A week ago, the scheduled opening of Arizona’s full preseason practices Sunday might have been anticipated with a celebratory buzz.
What is arguably Sean Miller’s most loaded team yet might become the No. 1 pick in the two major preseason polls, then go on win the Pac-12 title and maybe even reach its first Final Four in 17 years.
All that could still happen. But now, in the wake of a sweeping FBI investigation that led to the Sept. 26 arrest of Arizona assistant coach Book Richardson and nine other figures involved in college basketball, NCAA clouds could gather over the Wildcats’ future.
If the allegations in the federal complaints are proven true and translate into NCAA violations, at least one current Wildcat might be ruled ineligible and the program could face sanctions for a failure to foster a proper compliance atmosphere, among other things.
And if anyone plays this season and is later found to be ineligible, or if the NCAA levies penalties on the program itself after next season, Arizona could even be forced to vacate individual or team accomplishments.
In other words, the Wildcats could reach their first Final Four under Miller in March … and later have the NCAA say it never happened.
Of course, all that is a big leap from the federal complaints that were released Tuesday, which included bribery and fraud charges on Richardson.
In the complaints, sports agent Christian Dawkins said a current Arizona player has already been paid and is quoted saying he is “friends” with UA coaches and can attend practice “like I’m on the team.”
Several attorneys who have worked for schools on NCAA cases say that could turn into failure-to-monitor violations if an agent’s presence around the program is found to have led to relationships with players it paid.
Richardson was also alleged to have taken $20,000 in bribes that he could use to help secure a recruit, while promising he would in turn steer current UA players to the agents for professional representation.
The key is whether all this is proven true and translated into violations in the NCAA’s much different court.
“When you have a complaint that is sworn to by a federal agent, and that references documents, wiretaps and video recording, that may be pretty reliable,” said Stuart Brown, an Atlanta-based attorney who has handled NCAA cases for schools and conferences. “We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves in presuming what happens.
“But if the federal investigation turns out to prove … (agents were) providing money to prospective student-athletes or their family members or close friends, that will clearly be a violation of the NCAA recruiting rules or extra benefit rules. And if the amounts of money are in line with what has been alleged in the complaints … then those extra benefits would be of a substantial nature.
“Clearly, this is different than the $100 handshake.”
While Dawkins is quoted in the complaint referring to UA commit Jahvon Quinerly as “the guy with the 15 grand we gave him,” there is no dollar amount referenced in Dawkins’ statement that a current UA player has already received payments.
But if it is determined that the player took payments in the five-figure range, he could be ineligible for an entire season — and any past games he played in after taking payments might be vacated.
In 2000, the NCAA found former UA guard Jason Terry accepted over $11,000 total from agents during his junior and senior seasons for the Wildcats, and Arizona later was forced to vacate its 1999 NCAA tournament appearance.
Arizona was also forced to vacate all its 19 victories in 2007-08, and its NCAA Tournament appearance that season, because of violations the NCAA found during the final years of former coach Lute Olson — including Olson’s improper support of a recruiting showcase at McKale Center, and coaching-related activities by UA assistant coaches that were against NCAA rules.
While the Wildcats lost in the first round of the 1999 and 2008 NCAA Tournaments anyway, those vacated broke apart what was a much-hyped streak of 25 straight NCAA Tournament appearances into one of 14 straight (1985-98) and another of eight straight (2000-2007).
Retroactive penalties could also hit here, too, if any allegations from the FBI investigation are later proven to have involved players or coaches who participate in the upcoming season.
Timing is an issue.
The federal allegations are likely to take months, if not years, to play out — and the NCAA may decide to trail behind with its own investigation while waiting to see what federal allegations are proven.
When asked by the Star, the NCAA declined to say if it would investigate on its own or levy sanctions based on the federal findings. Several attorneys who work on behalf of schools facing NCAA violations say the NCAA could do its own investigations separately, or incorporate what comes out of the federal cases as evidence in their own cases.
