays with a spirit and fire that you don’t often see from a young player,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said of Sexton. “His passion, his confidence, it permeates through the teams that he’s on.”
In short, Sexton is a showcase for college basketball.
“He had to sit out the first game but he’s been locked in,” Johnson said. “He even tried to help us win a game when we only had three on the floor against Minnesota (due to an ejection of Alabama’s entire bench, plus a foul-out and injury).
“He’s playing at a high level and he’s a winner. He’s a kid that has the right DNA. He’s made of the right stuff. We’re glad that he’s at Alabama because he could have gone anywhere in the country.”