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The New York Post


The term March Madness will seem mundane compared to what the month ahead brings us.

Hysteria might be more apropos. Or delirium. Perhaps mayhem.

We're about to experience a March unlike any other, and it only slightly has to do with this year's NCAA Tournament, which promises to be as unpredictable as it will be exciting, with few favorites, so many potential Final Four teams, and sleepers lurking in every bracket.

The FBI investigation into corruption has flipped the sport upside down, and has already contributed to the dismissal of a Hall of Fame coach (Louisville's Rick Pitino), and may lead to the ouster of one of the sport's most powerful ones (Arizona's Sean Miller).

On Sept. 26, four assistant coaches — Lamont Evans (Oklahoma State), Emmanuel "Book" Richardson (Arizona) Chuck Person (Auburn), and Tony Bland (USC) — were arrested, along with sports management executives and a top executive at Adidas on bribery and fraud charges. Sports agent Andy Miller's ASM Sports agency office was raided. Things remained quiet until this weekend, when explosive reports from Yahoo Sports and ESPN based on leaked evidence from the Feds' investigation implicated almost two dozen schools and at least 25 current or former players for NCAA infractions, like alleged impermissible loans and payments.

According to wiretaps, Sean Miller was caught talking about a payment of $100,000 for prized freshman Deandre Ayton. He didn't coach Arizona's game Saturday night at Oregon, and his status remains uncertain. Yahoo's findings: Former ASM Sports employee Christian Dawkins' expense reports named powerhouse programs such as Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State and North Carolina, and some of the game's best freshmen, such as Ayton, Collin Sexton, Wendell Carter, and Kevin Knox.

What has followed are denials and rumors, questions of what programs, players and coaches will be implicated next, theories about how the NCAA must proceed, and endless debate regarding the health — or lack thereof — of the sport. One high-major college coach whose school has been implicated, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: "I don't care what program it is. Everyone is worried. It's a dark cloud."

Saturday afternoon, Seton Hall locked down a gutsy 81-74 overtime win over St. John's at the Garden. The Pirates, without leading scorer Desi Rodriguez (ankle), assured themselves of a third straight NCAA Tournament bid with road wins at Providence and St. John's this week. But they also found themselves in the crosshairs of the scandal, when it was reported by Yahoo that former Pirate star Isaiah Whitehead and former assistant coach Dwayne "Tiny" Morton were on Andy Miller's payroll, according to Dawkins' expense reports.

Whitehead, the most prized recruit of the Kevin Willard era, who led Seton Hall to the 2016 Big East Tournament title, reportedly received $26,136 during his freshman year and was also given $37,657 as part of "setting up a payment plan." Morton, Whitehead's high school coach, was also listed in the documents for receiving a $9,500 loan. He coached at Seton Hall for one year, Whitehead's freshman season — he was part of a package deal for the Pirates to land the five-star recruit — before returning to coach Lincoln High School. Morton's relationship with Miller predates coming to Seton Hall, as the agent represented Morton's former player, Sebastian Telfair, who Willard recruited when he was an assistant at Louisville.

Thus, Seton Hall's postgame media session Saturday was more a cross-examination than a positive press conference discussing a big victory.

It felt like a preview of the month ahead, when the on-court results will be secondary. The winners will feel like losers. Reporters will have one eye on the court and the other on Twitter and their phones, wondering when the next bombshell will drop.

This is just the beginning. More leaks are expected. More programs will face accusations. More players will be forced to deny receiving benefits from agents. And it doesn't sound like the NCAA is planning to make any of these schools ineligible for postseason play, creating even more confusion. What happens if news drops during the actual tournament. Will players be held out of Sweet 16 games? Will a coach be on the bench for the first round and not the second?

A March like we've never seen is almost upon us. Calling it Madness would be an understatement. Anarchy would be more like it.

Game of the Week:

No. 10 North Carolina at No. 5 Duke, Saturday, 8:15 p.m.

It just feels right that on the final Saturday of the regular season these two rivals meet, both of them soaring, with a combined 11 straight victories between them, each still with a shot at a No. 1 seed if enough goes right leading to Selection Sunday. North Carolina won the first meeting, 82-78, in Chapel Hill on Feb. 8, behind 11 made 3-pointers. But the Tar Heels will see a different Duke team this time, a better defensive unit, and a more potent group offensively now that senior star Grayson Allen has begun to find his game, averaging 20.2 points during the Blue Devils' five-game winning streak.

Super 16

A prediction of the top four seeds in the NCAA Tournament (listed in order):

1: Virginia, Xavier, Kansas, Villanova

2. Duke, Michigan State, Purdue, North Carolina

3. Auburn, Texas Tech, Ohio State, Tennessee

4. Gonzaga, Clemson, Rhode Island, Cincinnati

Stock Watch

Up: John Calipari

There is still a narrative which regards Calipari as more of a recruiter than a coach, that his best work is done on the recruiting trail, and not on the sidelines. He's not Tom Izzo with a clipboard, but he's proven to be pretty good at getting the most out of his players, and this season is further proof of that. Kentucky, lacking the usual elite-level future NBA stars, has found itself recently, winning three straight games, all by double-figures, and is tied for third place in the rugged SEC. Calipari has gotten his five-star prospects to give more effort, play more selflessly, and accept lesser roles, and the result, suddenly, is a dangerous team.

Up: Eric Musselman

The former Warriors and Kings head coach has quickly built Nevada into one of the premier mid-major programs in the country. Relying heavily on transfers, he won the CBI title his first year, led the 20th-ranked Wolf Pack to their first tournament bid in a decade last year, and has them almost certainly headed back to the dance this year after clinching a second straight Mountain West regular-season crown on Sunday. This team beat No. 18 Rhode Island, and nearly knocked off sixth-ranked Texas Tech and tournament team TCU, losing those games by a combined 10 points.

Down: Sean Miller

Arizona gave Miller the benefit of the doubt when his longtime assistant coach Emmanuel "Book" Richardson was one of four coaches arrested on Sept. 26 as part of the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. I found it hard to believe Miller had no knowledge of Richardson's actions, considering the two had been attached at the hip for 10 years. And now comes this ESPN bombshell, that Miller was caught on wiretaps discussing a $100,000 payment to top freshman Deandre Ayton. Miller didn't coach Saturday's game against Oregon, and his status is uncertain. Once controversies add up like this, the coach usually has to go, as was the case with Rick Pitino at Louisville.

Down: Cincinnati

The 23-4 record is impressive. The No. 11 RPI is strong. So is the No. 11 ranking. And, yet, we don't know what to think of the Bearcats. They have one win — yes, one! — over an NCAA Tournament team, at home against No. 23 Houston. Their other significant victories are at mediocre UCLA, and at inconsistent Temple. Cincinnati was manhandled by No. 4 Xavier, fell to Florida, and has also dropped games to No. 13 Wichita State at home and Houston on the road. Mick Cronin's team is a mystery.

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February 26, 2018


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