NASHVILLE — SEC men’s basketball is on an upward trend.
For the first time since 1986, three teams in the league, including Florida, reached the Elite Eight last March. South Carolina made the Final Four for the first time in school history.
As many as four SEC teams could be voted to the preseason AP Top 25 later this month. More than half of the 14 coaches in the league feel their teams have a legitimate shot to reach the NCAA Tournament.
Yet on this afternoon at the Omni Hotel Ballroom at SEC basketball media day, more talk centered around the FBI than Kenpom ratings and zone defenses. One SEC program, Auburn, was directly involved in the FBI sting that resulted in federal bribery charges being leveled against 10 people from six different basketball programs involving alleged payoffs of student-athletes. Auburn assistant coach Chuck Person was fired after being arrested on six counts of fraud and bribery.
When asked if all players would be eligible for Auburn’s season opener on Nov. 10 against Norfolk State, Auburn coach Bruce Pearl responded: “They were all eligible when I left practice today.”
Other than that, Pearl had little to say about the status of the probe that could deeply impact Auburn’s season.
“You just take all that and you focus it onto the basketball court,” Pearl said. “That’s what we’re doing. Our kids have practiced really well. They’ve practiced hard. And I think their attitudes are positive.”
Alabama and South Carolina are more on the periphery of the scandal. South Carolina coach Frank Martin stood by comments at media day, that the school has not been contacted by the FBI and his former assistant coach, Lamont Evans, left the school a year ago. Evans was arrested in the sting on federal bribery charges.
“We are not under investigation and since we’re not under investigation we’ve had no conversations with the FBI,” Martin said. “I don’t want to be lumped into something we had nothing to do with.”
Alabama coach Avery Johnson said he expects all of his players to be eligible for the Tide’s season opener Nov. 10 against Memphis. Johnson stood by the statement the school released after firing Alabama basketball administrator Kobie Baker, in which Tide athletic director Greg Byrne said the school had not identified any NCAA or SEC rules violations.
“I’m just here to talk about my team,” Johnson said. “In the future, if there’s something we need to say about, we will say it at the appropriate time.”
The ongoing probe, which could expand to more programs, has created a cloud of uncertainty over the sport. All 11 other SEC head coaches, including UF’s Mike White, said they have not been contacted by the FBI.
White said that while it’s sad to see programs and student-athletes affected, the news involving corruption in college basketball didn’t surprise him.
“You hear stuff all the time,” White said. “You guys hear stuff, we hear stuff — in any industry. There’s stuff you hear in college basketball. You don’t know what’s true and what’s not. We just try to do our best to focus on our own program.”
Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said the reports caused him to check with assistants on his staff to make sure all recruiting of his players was done above board.
“I tend to micro-manage a lot,” Kennedy said. “But I’ve come away more confident that we are clean.”
The probe has caused the NCAA to create a commission looking into possible college basketball reforms, a commission that’s chaired by Condoleezza Rice and includes former UF athletic director Jeremy Foley.
Georgia coach Mark Fox said change could be good for the sport.
“Sometimes destruction is a good thing,” Fox said.”If we can blow some of this nonsense up, and make the game better then this could turn into a pivotal moment to make the game better. Right now it’s a black cloud, we hope it doesn’t become a big ‘ol hurricane. We owe it to the game to do it right.”
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Brockway’s blog at Gatorsports.com.