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Judge’s ruling rocks college hoops world: 'I should have cheated my whole career'

Head coach Will Wade of the LSU Tigers reacts to a play during a game against the Texas A&M Aggies at Pete Maravich Assembly Center on February 26, 2019 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Getty Images)

A federal judge in New York Friday ruled that LSU coach Will Wade and Arizona coach Sean Miller do not have to testify in an upcoming federal basketball corruption trial, according to a spokesman for the Southern District of New York.

In a case in which defense attorney Steve Haney promised to “pull back the curtains” on the underbelly of college basketball, this ruling potentially limits what can be exposed and used by the NCAA against the coaches and their programs.

How does this impact next week’s trial?

The ruling takes some of the potential fireworks out of the upcoming trial, in which former Adidas and Nike employee Merl Code and former agent runner Christian Dawkins are charged with conspiracy to commit bribery and various other crimes. Both Miller and Wade had been subpoenaed by defense attorneys, and their appearance would have drawn significant optical scrutiny, although it’s unknown if they’d have testified or taken the fifth to avoid answering questions.

The ruling prompted a significant interpretive discrepancy between the SDNY and defense attorneys. SDNY spokesman Nicholas Biase told Yahoo Sports on Friday that Judge Edgardo Ramos ruled that FBI wiretaps featuring Wade and Miller would not be played during the trial. Ramos did reserve the right to change his mind. Attorneys for both defendants disagreed the ruling included potential evidence such as wiretaps. “That’s just not accurate,” said Haney, who is defending Dawkins. “It’s not even in the motion. The order is simply at this time Miller and Wade are not ordered to take the witness stand. There was no order today that precluded any wiretap testimony of anyone.”

The document detailing the judge’s order has yet to be made public.

During the Friday morning hearing, Haney brought up Miller violating NCAA rules. “There’s direct evidence that Sean Miller was paying players,” Haney told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview on Friday. “I said that today, on the record, in court.” Haney later told reporters they’d have to attend the trial to hear the evidence.

Last year, Miller denied ever paying a recruit in response to an ESPN story. “I have never paid a recruit or prospect or representative or their family to come to Arizona,” he said while reading from a statement. “I never have and I never will. I have never arranged or directed payment or any improper benefits to a recruit or prospect or family or representative and I never will.”

The ruling that Miller and Wade don’t have to testify likely means a narrower focus in the actual trial. “From a trial standpoint, this adds some predictability as the judge has telegraphed that he’s not going to let this type of evidence into the case,” said Stephen L. Hill Jr., a partner at Denton’s in Kansas City and a former federal prosecutor. “Other witnesses could talk about their own participation in the conduct, but it’s going to be a much more narrow telling of the story than the defense had originally planned.”

The ruling also indicates the further shifting priorities of the government in case. It began in September of 2017 with a bold press conference that included the now-famous phrase, “We have your playbook,” as an FBI official said that there was a “pay-to-play culture that has no business in college basketball.” Some 19 months later, there appears to be a move by the prosecutors to limit the scope of evidence, perhaps increasing the chances of convictions as opposed to potentially exposing that culture or giving coaches the opportunity to deny it.

“I would say that this trial and the prior proceedings arguably don’t tell the full story of what occurred in the government’s investigation,” Hill said. “The government has a right to put on evidence it thinks will support its allegations and helps secure a conviction. Those that care about the corruption issues may be left wondering whether they have the full and complete story that turning over the entire investigation might provide.”

This ruling increases the onus on the NCAA’s ability to enforce its rulebook without government assistance, and could be considered a significant setback to that organization in investigating both Arizona and LSU. The NCAA has a new rule allowing it to import evidence from such proceedings, and this ruling certainly eliminates the most obvious of those opportunities. The timing of the NCAA’s inquiry into the schools tied into the federal case is still unknown, since it cannot fully investigate until all of the federal investigations have ended.

Arizona head coach Sean Miller will not have to testify in college hoops trial. (Getty Images)

College basketball’s reaction

The reaction around college basketball Friday underscored the challenge facing the NCAA, as some fan bases were cheering their coaches not to have to testify in a federal trial as if their team had just won an NCAA tournament game. There’s little faith that without significant help collecting information from the feds —and there’s no sign the government will be willing to turn over evidence under protective order — that the NCAA can handle this investigation. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, the president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, told Yahoo Sports prior to the NCAA tournament: “We must get it right. We all just feel that something has to happen this time. We’ve got to flush it all out or we’re going to lose credibility.”

The decision on Miller and Wade sparked derision and cynicism among the coaching community on Friday. “If these guys get away with it,” one veteran head coach said, “I should have cheated my whole career. If they get off in this, it’s just not healthy. Everyone is talking about it [today]. I should have cheated 20 years ago, 10 years ago and five years ago.”

As for the relevancy in the upcoming trial, Haney downplayed the significance of the ruling. “We have a factually good case,” he said. “I think people have conflated the value of Will Wade and Sean Miller’s testimony. It’s not a case won or lost based on their testimony. I’m not disappointed and we respect the judge’s ruling.”

There’s still an expectation by the defense that a lot of information would be revealed through the playing of FBI wiretaps. “The case will be very, very factual and dependent on conversations captured on wiretap," Haney said.

LSU suspended Wade for one regular season game and for the SEC and NCAA tournament in the wake of a March 7 Yahoo Sports report that highlighted a phone call in which Wade says he made a “strong-ass offer” to as a recruit. Wade refused to meet with school officials for more than a month but was reinstated on Sunday in the days after meeting with them.

Since that time, LSU has removed athletic director Joe Alleva from his position and hired new athletic director Scott Woodward. (Woodward did not return a call for comment.) Alleva, who was then the athletic director, said in the statement upon Wade’s return: “He answered all questions and denied any wrongdoing in connection with recently reported allegations of irregularities in college basketball recruiting.”

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