Tate | Rule benders still reap big rewards

Tate | Rule benders still reap big rewards

Mixed basketball memories from the early 2000s will be revived when the Illini play an early-season game next season against Arizona in Tucson.

A nationally-covered feud began with a rough-and-tumble clash in Hawaii in November 2001. Luke Walton blocked Cory Bradford's corner trey in the closing seconds to save a 79-76 win for the No. 1-ranked Wildcats.

Bill Self's Illini got even in Chicago a month later, 81-73, after which coach Lute Olson complained loudly to the media about the physicality of Lucas Johnson and his rambunctious teammates (those two nonconference games saw 118 free throws).

Then, with a Final Four slot on the line in San Antonio that March, officials ceded to Olson's protestations as the Wildcats shot an NCAA tourney record 56 free throws, converting 43 in an 87-81 win. Six Illini fouled out.

This was the background in 2005 when they collided during another Elite Eight game in Rosemont, Deron Williams sparking an improbable rally from 15 down (75-60) in the last four minutes to spark a 90-89 overtime triumph by the top-ranked Illini.

Follow the money

The Tucson game later this year will again draw national interest, but for a different reason.

As the latest New York fraud trial reveals the steamy side of college basketball — the jury witnessed clandestine video of four assistant coaches accepting handouts for "steering" prospects — Arizona has become the nation's Bad Boy.

The Wildcats' 10-year head coach, Sean Miller, has been under FBI scrutiny for more than a year. He has been accused, among other things, of agreeing to pay his No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft, 7-foot-1 Deandre Ayton, $10,000 per month out of his own pocket.

Hey, you can afford wild spending when you're earning multi-millions. Cynics would call it investing in your program ... your future.

The latest accusations came from wire-tapped statements and testimony of his assistant coach, Book Richardson, and from the under-oath testimony of Christian Dawkins, a sports agent involved in various fraudulent payments including one to the mother of former Michigan State star Miles Bridges.

Dawkins was found guilty of bribery Wednesday. Richardson made a plea agreement to reduce his prison term, once commenting under oath that he was giving players so much of his $250,000 salary that he was "going broke." In hitting up agents for $15,000 to pay the mother of a New Jersey prospect, he was heard saying he'd provide $10,000 of his own money.

The cost of success

You'll notice my use of the word "accused" as it pertains to Miller. Even though trial testimony implicated him on multiple trial days, the FBI does not have him on tape confirming his own wrongdoing. Thus, in a court of law, the statements and opinions of Richardson and Dawkins fall into the category of hearsay ... or in legal terms, circumstantial evidence (which is often sufficient).

All of which casts the administration at Arizona into a terribly awkward position. While there's little doubt in the basketball world that Miller knew and oversaw massive payments, Arizona leaders, including President Robert C. Robbins, are reluctant to fire him. He's been successful, after all. And when it was first disclosed in February 2018 that he "discussed paying Ayton $100,000" on an intercepted wiretap, there was hesitation. The Arizona buyout was deemed to be more than $10 million at the time.

Whether we agree with the seemingly archaic rules governing amateur athletes, the NCAA is a voluntary organization that requires compliance. Cheating must be penalized.

But the NCAA has yet to act, and legal minds at Arizona are taking a careful, prudent approach, just as they are at LSU (where suspended head coach Will Wade was welcomed back after the school accepted his denials related to 2019 recruit Balsa Koprivica).

All schools subscribe to "taking charges seriously" and "proper ethical conduct." But when it comes to a popular, winning coach with a huge buyout, these standards fade into a smokescreen.

Consider this a reminder — ahead of the UI's road-home series with Arizona the next two seasons — how far the Wildcats have been willing to go — Richardson for sure, Miller circumstantially — to attain success.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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