The uncomfortable return of college basketball

Sam Riche/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

When we last tuned in to an actual college basketball game, we saw North Carolina hoisting yet another championship trophy as questions swirled about its protracted, and pending, NCAA investigation.

Now, those times seem so much simpler.

Over the ensuing seven months, madness has consumed the sport. A massive FBI investigation into fraud and corruption ensnared four assistants at Auburn, Oklahoma State, Southern California and Arizona -- plus a high-level sneaker exec -- and led to Rick Pitino's ouster at Louisville. Meanwhile, Auburn's head coach Bruce Pearl refused to cooperate with his own school's investigation, putting into question his job status.

Auburn already made the decision to withhold forward Danjel Purifoy and center Austin Wiley indefinitely to sort through potential eligibility issues. Louisville has done the same with freshman Brian Bowen. Alabama freshman Collin Sexton, the No. 7 player in the ESPN 100 and No. 14 in our list of this year's top 50 players, was held out of an exhibition game and is now suspended for tonight's opener for violation of NCAA rules.

Meanwhile, LaVar Ball's middle son, LiAngelo, and two teammates were arrested on shoplifting charges earlier this week in Hangzhou, China, where UCLA is in town to play Georgia Tech. And speaking of Georgia Tech, a longtime friend of coach Josh Pastner's told CBS Sports that Pastner had firsthand knowledge about impermissible benefits that led to an indefinite suspension for players Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson.

North Carolina getting off without any NCAA sanctions feels like a slow news day comparatively.

All of this? This is the backdrop college basketball opens against on Friday.

Chaos has replaced any semblance of normality, and that has turned the focus from tipoff to scandal. This should be a joyous time, filled with optimism and fun-filled debates. Instead, it is impossible to ignore what looms over the sport -- starting with the ongoing FBI investigation that is certain to change the sport itself.

"This has been a significant issue in college basketball, and a significant distraction," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. "I think there is an assumption that there will be more news to follow as a result of the ongoing and future investigation that the NCAA will undoubtedly conduct. There's uncertainty in the air with a lot of our coaches and people around college basketball. The NCAA encouraged schools to do whatever self-investigations they can, so that when the season starts it starts with schools having the opportunity to clear those up. The objective is, once the first tipoff happens, we're focused on basketball."

But is that remotely possible?

The preseason AP Top 25, for instance, has four teams directly affected: No. 3 Arizona and No. 10 USC had assistants arrested; No. 16 Louisville has interim coach David Padgett leading the way. No. 13 Miami also has coach Jim Larranaga dealing with the FBI; Larranaga believes he is the one referred to as "Coach-3" in the FBI report.

Not to mention the player suspensions already announced, plus the idea that there could be more bad news on the way.

All of that has created a mood of uncertainty, frustration and trepidation, far from the excitement that should be there right now.

"It's the FBI. It's wiretapping. It's not two coaches standing around in a corner saying, 'Well, they got so-and-so because they bought him a pair of shoes," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "This is big league stuff. This is putting people in jail and throwing away the key."

The sport cannot just go back to business as usual, hoping the actual games will make the problems disappear. Hard decisions have to be made, decisions that involve looking at the way basketball is run, from youth leagues all the way to the NBA. Decisions that go to the very core of amateurism, that explore how to address new-age problems when so many of them revolve around ungodly dollar amounts.

"You know what's going on, you see what's going on, but you can't prove what's going on," Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. "That's the earth-shattering stuff that went down: The FBI said, 'We've got proof. We've got transcripts, we've got wiretaps, we've got surveillance that proves these people were dealing in a very underhanded way.'"

As counterintuitive as it might sound, Boyle is eager for more news to come out. Not because he wants the negative headlines to continue but because he wants the sport to get cleaned up as quickly as possible.

"It wasn't just these four," Boyle said. "In a perfect world, you'd have this FBI investigation catch everybody that was doing it, and that would be it to clean our sport up and rid it of the slime that lives within it. The reality is that's probably not going to happen, but it's a start. It is an eye-opener for the public. I think it's an eye-opener for our athletic directors, for our presidents, for our board of regents, for the fans to understand really what's at stake when they come to see a game at the University of Colorado. You'd like to think they have confidence we're doing things the right way, but the fact of the matter, not everybody is."

