Arizona sent a clear and unmistakable message Saturday afternoon when it announced that Deandre Ayton is eligible and will play at Oregon later that night.
The Wildcats are brazenly gambling that the NCAA will not be able to uncover proof that their prized freshman received any money in return for signing last year.
An FBI wiretap intercepted Arizona coach Sean Miller discussing making a $100,000 payment to ensure that Ayton chose the Wildcats, ESPN.com reported late Friday night. The FBI had tapped the phone of Christian Dawkins, the 24-year-old associate of agent Andy Miller who is a key figure in the federal investigation into bribery and corruption in college basketball.
Arizona announced that Miller will not coach at Oregon, but the school did not suspend or fire him. In a surprisingly strongly worded statement released by the university on Saturday, Miller said, “I continue to fully support the University’s efforts to fully investigate this matter and am confident that I will be vindicated.”
Attorney Lynden B. Rose also released a statement on behalf of Ayton’s family that described them as “outraged and disgusted” by reports that he accepted money to attend Arizona. Rose said that the FBI interviewed Ayton “more than six months ago” and he told them he “never discussed or solicited payments” from any schools or shoe companies.
It’s surprising that Arizona intends to play Ayton on Saturday given the severity of the allegations against him and the caution that other schools have shown under similar circumstances.
USC’s De’Anthony Melton, Louisville’s Brian Bowen and Auburn’s Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy each received season-long suspensions after federal investigators alleged that either the players or their families received bribes. The schools feared the NCAA would rule they used an ineligible player and force them to vacate any victories they achieved this season.
Maybe Arizona is confident Ayton never received any money. Maybe Arizona doesn’t believe that the NCAA will be able to prove he did. Or maybe Arizona figures this season is already lost anyway if the NCAA rules Ayton ineligible, so there’s little risk letting him play.
Whatever the explanation, it appears that the Wildcats intend to play Ayton the rest of the season, see how far he can carry them on his broad shoulders and worry about the consequences later. Ayton is averaging 19.6 points and 10.9 rebounds for an Arizona team that is 22-6 and could clinch a share of the Pac-12 title with a win Saturday night.
Arizona’s approach to some extent mirrors what we’ve seen across college basketball this weekend from schools with players newly implicated in the FBI scandal.
Most schools have quickly decided there’s insufficient information to determine their players’ eligibility has been compromised. As a result, they’re keeping their players in uniform, gambling that the NCAA either won’t be able to prove anything or won’t get around to trying given the onslaught of potential violations the FBI has uncovered.
On Friday, Yahoo Sports published documents that detailed Dawkins’ expenditures including cash advances, as well as entertainment and travel expenses for high school and college prospects and their families. The documents identified a number of current college basketball stars as potential recipients of impermissible benefits, yet all but San Diego State’s Malik Pope and Texas’ Eric Davis are still playing this weekend.
Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman announced Saturday that star forward Miles Bridges has been cleared to play despite being named in documents that detailed possible NCAA rules violations. Beekman insisted that Michigan State’s compliance office had “conducted a thorough internal review” even though the Spartans learned of the allegations 24 hours earlier.
Among the other players in uniform on Saturday despite being named in the documents were USC’s Chimezie Metu, Alabama’s Collin Sexton and Kentucky’s Kevin Knox. Metu scored 14 points in the Trojans’ 74-58 victory at Utah, whose student section mocked him with chants of “Payroll! Payroll!” whenever he touched the ball.
One reason Bridges, Metu, Sexton and Knox each played this weekend was probably that the amount of money either they or their families allegedly received was negligible compared to Ayton, The other was that an expense report belonging to Dawkins is so far the only evidence they allegedly accepted money at all.
It’s much more surprising that Arizona would announce that Ayton is playing less than 24 hours after ESPN’s report about the federal wiretap.
The Wildcats are playing on as though nothing has happened and challenging NCAA investigators to do something about it.
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