Greg Cote

Larrañaga has Canes hoops flying high but now faces a new challenge: scandal

Hurricanes men’s basketball coach Jim Larranaga waits to see if a member of his staff will be charged in a national FBI investigation of corruption in college recruiting.
Hurricanes men’s basketball coach Jim Larranaga waits to see if a member of his staff will be charged in a national FBI investigation of corruption in college recruiting. Miami Herald staff

Anticipation for University of Miami men’s basketball was running beyond high, with the Hurricanes and their fans believing that the coming season could be the greatest in program history. UM is expecting its highest ranking ever in The Associated Press preseason poll soon to be released. The Canes’ goal — to advance beyond the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen for the first time — does not seem outlandish.

All of the high hopes may yet be realized. But now, a shadow is cast as Miami prepares to open its season on Nov. 10. A bomb has detonated inside the sport. A scandal exposed by an FBI investigation is spreading like sewage, and the Hurricanes are implicated.

The three-year federal investigation into corruption, bribery and fraud in recruiting broke open Tuesday, implicating shoe giant Adidas and assistant coaches at Arizona, Southern Cal, Auburn and Oklahoma State in a scheme to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars to star recruits to influence their choice of schools, shoe sponsors and agents. On Wednesday, the scandal led to the dismissal of Louisville superstar coach Rick Pitino, who was placed on unpaid administrative leave but whose attorney said his client was “effectively fired.”

Now Miami braces for what might be ahead amid rumors that a member of Jim Larrañaga’s staff not named but implicated in the investigation could be the next to be charged by the FBI.

Larrañaga himself has “zero involvement in any allegations of any impropriety,” his lawyer told the Miami Herald. But that may not be good enough if the FBI probe leads to an NCAA investigation and possible penalties, as seems likely.

UM is only 11 months removed from three years’ NCAA probation for lack of institutional control related to the scandal involving former booster Nevin Shapiro.

“Lack of institutional control” is a broad umbrella that basically means a school’s athletic department is held responsible and accountable even for wrongdoing it was not aware of — because it should have been aware and stopped it.

It certainly would be worse in this case if Larrañaga or athletic director Blake James were found to be aware of the wrongdoing of a staff member and either condoned it or turned a blind eye.

Miami football coach Mark Richt weighs in on FBI probe into college basketball and college sports following the rules

But it still would be plenty bad enough, from an NCAA vantage, if an employee’s direct boss and program head both simply had no idea of the wrongdoings of a rogue staff member going on behind their backs.

Ignorance is no excuse, in other words.

That means Larrañaga, even if guilty of nothing but not knowing, looks bad here. For me, his reputation for doing right earns him all benefit of doubt. But there also is a small voice that keeps asking, “How could he not know?” whether a staff member was involved in some of the corruption exposed by the FBI.

The scandal feathers the argument of some that college athletes in revenue sports such as football and men’s basketball should be paid — get their slice of the enormous financial pie they help bake. But let’s not throw a smoke bomb into the room and make this newest scandal about that. This is about some coaches at some schools and a giant sneaker company doing wrong and getting caught.

Miami’s involvement in the FBI probe, the distraction of it and the possible NCAA repercussions, will follow the Canes into what otherwise figures as a special season.

UM has never been ranked higher than 17th in any AP preseason poll, but, as an indicator, the Canes were just ranked No. 11 in an ESPN preseason poll.

The 2012-13 Canes are the standard to beat. That team finished 29-7, won the ACC Tournament, reached the Sweet Sixteen and ended the season ranked No. 5.

The current team has a chance to be that kind of good, with star guard Bruce Brown, with top returning scorer Ja’Quan Newton and adding five-star recruit Lonnie Walker, who had right knee surgery but should be ready by November. Add a frontcourt of freshman power forward Deng Gak and sophomore Dewan Huell, and Larrañaga should have the nucleus of an ACC power.

In some ways, Larraaga — starting his seventh UM season and the third year of games at the campus arena being all sold out — has never had Canes basketball flying higher.

But now, suddenly, that program flies under a cloud of anxiety over repercussions that may be ahead.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced charges stemming from an FBI investigation into top NCAA basketball programs that also involved a corrupt scheme with a major sportswear company.

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