How Worried Should Arizona Be?

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With the latest scandals, where does Arizona stand?

Like every fan, I have teams I am very passionate about. Then there are a handful of secondary teams that I root for and pay extra attention to. My daughter and her husband both attended the University of Arizona. When their games are on television or I see a story about them, I tend to devote more time than I would to, say, Texas Tech. It’s a win-win; I enjoy it when they win and I can give my son-in-law crap when they lose. Besides, Sean Miller is a Pittsburgh guy. Sure, his high school beat my high school in the state championship game, but Pittsburgh guys don’t say anything bad about each other.

Having said that, there are things happening in the men’s basketball program that worry me. Recruiting has become overly dependent on AAU coaches and other “handlers.” Every team in the country is skating on a thin line between bending the rules and breaking them. It is critical that the head coach establishes a culture in which everyone associated with the program understands that compliance takes precedence over snagging five-star recruits. This is why Louisville felt justified in firing Rick Pitino. Even if Pitino was not directly involved in the latest shoe scandal – or the stripper scandal a few years ago, he certainly gave his assistants the impression that he would look favorably on them as the recruits kept coming.

I first got worried about the atmosphere at Arizona when I watched the Netflix documentary “At All Costs,” which essentially portrays AAU coaches as pimps. Two of the young players who are prominently featured in the film are Parker Jackson Cartwright and Gabe York, both of whom ended up at Arizona. There are no accusations of rules violations in the film, and there are plenty of big-name coaches competing for these guys, but the way the whole thing works makes you wonder what a school has to do to come out ahead in this racket.

York, in particular, comes across as selfish and entitled. Halfway through his freshman year on a team that would go to the Sweet Sixteen, he is shown whining about playing time, saying that he was promised a starting job and talking about transferring. Depending on your bias, you come away thinking either that the coaches lied to York or, more likely, that they were fools to bring such a cancer into the program. His AAU coach offers to intervene for him, which makes you wonder why the guy thinks he has so much pull with a college coach.

Now we find that an Arizona assistant has been implicated in the Adidas shoe scandal, and a five-star recruit has lawyered up in response. We don’t know if any of the charges against Book Richardson are true, and he is, of course, innocent until proven guilty, but the FBI allocates resources based on the seriousness of the crime and the strength of the evidence. When they chose to focus on college basketball it stands to reason they would have more to go on than if they were going after a drug cartel. And of all the places in college basketball to look, they chose Arizona.

Is any of this Sean Miller’s fault? Nobody has said so. At best, though, he hired Book Richardson, which looks like a massive piece of bad judgment. We also have to assume that, if Richardson did what is alleged, he did so with an eye on his career prospects, meaning he figured either it would be OK with Miller or Miller would not find out. Neither assumption reflects well on Miller, which is how the NCAA will view it.

The best thing Miller has going for him is that this is the first incident during his tenure at Arizona. He also ran a clean program at Xavier. But now people will be looking at everything the program does with a skeptical eye. Which means that the meteoric rise of the program at the start of Miller’s tenure, the seemingly cozy relationships with AAU coaches, and Miller’s habit of grabbing elite recruits who were seemingly signed and sealed by other programs, will all be looked at as potential evidence of wrongdoing rather than as stellar coaching. Is this fair? No, but there are so many aspects of recruiting that are rancid that I suspect that very few programs could withstand sustained scrutiny from the NCAA and come out without some sort of sanctions, and Book Richardson has given them a rationale for that kind of scrutiny.

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