Suspended Auburn University point guard Varez Ward is under investigation by federal authorities in an ongoing point-shaving probe, Yahoo! Sports has learned.
Three sources with knowledge of the case said the FBI has been investigating Ward since late February after he and guard Chris Denson were suspended by the Tigers prior to a Feb. 25 home game against Arkansas. Two sources said Denson was also questioned as part of the point-shaving investigation, but he was cleared of any wrongdoing and returned to the team after sitting out the loss to the Razorbacks. The sources said additional players have been questioned in the case about whether Ward – who has not been with the team since being suspended – attempted to enlist them in a possible scheme. The sources said at least two games are under scrutiny: a 68-50 loss to Alabama on Feb. 7 and a 56-53 loss to Arkansas on Jan. 25.
"We are very concerned by the point-shaving allegations involving Auburn University men’s basketball program and have been in contact with the school and the FBI since the issue arose in February," the NCAA said in a statement. "The NCAA takes any allegation of point shaving very seriously because sports wagering threatens two of our core principles – the well-being of student-athletes and the very integrity of intercollegiate sport.
"As allegations of point shaving, if proven, are also potential federal crimes, the NCAA will defer action until any process with the FBI has concluded."
Messages left at the FBI’s field office in Auburn and divisional headquarters in Mobile were not returned. An email to Ward was not returned.
"Auburn officials were made aware of a rumor regarding an allegation two weeks ago and immediately reported it to the FBI, the NCAA and the SEC," Auburn officials said in a statement. "Because of the nature of the allegation, Auburn is not in a position to make any further comment on the situation."
Two sources told Yahoo! Sports the coaching staff became aware of possible point-shaving when a player raised concerns with an assistant coach in late February. After the coaching staff was alerted, the school contacted both the FBI and the NCAA.
The sources said that shortly after, Tigers head coach Tony Barbee suspended Ward and Denson indefinitely for a violation of team rules. Both players then sat out the Feb. 25 loss to Arkansas, with Barbee stating there would be no timetable for the players' return, nor any comment going forward. Denson was reinstated one game later when Auburn faced Alabama on Feb. 29, with Barbee telling reporters Denson "deserved an opportunity" to play again. Ward did not make the trip to Tuscaloosa, Ala., and has not been with the team since his suspension.
"Kids have to learn a lesson," Barbee said of Denson last week. "It's bigger than sports. It's about life. Sports – including what we do, basketball – is a great opportunity and a great vehicle to teach these kids life lessons. … He had to suffer the consequences for some bad decisions."
[Y! Sports Radio: Auburn reacted quickly to player's concerns]
Point shaving is the act of attempting to curb point production in a game, with the intent on impacting the game's score most often in relation to a published betting line.
Ward has averaged nine points this season as a combo guard and most recently was providing a scoring spark for Auburn off the bench. At least two games have been reviewed for irregularities:
• In the Feb. 7 loss to Alabama, Ward played 17 minutes, scoring three points (shooting 1-for-5 from the field and 1-for-2 from the free-throw line) and committing six turnovers with two assists. His first shot was a made layup, his second shot was blocked, his third was an air ball, his fourth was a long missed 3-pointer and his fifth was blocked on a layup attempt. Trailing 43-33 with 15:25 left, Ward turned the ball over twice in 21 seconds. He was then subbed out of the game. Ward entered again with 11:30 remaining and Alabama leading 50-35. Ward then turned the ball over twice in 2½ minutes as the Crimson Tide moved to a 58-38 lead. In the other 26 games Ward played this season, he averaged 2.7 turnovers in 29.1 minutes per game. According to sportsbook Vegas Insider, Alabama entered the game as a five-point favorite. The Crimson Tide easily covered with an 18-point win.
• In the Jan. 25 game against Arkansas, Ward checked in with 14:25 to play. He turned the ball over in the backcourt on his first possession 19 seconds later, falling to the floor as Arkansas converted the turnover into a layup. After remaining on the floor for more than a minute, Ward left the game limping on his right leg. Coach Tony Barbee later described the injury as a knee to Ward's quadriceps. Ward's departure left Auburn with only one reserve point guard for the remainder of the game against the Razorbacks – little-used Tony Neysmith, who hadn't played in the previous seven games. According to Vegas Insider, Arkansas went into the game as 9½-point favorites. Auburn ultimately covered that spread without Ward, losing 56-53.
Ward has yet to speak publicly since his suspension from the team. One of the most frequent Twitter users on the roster, the redshirt sophomore's account has been silent since Feb. 24 – one day before Barbee made the suspensions of Ward and Denson public. The last entry into Ward’s Twitter account was: "Can't win for losing smh." "Smh" stands for "shaking my head" in Twitter verbiage.
Auburn made a last-second recruiting pitch to 6-foot-3 guard Brian Greene Jr. in late February only days after suspending Ward. Green told Rivals.com that he heard from Auburn for the first time on Feb. 27. Members of the coaching staff were visiting Greene by March 1, and the player had committed to the Tigers by Sunday.
A Montgomery, Ala., native, Ward was once a highly coveted prep school player and began his college career with the University of Texas in the 2008-09 season. After having a promising NCAA tournament as a freshman, Ward started Texas' first three games as a sophomore only to have his season cut short after he ruptured his right quadriceps tendon during warm-ups before the Longhorns' fourth game. He chose to transfer to Auburn in August 2010, saying he wanted to be closer to his mother, who had a heart condition.
After sitting out last season because of transfer rules, Ward became a key scorer for the Tigers this season before his minutes and shooting percentage began to drop in January. He started 17 of 27 games before being suspended.
Contact Yahoo! Sports investigative reporter Charles Robinson at WindyCityScribe@yahoo.com.
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