The four corners is making a comeback in college basketball.
The strategic trademark of Dean Smith, the four-corners offense consisted largely of standing with the ball or dribbling it with no intent of scoring. It was a stall tactic, taken to a stultifying extreme. The advent of the shot clock in 1985 ended its effectiveness, for the betterment of the game.
But now it’s back, in a modern form. As the season begins this week, schools across the country are playing a compliance four corners against NCAA rules and enforcement. They’re stalling.
The first of three federal trials into corruption in the sport left the college basketball’s dirty laundry flapping in the breeze for everyone to see. The trial included loads of evidence and testimony that painted a clear picture of rampant cheating within the sport — paying for players is simply how business has been done in college basketball. When the trial ended with the felony convictions of three men, it added a new layer of repercussion: payoffs are now not just against NCAA rules; they’re illegal.
“It’s a black eye, all of this,” said Grant Hill, the former Duke and NBA star, current television analyst and member of the 2017-18 NCAA Rice Commission that was tasked with offering ways to reform the sport. “But hopefully it will lead to some changes.”
Yet the response within the game hasn’t exactly been a rush to change, or to confront many of the allegations that surfaced in court last month. The response has been stall ball. Inertia. Outright refusal, in some instances, to address issues at the campus level.
There is no publicly detectable quest to find out the truth. There is no urgency to be proactive. There is no action to back up the rhetoric about “commitment to compliance” or “integrity.”
Instead of spurring a housecleaning, the federal investigation has given everyone an excuse to do nothing until absolutely forced to. It’s all duck and cover, play the waiting game.
Thus the season begins under another cloud of uncertainty, just as it did last year. Starting with the Champions Classic on Tuesday in Indianapolis, where Duke will play Kentucky and Kansas will play Michigan State, the scandal will be as much a presence in the arena as the throngs of NBA scouts who will be there to see the next wave of first-round talent.
At Kansas, they’ve done nothing with assistant coach Kurtis Townsend or head coach Bill Self. Yes, they are withholding player Silvio De Sousa from competition, but that’s because playing him could directly impact the status of the team. Townsend, who attorneys said is on a federal wiretap discussing paying for Zion Williamson, is expected to be on the bench Tuesday night. So is Self, who had some rather revealing text exchanges with Adidas bag man T.J. Gassnola, and who is the head of a program that had two players on the 2017-18 roster who got paid — De Sousa and Billy Preston, who never saw action and ultimately left the program during last season.
At Duke, they’ve done nothing with Williamson, their star freshman. In court last month, a transcript of an FBI wiretap was read in which an Adidas consultant told Townsend that Williamson’s stepfather was asking for money, a job and housing for his son to sign with the Jayhawks. Presumably, he chose to attend Duke out of pure basketball altruism. Regardless of what Williamson did or didn’t get to attend Duke, his eligibility status would seem to be in jeopardy if a relative was shopping him for money. But he’s expected to play Tuesday against Kentucky.
At Arizona, they’ve done nothing with head coach Sean Miller. There was testimony that not one, but two starters on the 2017-18 Wildcats team were on the take in some form or fashion (Deandre Ayton and Rawle Alkins). There was testimony that two assistant coaches were in the know about payments to players (Joe Pasternack and Emanuel Richardson). Richardson will stand trial in 2019 on fraud charges.
At LSU, they’ve done nothing with head coach Will Wade. There was evidence heard in court that Wade was on wiretap discussing a deal for recruit Balsa Koprivica with aspiring agent Christian Dawkins — one of the three men found guilty of fraud. Wade issued a statement at SEC basketball media day denying that he had ever “done business” with Dawkins, but they sure weren’t discussing the weather in the conversation that was repeated in court.
At La Salle, they’ve done nothing with Kenny Johnson. He’s the first-year assistant coach who rather surprisingly was hired after being let go at Louisville in 2017 while that program burned to the ground. There was very specific testimony in New York from Brian Bowen Sr. that he sought and received $1,300 from Johnson, personally delivered to him by Johnson outside the downtown hotel where he was living.
At Cal State-Northridge, they’ve done nothing with Mark Gottfried. He was hired last spring after being fired at North Carolina State in 2016. Gottfried’s former program was directly implicated by documents and testimony to a $40,000 payment to the family of former Wolfpack star Dennis Smith Jr., via assistant coach Orlando Early. But Gottfried’s job status at Northridge appears unchanged. New head coaches at UC Santa Barbara (Pasternack) and UNC Asheville (Mike Morrell) also appear to be fine at their new jobs, even though they were mentioned in testimony for involvement in pay-for-play recruiting schemes.
Those are just a few of the schools implicated, but they’ve all broadly followed the same gameplan: minimize, avoid public discussion, play the waiting game.
It seems not just possible but likely that schools have made a cost-benefit calculation, reasoning that the NCAA doesn’t have the time or manpower to run down two-dozen cases before the 2018-19 basketball season has played out. Maybe even 2019-20. So they’re not in any hurry to confront the truth.
Nobody knows for sure where the NCAA is in terms of being able to assimilate information from the trial and act upon it. The association has largely stayed out of the feds’ way, and you have to wonder whether that is still the case while waiting for the other two trials to play out in ’19.
Given that, schools don’t appear to be rushing toward self-discovery or self-sanctioning. Instead, the four-corners plan seems to be catch us if you can. Or when you can.
(Editor’s note: A previous version of this story mentioned Allonzo Trier as having been named in federal testimony. He was not. The story has been updated to reflect that.)
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