There are no easy answers. Nor is there one blanket mood among more than 30 coaches, players, administrators, commissioners and college basketball analysts who shared their thoughts on the state of the sport. Some expressed anxiety. Others believe that the sport is in great shape and that games will provide a sanctuary from scandal.

Unfortunately, university presidents were not as forthcoming. We reached out to 10 university presidents across the country for comment, and West Virginia president E. Gordon Gee was the only one who responded.

"My feeling about college basketball is I think it's pretty healthy right now. With every one of these revelations, you have to understand there are 98 percent doing it right and well," Gee said. "When you get this kind of news, it becomes larger than life. I'm still hopeful about college athletics in general. We have a lot of soul-searching to do to make sure we're all working toward the same kinds of goals. We need to be very careful that we don't allow money to be the only driving force of what we're trying to do."

Gee repeated the thoughts many coaches, administrators and commissioners expressed during interviews: The sky is not falling, and basketball is not falling down a black hole.

But passing the problems off to a few bad actors does not directly address the FBI scandal itself. As Williams pointed out, we also are talking about the federal government getting involved in intercollegiate sport. It's a huge deal.

And money is, indeed, a huge part of the problem. It already has come to dominate the sport, thanks in large part to shoe and apparel deals and television rights, the same way it has in college football and professional leagues. And whenever big-time money is involved and escalates into hundreds of millions of dollars, the stakes grow even higher.

"It's kind of like the gateway drug, right?" Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "You're introduced to alcohol, and you have a little marijuana, and next thing you know you're doing cocaine, and before you know it you're on 'Breaking Bad.' I mean, that's kind of it. You think you can get away with something, and then you find out some of the things that are going on around you.

"I was told by a coach this summer, 'If you're not cheating, you're cheating yourself.' And I remember going, Ha-ha, and then I went, 'Actually, that's probably true.' So, again, the amount of money and the amount of time that it's gone on, I just think it makes for a big mushroom cloud at some point that's going to blow."

It blew up on Sept. 26, when federal prosecutors in New York charged 10 people with fraud and corruption, including Auburn assistant Chuck Person, Oklahoma State assistant Lamont Evans, Arizona assistant Emanuel "Book" Richardson, USC assistant Tony Bland and Adidas executive James Gatto.

Shortly thereafter, the NCAA formed a special commission, headed by Condoleezza Rice, to recommend ways to fix the sport.

"I don't think you can put the genie back in the bottle," ACC commissioner John Swofford said. "Back in the day, you're talking to parents and the high school coach and guidance counselor, that right now sounds like a quaint and beautiful time, although there were problems back then, too. But in today's world, you've got the shoe companies, you've got players identified at such an early age, you've got AAU teams funded by donations and shoe companies, others traveling nationally and internationally. ... None of that existed in the days when everybody wore their Converse All-Stars. That's not our world anymore, and we have to recognize that."

Therein lies the major problem. Everyone recognizes that all the issues have to be fixed. But how do they get fixed when, at least fundamentally, it appears the entire NCAA model needs a major overhaul?

"The NCAA will use this to double down on amateurism," ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas said. "It's not like there's any examination of: Hey wait a minute, should we not take this money? Should we not use the players as unpaid billboards? Should we not sell these players to television like this? Do you think maybe we shouldn't have done this? Nobody's asking that question. They're saying how can we keep the players in this little box and keep moving forward?

"The money's going to find a way, maybe it will be a different delivery system, but we've been through all this before and we'll go through it again."

Others inside the sport do not view what has happened in such stark terms, accepting that cheating is as old as sport itself.

"We've had a pocket of coaches that have cut corners in recruiting in every NCAA sport for as long as we've been competing," South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. "There are crooked people on Wall Street. There are crooked people in Ponzi schemes. It happens. People make bad decisions in every walk of life, but there are a lot more guys that do the job the right way than there are guys who do the job the wrong way. We've got everyone spinning this whole thing to like, 'Well, college basketball's so crooked.' No, it's not."

