After a strong 2017 NCAA Tournament finish, added coaching talent, strong recruiting and valuable returnees, SEC men’s basketball appeared set to really show its stuff in 2017-18. That was before that pesky FBI investigation, plus other off-the-court difficulties, rained on the opening-day parade.
To be sure, the league should still push the momentum forward. Kentucky is Kentucky. Florida cracked the preseason AP Top 10. The nation’s top freshman, Michael Porter Jr., appears to have a solid supporting cast for Coach Cuonzo Martin’s debut in Missouri. Matters are trending up.
It’s just that news over the last week from the state of Alabama, first Auburn and then Tuscaloosa, as well as some announcements down in College Station, Texas, has put a damper on Friday night’s curtain raising.
Start with Auburn, where former star and current assistant coach Chuck Person was one of four assistant coaches charged in September in a criminal complaint issued by the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York in conjunction with an FBI investigation into college basketball corruption.
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The collateral damage has claimed sophomore center Austin Wiley and sophomore forward Danjel Purifoy. The school announced last Thursday that both were being held out of action in wake of the investigation. Neither played in Auburn’s 100-95 overtime loss to Barry University on Thursday. As of now, neither is expected to be on the court Friday when Auburn opens the season against Norfolk State.
Wiley’s absence is particularly damaging considering the 6-foot-9 Birmingham native was thought to be coming into his own. Wiley made the John Calipari-coached USA U19 team that earned a bronze medal in World Cup competition this summer. After aggravating a stress fracture he suffered over the summer, Wiley finally was allowed to shelve his walking boot and return to practice last weekend. As of now, he can just practice, not play.
No sooner had Auburn released its news than Texas A&M announced, unrelated to the FBI investigation, star sophomore forward Robert Williams was one of four players who would miss early-season games for “violations of university rules.” Admon Gilder and DJ Hogg were suspended for A&M’s exhibition game with Tarleton State. Williams will also miss the season’s first two games. And redshirt freshman point guard JJ Caldwell will miss the first three.
Williams’ decision to delay the NBA for a year is a major reason the Aggies are 25th in the first AP poll. After missing A&M’s Friday opener against West Virginia in Germany and the team’s home opener against UC Santa Barbara on Nov. 17, Williams will return Nov. 20 when Billy Kennedy’s club plays Oklahoma State in the Legends Classic at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Then Monday night, Alabama Coach Avery Johnson dropped a pair of bombshells. First, the NCAA has not cleared heralded freshman point guard Collin Sexton, ranked as the No. 8 prospect for the class of 2017 by Rivals. And sophomore forward Braxton Key, the team’s leading returning scorer, will undergo surgery after tearing the meniscus in his knee.
Sexton’s absence is believed to be tied to the resignation of former staffer Kobie Baker, who allegedly was in on meetings where money was exchanged to have an Alabama player sign with a financial adviser.
“We don’t have any further information at this time,” said Alabama AD Greg Byrne in a statement, “but we will continue to cooperate with the NCAA and work toward a resolution that results in Collin’s timely reinstatement.”
Expect more of this as the investigation continues. Additional charges have yet to materialize, but ripple effects are being felt. ESPN’s Jeff Goodman reported that Southern Cal held freshman De’Anthony Melton out of private scrimmages with San Diego State and San Francisco because of NCAA eligibility concerns.
And up the road at Louisville, the FBI has told the school it can do its own investigation with regard to freshman Brian Bowen’s NCAA eligibility. It will be interesting to see if U of L wants to take that risk.
So, around the SEC and elsewhere, one prediction has turned out to be true. College basketball is starting under a cloud.
SEC men’s basketball Friday schedule
- 6:00 - Texas A&M vs. West Virginia (ESPN)
- 6:30 - Alabama State at Mississippi State
- 6:30 - Memphis vs. Alabama (CBS Sports)
- 7:00 - Presbyterian at Tennessee
- 7:00 - South Carolina at Wofford
- 7:00 - Utah Valley at Kentucky (SEC)
- 7:00 - Bryant at Georgia
- 8:00 - Louisiana at Ole Miss
- 8:00 - Alcorn State at LSU
- 8:00 - Samford at Arkansas
- 8:00 - Norfolk State at Auburn
- 9:00 - Iowa State at Missouri (SEC)
- 9:00 - Austin Peay at Vanderbilt