The same metaphorical cloud hanging over Kentucky media day Thursday hovers throughout college basketball heading into the 2017-18 season: the ongoing Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into corruption in the sport.
Kentucky players spoke of how UK did things “the right way.” The FBI investigation — which has resulted so far in four coaches arrested and Rick Pitino’s anticipated firing at Louisville — was something for others to worry about.
“It doesn’t concern me at all,” freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said.
This prompted an obvious question: With widespread reports of money exchanging hands in recruiting, and a Louisville-bound prospect allegedly receiving $100,000, why would an elite high school player play for free?
Sitting against a wall in the Joe Craft Center, Hamidou Diallo used words and body language to answer.
Diallo looked up and pointed to posters of NBA players who played at Kentucky that adorn the walls of the Craft Center practice gym.
“That’s why we’re coming to Kentucky,” he said. “We’re coming to be great players and, hopefully, one day we can hang our poster up in this gym.”
Gilgeous-Alexander said he did not feel he was missing out on a big payday by playing for Kentucky.
“Not at all,” he said. “Look at me now. I definitely don’t feel I’m missing out. I’m going to put my trust in the coaching staff and, hopefully, they’ll get me where I want to go. Then I can make the big bucks.”
UK Coach John Calipari repeatedly made it clear the FBI investigation was not a subject he wanted to address.
“Well, what’s out there right now is a black eye,” he told reporters. “But here is the thing for everybody here: I don’t want to come across as uneducated or dumb. None of us know where this thing’s going. So for me to really comment much on it, I mean, I don’t know where all this is going.
“Obviously, what’s happened to this point isn’t good. At this point I don’t think me commenting without knowing all the facts is the right thing to do.”
The FBI investigation had centered on Adidas and schools that used its products. It has been widely reported that the investigation had been expanded to Nike, the shoe company used by Kentucky. Several UK players have participated in Nike’s youth basketball league, which reportedly has been of interest to the FBI.
When asked what he might say to reassure Kentucky fans that there’s nothing to worry about, Calipari said, “I have no comment to it. I mean, we haven’t been contacted. The NCAA hasn’t contacted us. We’re going about our business of coaching this team.”
On Wednesday, the NCAA announced that its president, Mark Emmert, was forming a committee and asking it to clean up college basketball.
“We must take decisive action . . . ,” Emmert said in a release. “This is not the time for half-measures or incremental change.”
Calipari said he had read Emmert’s statement. The UK coach said he interpreted it as a move toward putting athletes at the heart of any substantial change.
“I kind of liked it because at a point in there he mentioned about the students,” Calipari said. “At the end of the day, this is about the student-athletes.”
This fall, as he had in previous years, Calipari spoke of liberalizing NCAA prohibitions on players making money and capitalizing on their athletic ability while in college.
At Media Day, Calipari chose not to elaborate.
“I have some ideas, but I just don’t think it’s the time for me to talk about that stuff,” he said. “Folks, you all know me. You know where I’m tilted to. You probably could say, ‘This is how he feels,’ and be right without me saying it.”
Calipari also recoiled when asked his reaction to Pitino’s expected firing.
“Look, it’s unfortunate, all the stuff that’s come down,” the UK coach said. “But let’s talk about my team, please. Does anyone here have a question about my team, please?”
Sacha Killeya-Jones acknowledged that Kentucky players had discussed the FBI investigation.
“We’ve had small chats,” he said. “I think everybody’s talked to people about it. I think I’m about as informed on it as the average Twitter user, the average sports fan. I’ve seen stuff on Twitter. I’ve seen some of the ESPN videos and stuff. The interviews and stuff.”
But the UK players are not consumed with a scandal that breeds speculation of scores of coaches losing their jobs. Instead, the Cats are interested in “having a bunch of young guys and a big year ahead of us.”
Gilgeous-Alexander said the reports of a $100,000 payment to secure a player’s commitment was surprising.
When asked what he’d say to any Kentucky fan concerned about the FBI reportedly expanding its investigation into Nike’s role in youth basketball, Gilgeous-Alexander said, “That they have nothing to worry about. That we’re as clean as ever could be.”
Important upcoming dates
Big Blue Madness
7 p.m. Friday in Rupp Arena (SEC)
7 p.m. Oct. 20 in Rupp Arena (SEC)
Thomas More at Kentucky (exhibition)
7 p.m. Oct. 27 (SEC)
Centre at Kentucky (exhibition)
7 p.m. Nov. 3 (SEC)