NCAA faces potentially embarrassing scenario of under-investigation Kansas winning title

It is not fashionable to give Mark Emmert credit for anything these days, but let’s be clear about one thing: The man knows how to make an awkward moment look good on TV.

During Emmert’s tenure as NCAA president, he’s stood on the stage at the end of college basketball’s crown jewel event and handed a national championship trophy off to one coach his organization had penalized for cheating just a couple months earlier (Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun), another whose previous two schools had Final Four appearances wiped off the books (Kentucky’s John Calipari) and another whose program had benefited from a massive academic fraud scandal that kept athletes eligible through fake classes (North Carolina’s Roy Williams). No matter how ridiculous some of those men and their colleagues have made the NCAA look, Emmert is always there smiling and clapping for the cameras, offering absolutely no acknowledgement that everyone involved in that moment should be feeling at least a little bit of shame. 

But as the current season of college basketball unfurls into March, it is becoming increasingly likely that the upper limit of Emmert’s ability to act oblivious on that stage will get tested like never before. Because amidst the chaos of a season where it once appeared that no team would separate itself as the clear No. 1, it just so happens that Kansas is now the program that can throw up a single digit in the air — even if it’s a middle finger. 

Kansas guard Devon Dotson reacts after scoring during the first half of his team's defeat of then-No. 1 Baylor at Ferrell Center.

In a year where the overall talent level is down and the quality of play is often inconsistent and horrid, Kansas is easily college basketball’s most bankable team. The eye test shows it. The analytics explain it. The schedule confirms it. 

And at a moment in history when the NCAA’s credibility has rarely been more fragile, Kansas winning the title while both the program and coach Bill Self stand accused of massive rules violations would be nothing short of a nightmare for an organization that has never really followed through on its promise to get tough on cheaters. 

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In a sense, the NCAA has been a little lucky since the FBI’s investigation into college basketball corruption became public on Sept. 27, 2017. Since that time, it has had national champions in Villanova and Virginia without a hint of scandal around either one.

Even at the last two Final Fours, it has been a bit of a backburner topic, especially since Kansas’ involvement wasn’t formally mentioned until the second wave of indictments, which became public shortly after the Jayhawks played in the 2018 Final Four.

A year ago, Bruce Pearl faced exactly one question over two Final Four press conferences about Auburn’s connection the FBI investigation, and it was a softball about whether he was initially worried that former assistant Chuck Person being charged in the bribery scheme might derail the program Pearl was building.

But if Kansas reaches this Final Four as the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, there’s no getting around the fact that basketball will be a secondary story line. Because even though there’s a long list of teams from Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV to Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse and a bunch in between who won big while under an NCAA cloud, the Jayhawks represent a moment for the NCAA that feels far more existential.

Remember, the NCAA last September delivered a Notice of Allegations to Kansas that ranks among the most scathing documents ever produced by its enforcement division. The thrust of the NCAA’s case is that ex-Adidas marketing executive Jim Gatto and a bag man named T.J. Gassnola funneled cash to multiple prospects under the guise of recruiting them to Kansas.

And in a dramatic departure from the way it often handles high-profile coaches, the NCAA went directly after Self in the strongest possible terms and charged him with three Level 1 (most serious) violations, alleging that he was in on the scheme in some cases and actively encouraged Gassnola’s help in securing top players. 

It’s impossible to read the NCAA’s litany of charges and come to any conclusion other than it wants to run Self, a national championship coach and surefire Hall of Famer, all the way out of the sport. And yet the response from Kansas can pretty much be summed up like this: “Oh yeah? Make me.” 

While Kansas has not yet made public its official rebuttal to the NCAA, which is a key part of the process that precedes a date with the Committee on Infractions, it indicated in an initial statement that it disputes the NCAA’s fundamental theory that Adidas and Gassnola should be classified as Kansas boosters who broke NCAA rules. Kansas also rejected the assertion that Self did anything wrong and has done nothing to indicate it will do anything but stand by him. Over the last five months, Kansas has essentially made defiance a strategy.

And maybe, at least from a short-term results standpoint, it’s a good one. The Jayhawks have lost just three times this year: By two points to Duke, by one to Villanova and by 12 to No. 2-ranked Baylor, a loss it avenged last weekend in Waco. The Ken Pomeroy efficiency ratings say Kansas is the best in the country and the only one ranked among the best seven teams on both offense and defense. And in a year where most of the top draft picks won’t be playing in March, Kansas is loaded with upperclassmen who are also borderline NBA players, which has become the most effective formula for building a team to go deep in March. 

At this moment, it’s simply obvious: No team is more likely to win a national title this year than Kansas. 

Nobody knows what lies beyond that, and the ultimate resolution won’t come for months and months, perhaps even bleeding into the 2020-21 season. But if Self is hoisting the trophy on a confetti-splashed stage April 6 in Atlanta, it will be impossible to escape the image of a triumphant cheater getting the best of the NCAA’s feeble bureaucracy once again. 

That can’t be the narrative the NCAA wants right now, and it sure isn’t the one it needs having promised to clean up the sport and finally deliver justice to those who broke the rules. Maybe they’ll get lucky again and Kansas will lose. But given the way this season is going, Emmert better get that reliable old plastic smile ready just in case. 

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