Is the NCAA tournament favorite the NCAA's least favorite team?

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

With Selection Sunday fast approaching, the Kansas Jayhawks, 27-3 and atop all of the polls, have cemented themselves as the likely No. 1 overall seed. 

And with its aggressive, confrontational and even mocking official response to the NCAA over alleged recruiting violations, they likely cemented themselves as the sport’s No. 1 enemy, at least with the NCAA enforcement staff.

Kansas, via hundreds of pages of legal filings on Thursday, didn’t just disagree with the allegations against it. In pointed language it blasted and insulted the NCAA for even daring to bring the case. 

The basics are familiar to college hoops fans. Adidas director James Gatto and Adidas AAU coach T.J. Gassnola, the company’s so-called “bag man” in dishing out money to high school stars, made numerous payments to recruits and then players of KU, which is sponsored by Adidas. Gatto was convicted on federal fraud charges in 2018 and Gassnola only escaped prosecution by agreeing to testify on behalf of the government.

The NCAA has shown up and labeled Gatto and Gassnola as representatives of KU’s athletic interests, aka boosters. As such, it has gone for the throat, including that of head coach Bill Self.

There is an old saying among lawyers that in a criminal case if the facts are on your side, you pound the facts. If the law is on your side, you pound the law. If neither are on your side, you pound the table. 

In this case, KU’s attorneys are somewhere between the latter two — arguing the law (or NCAA bylaws) and pounding the enforcement staff as unreasonable, unserious, misguided, erroneous and not credible. It all but called it ugly.

It’s why the first Monday night in April could get very interesting if NCAA president Mark Emmert has to hand a trophy to Self. We’ve seen schools under investigation win it all. But perhaps not even Jerry Tarkanian’s old UNLV teams were at war with the NCAA like this.

The defiant intensity of KU’s response — which includes three separate Level I violations — was expected. Yet it is still something to behold when actually put to paper. There is little cooperation here. There are few admissions. This is a direct confrontation, much like a legal case in which guilt or innocence is an all-or-nothing proposition. 

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KU repeatedly argues not only that Gatto and Gassnola do not qualify as boosters under NCAA bylaws but whoever could think such a thing was some kind of agenda-driven moron.

About every other paragraph, KU alleges there is no “credible and persuasive evidence.” It calls the allegations “incorrect and unfair.” It claims, “the assertions by the enforcement staff are unprecedented and erroneous applications of NCAA legislation” and that it is relying on “unprecedented and novel theories.”

It repeatedly mocks the NCAA by claiming that no “reasonable person conducting serious affairs would make the unsupported and illogical leaps that the enforcement staff requests.”

Kansas Jayhawks head coach Bill Self and forward Silvio De Sousa (22) walk off the court after a brawl broke out at the end of the game against the Kansas State Wildcats at Allen Fieldhouse on Jan. 21. (Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports)

This was not a defense. This was a 2-by-4 upside the NCAA’s head. 

Will it work? Who knows? KU’s logic here may be based on the parsing of bylaws and the most generous interpretation of circumstances. 

It is untethered from the general reality of how high-major college basketball recruiting works though and requires a rather forgiving belief that everyone in Lawrence is just an innocent rube that got conned by big, mean Adidas (who KU gladly keeps signing sponsorship deals with, of course).

In fairness, Kansas had very little to work with in this case. There is under-oath testimony and bank records that, in one example of many, Gassnola doled out $89,000 to the mother of prime recruit Billy Preston, who would sign with KU. Those kinds of facts (which in major infractions cases are often in dispute) are simply conceded. It means KU is waging a defense on undesirable turf.

Instead, the school needed to find a way to pretend Gassnola wasn’t doing it all to help the Jayhawks win basketball games, that his interactions concerning recruiting with Self and his assistant coaches were virtuous or unrelated, and that there was no way anyone at KU could have or should have suspected a thing. 

Perhaps Kansas finds an NCAA infractions committee that is particularly naive and this works. If it doesn’t though, the punishment could be brutal.

For KU to win, you’d have to believe Gassnola’s numerous text messages to Self where he describes his loyalty and promises he is “here to help” the coach (just one of multiple examples) aren’t a big deal. 

You’d have to believe that questionable circumstances were just unintentionally fortuitous for KU. Could the fact that Gassnola and Gatto just happened to stay in the same Lawrence hotel as Preston (and other top recruits on their official visits) and then just happened to meet Preston’s mother, and then just happened to begin paying her … be a coincidence that KU couldn’t have foreseen, let alone known about?

To do so, you’d have to believe Adidas only pays high school players so it can sign them to shoe endorsement deals when they reach the NBA. That’s what KU keeps arguing. Except, Billy Preston has never played professionally above the G League and at no point was ever considered someone likely to have a signature shoe. LeBron or Zion he was not. His family somehow got $89,000 anyway.

You’d further have to reject the commonplace understanding (which was articulated repeatedly at the federal trials, although not by Gassnola) that shoe companies (Adidas, Nike, et al) pay high school players in the hopes they attend college that the company also sponsors. They do it to help assure the success of those college teams and thus protect their large investments. (Adidas currently pays KU about $14 million per year, which means $89,000 for a power forward is a reasonable ancillary cost.)

You’d further have to agree that Kansas could never have suspected Gassnola was anything but a here-to-help corporate rep, not some goateed, 6-foot-6, impossible-to-ignore force of personality who everyone else in college basketball knew was a man who could make things happen in recruiting. 

You’d have to agree to this despite Self being no one’s fool. Or that, by KU’s own admission, one associate athletic director stated at a compliance conference that “Adidas parades TJ Gassnola to our campus and this guy has the same rap sheet as Lucky Luciano” while another associate athletic director “described Gassnola as a large individual with a ‘boisterous personality’ who reminded him of Tony Soprano in look, image, and persona.”

It stands to reason there isn’t anyone within the Kansas athletic department who is so hopelessly wide-eyed that he or she actually believes any of this defense.

Will the infractions committee?

For KU, going scorched Earth may have been its only defense strategy. So it pounded the law (a little). It pounded the table (a lot). Then it pounded the enforcement staff with contempt and scorn.

Now KU has to hope it can win a national title this year, while it still has a killer team and before an affronted NCAA, if it doesn’t buy what the Kansas lawyers are selling, has a chance to pound it with sanctions.

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