NCAA expanding inquiry into top Kentucky recruit Nerlens Noel
NCAA officials visited Nerlens Noel's New England prep school earlier this month
Three-hour meeting focused on people surrounding Noel, his unofficial visits
Noel said he's been academically cleared to play at Kentucky and is in Lexington
The NCAA has expanded its inquiry into Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel, one of the nation's top recruits in the class of 2012, as two NCAA enforcement officials traveled to Noel's New Hampshire prep school for a three-hour meeting in early August. The NCAA's questions focused on the cast of characters that surrounded Noel's recruitment and how Noel paid for his unofficial visits, according to a person with knowledge of the NCAA inquiry.
This is the NCAA enforcement staff's second trip to New England regarding Noel. Assistant directors of enforcement Cindi Merrill and Frank Smith also traveled to Noel's public high school in Everett, Mass., in May to meet with school officials there.
What made the NCAA's visit to Tilton intriguing is that a senior Kentucky official, UK chief compliance officer Sandy Bell, accompanied Merrill and Smith for the meeting. Bell didn't ask many questions, according to the source, but did take notes and spoke up occasionally. The presence of two NCAA enforcement officials and Bell gives the appearance that this case has gone beyond the routine checking of top prospects, according to one former NCAA investigator.
Bell did not return an e-mail and a request to comment through a spokesperson.
"I would say it's not common to utilize those resources to just check how recruiting went," said the former NCAA investigator, who has no specific knowledge of the Noel case. "It seems there would be more significant information that has to be tested."
Noel, a 6-foot-10 center, is projected by several scouting services as the No. 1 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. He is part of a another top recruiting class by coach John Calipari, which also includes Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress, and will be expected to fill the void left by Anthony Davis, who led the Wildcats to the national title last season.
Noel was supposed to be part of the class of 2013 but reclassified and graduated from Tilton last spring. He took two classes at Everett High this summer to work toward qualifying at Kentucky. Noel told CBSsports.com earlier this month that he's been academically cleared to play. The NCAA didn't focus on Noel's academics in the meeting and asked mostly about the people involved with Noel's recruitment.
Noel did not return a call to his cellphone seeking comment.
In an article in The New York Times in March, Tilton coach Marcus O'Neil, who was one of two Tilton officials present at the August meeting, spoke extensively about Noel's relationship with Chris Driscoll, a former Providence assistant who has been a primary figure in Noel's life. In the article, O'Neil said that Driscoll once told him about Noel: "Nerlens is my last chance. I need to score and I need to score big." Driscoll later told O'Neil about Noel: "You're either with me or against me on this."
Driscoll did not return a call to his cellphone seeking comment.
The Tilton head of school Peter Saliba confirmed the NCAA meeting to SI.com, saying that O'Neil and Tilton registrar Joy Jones were the two Tilton officials present. O'Neil declined to comment on the NCAA meeting.
The NCAA asked Tilton officials about Reggie Saladin, a close associate of Driscoll who worked with him as a volunteer assistant with the BABC AAU program; Ryan Sweeney, a college student from Rhode Island from a wealthy family who has befriended many of the top players in New England in recent years, including Noel, Khem Birch, now at UNLV, and top Providence recruit Ricardo Ledo; and Errol Randolph, a former substitute teacher at Everett High who accompanied Noel on some of his college visits.
The NCAA also inquired about Noel's unofficial visits, which included trips to Louisville, Kentucky and multiple trips to Syracuse. Noel flew to Louisville and Kentucky this season on unofficial visits, which the school is not allowed to pay for.
A veteran compliance official with no direct connection to Noel's case called the presence of Kentucky's Bell in the meeting with the NCAA: "unusual but not incredibly unusual."
The NCAA cannot comment directly on Noel's case, but a spokesman said that, generically speaking, "the enforcement staff has discretion whether to involve institutions in off-campus interviews." The spokesman added: "The practice is discretionary and not unusual."
Noel has tweeted that he arrived in Lexington this week and is excited for the season. But it appears that the amateurism issues the NCAA has been probing the past few months will follow him there.
Follow Pete Thamel on Twitter @SIpetethamel.