No coach wants to be painted with the same broad brush as those who have not played by the rules, but in the public's eye, there is no way to really separate the two. At least not yet.

"I'm kind of excited by the opportunity I think all of this is going to wind up presenting to us," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. "I hate the position it puts the sport in now, and I hate that it contributes to the cynicism about collegiate athletics that already exists in some quarters, but I'm on the side of this that thinks that something like this was needed if we were going to make some progress in fixing our game."

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski agreed, saying, "College basketball's cried out for changes in structure. It's cried out for a better association with high schools and AAU before you get the youngster, with the NBA. It's time to mesh all those entities and figure out what the model will be. Hopefully, they will not try to continue to put a circle into a square."

But whatever changes come will not be easy solutions. Then there is the possibility of unintended consequences that could negate the answers to the questions the sport has to confront today. On top of all that, there has to be a willing buy-in from coaches to make the necessary changes.

"You can't legislate morality. You can't legislate honesty," Williams said. "Everybody says, 'Pay them. Well, somebody will pay them more. So it's a problem, let's do what we can with it, but there's not going to be one all-afternoon meeting in Indianapolis that's going to cure this stuff. Let's see what's going on, get more information about it, attack that issue and go on to the next one."

Now what does all this mean with the new season set to begin? On the bus ride to ESPNU studios in Charlotte, North Carolina, as part of ACC media day last month, coaches discussed the scandal among themselves. The topic has been unavoidable.

But once those games begin, many hope all the FBI talk will recede to the background.

"This is eye-opening to all of us. But there are a lot of great things going on in college basketball," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "We can't disregard it. We've gotta work hard to change things, and I think all of us will. There's still a lot of great kids in college basketball, a lot of great programs, a lot of great coaches, and we've gotta try to focus on that as we go through the season."

Players hope the scandal does not paint them with the same broad brush.

"People may not respect certain programs or their staff or their players, but I think people still respect the game of basketball," Notre Dame forward Bonzie Colson said. "Every school is not doing what those schools are doing. There're still schools with great coaches, with great coaching staffs who trust their players and don't have to do that for them to come. It shows your team identity when you're not in things like that."

Still, this already is a sport facing a crisis. It has become increasingly difficult to get a majority of the sports viewing public to pay attention to college basketball during the regular season. Some of that has to do with its placement on the calendar, during college football and the NFL seasons, and the overall popularity of the NBA.

But with the one-and-done rule and transfers increasing at a torrid pace, it is hard for fans to keep up with the players, not only on their own teams but also the superstars across the country, because the faces change from year to year.

Add in a scandal featuring the FBI, and it might be hard to keep the focus only on basketball.

"Who knows what's going to happen with this investigation," ESPN basketball analyst Jay Williams said. "It almost seems like a slow leak. If there's other news, how could that not have an effect on the sport? I still think big matchups and big names will get people's attention, but to be frank, I think our sport's in a very difficult place."

Here is where the uncertainty comes into play. Without the NCAA stepping in to dish out penalties and with no timetable for the FBI investigation to wrap up, nobody knows how much longer people will have to wait, holding their breath, for the next news story to break and the cycle to start all over again.

"If there are readily apparent violations of NCAA rules, we can't hide behind the FBI to take a look at addressing some of those issues dealing with realities of the punishments that need to be coming," Gee said. "In several instances, clearly they broke NCAA rules, and I'm not certain why we can't parallel those discussions. One is a criminal investigation and the other is a policy relationship between the NCAA and its member institutions."

There's no question college basketball has to change and adapt. But there's also no question more bad news is more than likely coming, if you believe what the FBI hinted at during that first news conference. If more programs get caught in the middle of basketball season, how will the sport react?

"There's a big ominous thundercloud right over the basketball season," said Walt Harrison, chair of the NCAA Division I Committee on Academic Performance while serving as president at University of Hartford.. "There's already been one big clap of thunder and a few raindrops, and you have to expect there are going to be more. What I'm not good at knowing is where the next clap of lightning is going to hit."

That is the uncertainty the sport lives with at the dawn of a new season.