WASHINGTON – In the past two years, this town has replaced Hollywood for the center of drama in the United States. Every day in the country's political epicenter feels like a reality television show, where one day improbably trumps the next for bizarre developments.
It feels, well, a lot like college basketball the past two years. One circus pulled into the other circus' hometown on Thursday, with the East region's Sweet 16 at Capital One Arena.
With three federal scandals shrouding college athletics, the arrival of the NCAA's main moneymaker in D.C. felt like a fitting collision.
The overlap begins with a familiar face, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, addressing a familiar face on cable news channels in muckraking lawyer Michael Avenatti. (He's best known for representing adult actress Stormy Daniels and tormenting President Donald Trump.)
Avenatti was arrested earlier this week for allegedly extorting Nike, which is Duke's longtime sponsor and Krzyzewski's longtime business partner. Krzyzewski said he had no comment – "none" – on the allegations Avenatti had toward Nike's Elite Youth Basketball League, long the top feeder to college basketball.
Yahoo Sports also asked Krzyzewski specifically about a cryptic tweet from Avenatti on Wednesday at 1:03 a.m. that simply said, "And Duke…" Krzyzewski said: "There's nothing there."
That tweet came amid a flurry where Avenatti promised to "fully cooperate with the NCAA" by providing "names, dates, amounts, text, email, bogus invoices, wire payments, cash payments, etc – ALL OF IT" that would expose illicit activity at Nike and the schools it sponsors. He went on to name players like Oregon's Bol Bol, former Arizona star and No. 1 draft pick DeAndre Ayton and former blue-chip UNLV recruit Brandon McCoy.
There are no specific accusations against Duke, and it's possible Avenatti is leveraging the Duke brand for attention. He did, after all, become a household name using similar tactics. (Duke athletic director Kevin White said he had "zero comment.")
Avenatti's threats, arrest and tweets of receipts of money funneled to Ayton's mother, Andrea, certainly created a grand diversion from the focus typically spent on matchups and brackets this week. He put Arizona, Oregon and Nike on alert. While there's no signs – other than the first batch of receipts – that this is anything but bluster, the world is intrigued.
The sport is experiencing a moment, which Michigan State coach Tom Izzo addressed.
"I will not judge anybody until I see the reality of it," Izzo said. "But it does make me sad. I think we're at a point in time when college athletics, in general — and football and basketball since they're so visual — you know, we've all got to take a deep look at what we're doing and what is it supposed to be and what can it be. And maybe if there's problems, we've got to eliminate the problems.
“And so nervous, scared, excited — probably all the above. Sometimes when things happen, that leads to change that's positive change."
No. 3 LSU's presence here added to the circus, as they'll play No. 2 Michigan State. (No. 1 Duke plays No. 4 Virginia Tech.) The No. 3 Tigers have settled into the new normal of coach Will Wade being suspended from their program. The school suspended Wade in the wake of a Yahoo Sports report that detailed the coach speaking openly about an offer for a recruit.
Somewhat fitting for this bizarre era of college basketball, the questions about the scandal involving Wade and LSU have reached the "overcoming adversity" phase. Coach Tony Benford at one point actually complimented a reporter's question that brought up using "adversity" as motivation.
Benford answered with a fitting paradox for the moment: "All the adversity we've been through, enjoy the process."
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