College basketball owes it to clean programs to penalize bad behavior before NCAA Tournament

“Congratulations to the 2018 NCAA Tournament champions, the (team redacted).” – Jim Nantz, April 2, 2018

That is the situation we are currently facing after the latest news regarding the FBI’s investigation into college basketball broke on Friday morning. Major powerhouse programs — including blue bloods such as Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina —  joined several other schools in a controversy that has become a fork in the road for the NCAA and the future of the sport.

Late Friday, news broke that Arizona coach Sean Miller was caught by a FBI wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment for 2017 top recruit DeAndre Ayton. This is only the beginning of what could be a disastrous period for a lot of careers.

For so long, the shady underbelly of college basketball has been at the brim of bursting out of a dark cocoon and shedding light on what has been assumed but never outright proven. Big-time shoe companies, agents desperate to get an amateur athlete under their guidance and an overall system of corruption run the game, but no one has had the gall to do anything about it.

The proverbial ball is now in NCAA president Mark Emmert’s court, and the next steps he takes, which will be watched through a highly magnified set of glass, are of highest importance.

“Simply put, people who engage in this kind of behavior have no place in college sports,” Emmert said in a statement on Friday. “They are an affront to all those who play by the rules.”

Actions are louder, and a lot harder to execute, than words, and with a number of teams involved in the allegations having a decent-to-great chance at winning it all during college basketball’s prime event — the NCAA Tournament — those actions are needed soon.

If there is any chance that a program is guilty of the allegations, it should face banishment from the NCAA Tournament. When facing questions of eligibility, student-athletes are often kept out of competition, so the precedent is there. When faced with doubt, it is better to err on the safe side, or we could just see another Louisville situation, where wins and titles are vacated years later and a school that is clean is denied a championship.

Ask Michigan players how they feel now that Louisville’s title is vacated. I’m certain they aren’t going to be pleased.

Surely, fans of the programs listed in the report are currently saying something to the effect of, “Where is the due process? Nothing has been validated. By keeping us out because of mere allegations, you are costing us a shot at a title when nothing could come out of this.”

My response, and what I think the NCAA’s response should be, is this: What about the other teams that aren’t named? Should Purdue see itself defeated by a Collin Sexton-led Alabama team, only to see that player’s eligibility come up again and again throughout a drawn-out process? Should we see teams be left out and relegated to the NIT while Kentucky and Auburn make their way in?

Should we not reward those who play by the rules instead of casting doubt on who will be recognized as tournament participants, Final Four achievers and the champion for months and years to come? 

Frankly, I don’t want to see another banner be taken down due to inactivity by the NCAA.

Of course, we would be naive to actually believe the NCAA would go to these lengths. The annual tournament, after all, means major money, and a lot of these teams named in the probe are the cash cows. Duke and North Carolina fans would be quicker to cheer for each other rather than see the NCAA prevent Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams from strolling the sidelines in late March on CBS. What would March Madness be without John Calipari’s mimicry that borders on the line of drama? This would be a lot easier of a call if it weren’t for the names on the front of a lot of the jerseys.

The NCAA is aware of one important thing as well: Despite the controversy, the fact that the chance exists that wins will be soiled and unforgettable moments erased from the history books, people will tune into the tournament in big numbers. Bars will be packed as people take off work the first Thursday and Friday to see their brackets get busted, and Vegas will accept an insane amount of bets.

Emmert, in the meantime, has a chance to send a big message to the guilty parties and to show the big guys that they are not above punishment. I’m not holding my breath, though, nor do I expect much action as the NCAA accountants express their pleasure and the pockets of the executives at both the association and schools get well-padded.

The NCAA Tournament will be played with a huge cloud hovering over it, and programs that have gone above and beyond to circumvent the rules will be cheered, jeered, praised and celebrated. If one of those listed in the FBI probe ends up on the podium, fans of that school will celebrate, a trophy will be received by the head coach and, yes, a banner will eventually be hung in the home gymnasium.

If I were a part of that respective arena’s maintenance staff, I would make sure it is in an easily accessible spot.

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