No team enters the NCAA Tournament with as many dark clouds surrounding it as Arizona.
The FBI arrested a Wildcats assistant coach in September as part of its investigation into bribery and pay-to-play schemes at the highest levels of college basketball.
Then ESPN reported three weeks ago that Arizona head coach Sean Miller was caught on an FBI wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment for star recruit Deandre Ayton, who is widely projected as the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA Draft.
Miller stepped aside for one game after the ESPN report. But he has since returned to the sideline, leading Arizona to a Pac-12 title, and has vehemently denied paying Ayton.
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Ayton never missed a game as Arizona investigated.
“I regret all the negative attention that has been focused on our program,” Miller said. “While I have done nothing wrong, I am responsible for our men’s basketball program and I have been sickened that we are in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. I have never knowingly violated NCAA rules while serving as coach of this great program. I have never paid a recruit or prospect ... and I never will.”
Already one of the sport’s blue bloods, the surrounding controversy has drawn even more eyes from around the nation to Tucson. With a talented lineup and an us-against-the world mentality, the Wildcats have become a trendy pick to make the Final Four. Eleven of ESPN’s top 27 analysts predicted Arizona to win the South Region.
The timeline of ESPN’s report quickly came under question as Arizona fans claimed Miller’s innocence. ESPN reporter Mark Schlabach said on the air that the payment was made in 2017. ESPN issued a correction, stating it was in 2016. Then it retracted the correction, claiming the call took place in 2017 and that it stood by its original reporting.
Arizona’s top high school commits in the 2018 class all decommitted from the school after ESPN’s report.
The Wildcats have also run into trouble on the court. Star junior guard Allonzo Trier (18.4 ppg) was suspended Feb. 22 for the second time in two years with a performance-enhancing drug in his system.
He missed 19 games last season, when Trier said he unknowingly ingested the drug. He sat out two games in February as Arizona argued that trace amounts from last year’s test triggered February’s failure.
The allegations of Arizona paying Ayton, who denies the charge, come after a whirlwind season of investigations into college basketball. In February, the FBI arrested 10 people, including four assistant coaches. Louisville’s involvement in the FBI report was the final straw for Rick Pitino, who was fired by the school in October.
Yahoo Sports also published a story in February that reviewed documents and bank records that allege at least 20 Division I programs — including Kentucky, which is also coming to Boise — gave impermissible benefits to some of the sport’s top stars.
Kentucky investigated and cleared Kevin Knox of receiving any improper benefits. Knox is a projected lottery pick in the NBA Draft.