Opinion: Scandals Cloud College Basketball Prelude

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The Roanoke Times (Virginia)


BLACKSBURG - College basketball feels gross right now.

Maybe it won't in January, when intoxicating noise fills arenas from coast to coast for conference play. Maybe it won't in March, when brackets and upsets and net-cuttings remind us why we love this game so much.

But right now, in October? Gross. And no amount of midnight-madness events or upbeat practice-is-starting stories can scrape off the sludge.

We're just a couple of weeks removed from federal prosecutors announcing fraud and corruption charges against 10 people, including four assistant coaches at top programs and an Adidas executive, in a massive recruiting scandal. We're less than a month from a U.S. attorney outlining a three-year investigation that targeted "the dark underbelly of college basketball."

The NCAA president called it all "deeply disturbing." Louisville's coach and athletic director got sacked. And throughout, there's been a pervasive feeling that this scandal will ensnare a lot more participants before it's over.

Hooray! When can we tip off?

Against that delightful backdrop, Virginia Tech held its men's basketball media day here Monday. It looked like every other media day. Players and staff members smiled for the team picture, that first step to what they hope will be a special season.

But it was hard not to feel a little sympathy for those players. It's not their fault the sport they've chosen has run amok.

Coach Buzz Williams was reticent to talk in much detail about his sport in the macro sense. That's understandable. The coaching fraternity is a tight one, after all. Judging others publicly is a fool's errand.

"The one thing that saddens me, which is probably immature, is all of those coaches in the association with that, no matter what transpires, it's tarnished," Williams said. "And I hate that. I hate that for those people. Whatever you compromise to keep, you will eventually lose."

Only the most na ïve among us ever thought that college basketball was a squeaky-clean enterprise. There's too much money involved, too much reward for victory. And with only five players on the floor at a time, the influence of one blue-chip recruit can be the difference between winning trophies and having to look for a new job. The temptation is fierce.

But the sophistication of this scandal was impressive. And it arrived with such a thunderclap - the FBI is involved, for Pete's sake - that it left Dick Vitale breaking down in tears on the air.

"I'm saddened by it," Williams said. "I know that there are lives involved. I think there's more coming. But the thing that I have to make sure that I do in my position, I think, is take care of our staff, take care of our players. We can only control what's going on with us.

"The perception of us, we can't challenge, but we can work to improving and getting better. But I think there's more to it. I can't speak on it because I didn't participate in it, but it's not good. It's a black eye."

And that's the problem for Williams, who has turned this Tech program around with startling ease. He is the baseball player hitting home runs in the steroid era. He is the cyclist winning a Tour de France stage. These should simply be celebratory moments; instead, his sport has reached the point where the first time anybody succeeds, the first question is: How?

"My No. 1 responsibility is to help everybody within our program, and that includes all the families that are represented," Williams said. "But when you start reading some of that stuff about what's going on, what I tell our guys is, let's see if we can love better today, and let's see if we can work better today. If we can do those things, then we'll get better today. And then tomorrow, let's do it again."

And do it all the way to January, and then to March, when maybe this game will feel fun again.

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October 10, 2017


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