Story behind NCAA violations in Arizona basketball program
Huge AAU tournament brought top talent to Arizona during NCAA dead period
Arizona coaches were indirectly involved with event, which is against NCAA rules
Last week Arizona announced self-imposed sanctions as a result of Cactus Classic
At first glance, the inaugural Cactus Classic in May 2006 appeared to be like any other grassroots basketball tournament. There were 32 teams in Tucson, Ariz., for the three-day event. Games were played on the campus of the University of Arizona, split between three courts in the McKale Center and three in the school's intramural gym. Teams were grouped into pools of four and played three games within their pool.
The size, setting and format of the tournament were like any other, but the Cactus Classic was no ordinary grassroots event. It was not staged or sponsored by Nike, Adidas or Reebok, like most big tournaments. The organizer was a 28-year-old Tucson resident who had never held a major basketball tournament before. Also, the tournament was in the middle of an NCAA dead period, meaning no college coaches could attend. All the usual enticements that get teams to a tournament -- allegiance to a sponsor, a connected organizer, a chance to be scouted by college coaches -- were missing, yet the 32 teams were among the best in the country. With the exception of the big shoe-company events in Las Vegas in July, there was not a better assemblage of talent west of the Mississippi that year.
The Cactus Classic was special, and during its three-year run, which ended in 2008, it was the most talked about youth basketball tournament in America -- by college recruiters, AAU coaches, and later, NCAA investigators. Yet few people know the story of how the tournament came to be, how members of the Arizona coaching staff devised a plan to gain an edge in recruiting, and then brazenly toed -- and at times may have crossed -- NCAA boundaries to implement it.
Last week, the Cactus Classic officially went from famous to infamous as Arizona released a letter it sent to the NCAA in which it addressed numerous allegations of violations by its basketball program in connection with the tournament (the school refused further comment until the matter has concluded with the NCAA). The school also imposed sanctions against its basketball program that included the elimination of a scholarship for the 2011-12 season and recruiting restrictions. University officials conceded that they didn't properly monitor the basketball program run by legendary former coach Lute Olson, who was directly involved in at least one alleged violation. The NCAA's Committee on Infractions will review the university's response and choice of penalties in April, and it could accept the findings or impose further penalties.
"The University of Arizona has a long tradition of maintaining the highest standards of integrity in its athletics programs," interim athletic director Kathleen "Rocky" LaRose said in a statement released with the letter to the NCAA. "The University is deeply and profoundly committed to honor not just the letter, but the spirit of the NCAA's efforts to foster fair and ethical competition."
That may be true of the basketball program now under first-year coach Sean Miller, who succeeded Olson, but that wasn't the case in 2006. To understand their actions and how the Cactus Classic came to be, you have to start 3,000 miles east, in North Carolina on Tobacco Road.
Each May, renowned talent evaluator Bob Gibbons holds an elite tournament on the campuses of Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State. Hundreds of kids attend the event, and like the Cactus Classic, the Tournament of Champions falls in a recruiting dead period. The coaches of the Tobacco Road universities cannot host recruits or watch them play, but a little-known exception to NCAA rules allow for a recruit to meet with coaches after his team is eliminated from the tournament, which the North Carolina schools have used to their advantage.
In 2002, DeMarcus Nelson of Fairfield, Calif., traveled to the Tournament of Champions with his grassroots team, Belmont Shore. To that point, Duke had not recruited Nelson, who was a sophomore. Belmont Shore's first game was held at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium, and Nelson scored 38 points against a team from Michigan. The game was filmed and Nelson's AAU coach, Dinos Trigonis, would later learn that the Duke coaches watched the tape of the game almost immediately after it was over. When Belmont Shore was knocked out of the tournament a few days later, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski asked Nelson to meet with him in his office. Their conversation lasted three hours, during which time Krzyzewski offered Nelson a scholarship and he accepted. At the time, he was the youngest player to verbally commit to Duke.
Coaches at other universities have long complained about the recruiting edge Gibbons' tournament gave the Tobacco Road schools. It wasn't Gibbons' intent when he began organizing the tournament nearly 17 years ago, but in the parlance of the NCAA, the Tournament of Champions is one large "unofficial" visit involving the top players in the country. With more and more elite prospects verbally committing to schools long before the NCAA allows them to take official recruiting visits (which the schools can pay for), getting a player on campus for an unofficial visit can make all the difference.
In 2006, some of the coaches at Arizona were among those pondering how to increase the number of unofficial visits they received. The staff at the time was made up of Olson and three assistants, among them Miles Simon and Josh Pastner. The assistants were young and aggressive recruiters. Simon, a former Wildcats star, once played for infamous Southern California grassroots coach Pat Barrett, whose dealings with agents have been well-chronicled by SI and others, and for Arizona he worked the ultracompetitive Southern California market. Pastner's father, Hal, was a longtime AAU coach in Houston and staged the Kingwood Classic, one of the spring's most prestigious tournaments.
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