INDIANAPOLIS — Bill Self rolled out the No. 1 team in America on Tuesday night to start the college basketball season. The Kansas Jayhawks looked the part — controlling the game throughout against Michigan State, dominating for stretches, then hanging on through an uneven finish to start the season 1-0.
It could be a season in the sun for Kansas.
It also is likely to be a season accompanied by a persistent cloud that could overshadow everything.
Yahoo Sports reported Tuesday night that the federal investigators who have been prosecuting corruption within college basketball have given the go-ahead to NCAA enforcement to begin pursuing rules violations cases. It is unclear exactly what information the NCAA can use from the feds’ investigations in the first of three felony trials, which concluded last month with three guilty verdicts. It also is unclear what the NCAA will do with the information at its disposal.
But this much is clear: The NCAA is now on the case. And it stands to reason that Kansas would be at or near the top of the NCAA investigative to-do list.
If they wanted to save time, enforcement reps could have made the 1.6-mile trip from NCAA headquarters to Bankers Life Fieldhouse to start the investigation as soon as the Jayhawks came out of the showers Tuesday night. It was an interesting location coincidence.
Playing through that wouldn’t be easy. Coaching through it would be even harder. Nobody knows how long such an investigation might take, but the Rice Commission on college basketball recommended to the NCAA membership an expedited process — in other words, get after it.
The Jayhawks were beak-deep in the first federal trial. As a result of testimony heard and evidence submitted, the school already has withheld big man Silvio De Sousa from competition — Adidas bag man T.J. Gassnola testified that he paid De Sousa’s guardian, Fenny Falmagne, $2,500 to help secure the 6-foot-9 forward for Kansas. Gassnola also testified that for Kansas to sign De Sousa, his guardian needed to “get out from under” a deal where a Maryland booster had paid him $60,000. And Gassnola testified that he paid $89,000 to the mother of former Jayhawk Billy Preston, who never actually played in a game during his one season with the program.
Then there is Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend. Lawyers in the trial read a transcript from a federal wiretap in which Townsend discussed a possible illicit payment plan for the family of five-star recruit Zion Williamson – who played here at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday night for Duke in the second game of the night, against Kentucky. A lawyer read a transcript, quoting Townsend telling Code he would give it the old college try: “I’ve got to just try to work and figure out a way because if that’s what it takes to get him here for 10 months, we’re going to have to do it some way.”
And then there is Self himself. He was a frequent texting buddy of Gassnola’s, and according to transcripts from the trial they weren’t discussing the wheat crop in Kansas. Primarily, they were discussing recruits and how Adidas could help the Jayhawks land players.
The university has stood by Self and Townsend, to the puzzlement of many around the sport. We’ll see if that stance is sustainable going forward.
There’s a thousand acres of smoke that seem directly related to a forest fire in east Kansas. And now the NCAA could be on the way, just in time for the season to start.
The Kansas team that dispatched Michigan State 92-87 looked the part of a national-championship contender. The Jayhawks are big, powerful, athletic and skilled — a pretty dreamy combination of attributes. They have veterans, both cultivated within the program and imported as transfers. And they have the obligatory freshmen studs in guards Quentin Grimes (No. 8 player in the Rivals.com class of 2018) and Devon Dotson (No. 20 player in the class).
Grimes was Kansas’ leading scorer against Michigan State, dropping 21 in his college debut. He’s physically mature for his age and shot like he was perfectly at home on the big stage, swishing six 3-pointers. “Q was fabulous,” Self said afterward.
Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson had the best all-around game, producing 20 points, 14 rebounds and six assists despite making only 5-of-18 shots from the field. He could well be Kansas’ leading man.
But the latest poster boy for year-over-year improvement in Self’s program is 7-foot colossus Udoka Azubuike. Now a junior, the former blacksmith is developing touch and skill. Self’s teams always play inside-out, and they will throw it into Azubuike all season.
“He’s our first option,” Self said. “Dedric may lead us in scoring, but we run everything through ‘Doke.”
Azubuike scored 17 points in 20 minutes Tuesday, making 7-of-10 shots and even 3-of-7 free throws — his most glaring weakness. It’s a sign of Azubuike’s development that Self was willing to leave him in the game Tuesday and risk the hack-a-Doke strategy from the Spartans.
“We’re not going to sub for him very often,” Self said.
It was a feel-good night for Kansas. Right up to the point when the news broke about the NCAA coming off the sideline and getting involved in following the money trails littered across the sport. And nowhere is the trail leading to a hotter fire than in Lawrence.
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