The FBI could also require anyone charged who is seeking a plea agreement to cooperate with the NCAA. Even though the FBI has no obligation to help the NCAA, Brown said it might do so because it is trying to promote integrity and fair play.
“It is good for society if people honor their contracts and play by the rules they’ve signed up to play by,” Brown said. “Also, the money involved in this case is very small at this point and to have attracted the attention of the (U.S. Attorney’s) Southern District of New York, it’s because they knew this would be a high-profile case.
“It’s fun and rewarding for them, and shows they are protecting the rule of law — and in a context that most people are interested in more readily than some insider trading security case. It makes them look good.”
Brown said the FBI could even turn over information to the NCAA that it doesn’t need for the purpose of its cases — but information that might still result in NCAA violations — for the same reason.
Arizona and some of the other schools involved may also want to initiate their own internal investigations immediately.
If a school believes it has a potentially ineligible player, such as the UA player Dawkins said was paid already, it may want to determine as quickly as possible if that player should be held out. If he isn’t held out, and later found to be ineligible, that player’s team could be forced to vacate games or given other sanctions.
“That’s why schools generally take the cautious approach and … if it’s in doubt, withhold the student-athlete from competition,” Brown said.
Quinerly hasn’t responded to the Star or posted anything publicly about his intentions. But if it’s proven he took $15,000, Quinerly may opt to play overseas next season while waiting for the 2019 NBA draft, since he may not be eligible at all as a freshman in 2018-19.
Chris Wright, the father of fellow UA commit Brandon Williams, said he’s closely watching what is happening but that his son remains committed. And the top-rated 2018 player, Canadian forward R.J. Barrett, posted on Twitter on Saturday that he is down to just Oregon, Duke and Kentucky — all schools that were not named in the federal complaint — after previously considering Arizona.
But even if the NCAA finds a recruit or current player was paid, there are other factors that attorneys say it considers besides the dollar amount. One is whether the player knew about it — or whether it was a deal between an agent and a family member or handler.
Another is where the money came from.
Brown said money given from a booster can be weighed less heavily than funds from an agent.
Whether or not an agent has easy access to the program, as Dawkins indicates in the complaint, requires sorting through even more gray area. Dawkins said he can go to an Arizona practice “like I’m on the team,” even as UA practices are normally closed to the media and public.
Brown said there are often good reasons a coaching staff would want to invite an agent to practice, such as if they wanted to find out how a certain player is being viewed by the NBA for the purpose of passing on that information to the player.
But Christian Dennie, a Texas-based attorney who handled NCAA cases for schools, said if an agent becomes involved in wrongdoing and it is determined he had “too much access to the program, that could be a factor in play for any punishment.”
That sort of scenario could penalize head coach Sean Miller, even though he is not named in the complaint at all except for a reference to how badly he wanted a recruit.
“If, because of that agent’s access, an agent feels they’re in a position to offer money, where the school and the head coach run into trouble are on these second-level violations — failure to monitor or a lack of institutional control,” Brown said. “They could say, ‘Hey, you knew he was attending practice, so why didn’t you do a better job of monitoring or policing his involvement?’ Because you enabled his contact, which created this environment, you could face a lack of institutional control.
“So that could be a problem for the school and the coach even though actually attending a practice is not.”
Miller and the UA could also face institutional control issues if Richardson is convicted of taking bribes in order to help the program’s recruiting, and in turn steering current players to the agents who provided the money, as the complaint alleges.
“It’s a problem (for Miller) because you have one of your main assistants purportedly on tape making what are clear NCAA violations,” says Tucson defense attorney Michael Piccaretta. “They’re gonna want to look into it and determine what you know.
“But I would think if they knew Sean Miller had intent and knowledge of it, that would have been in their 100-page complaint. U.S. attorneys are always looking for trophies.”
In six weeks, the Wildcats will start hunting for trophies of their own on the court. Then they may learn if they can keep them.