College basketball in state of emergency before season even starts

You have to give college basketball credit. Just when you think the sport couldn’t launch its crazy train any further off the rails, here are this week’s top stories in the sport:

* Indictments were handed down to at least seven people in the ongoing federal corruption investigation. Current and former assistant coaches Chuck Person of Auburn, Tony Bland of USC, Book Richardson of Arizona and Lamont Evans of Oklahoma State all were served, as was former referee and clothier Rashan Michel. Other indictments are expected.

* Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner had his program fragged by a longtime friend who blew the whistle on himself and the Yellow Jackets for allegedly providing impermissible benefits to two Tech players. They were left home from the team’s trip to China.

* Staying home from China might not be all bad, after three UCLA players were arrested for shoplifting — and the consequences of that rather poor decision could be nightmarish. The Bruins are in Hangzhou to play Georgia Tech, and that’s where the trouble allegedly began. One of the three arrested Bruins was LiAngelo Ball, younger brother of Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball, son of human megaphone LaVar Ball.

* Thus Tuesday was supposed to be topped off with a LaVar Ball press conference in Shanghai to address the situation. But the show was canceled before it started, undoubtedly because somebody told Big Baller to shut his big mouth before he causes an international incident that further jeopardizes his son and teammates. Lavar is not exactly Henry Kissinger. He might not even be Dennis Rodman when it comes to Asian diplomacy.

LiAngelo Ball and his UCLA teammates could face 3-10 years in prison if convicted of shoplifting. (AP)

Those are your headlines, as college hoops inflicts a few more wounds upon its battered self. When the people making news on a given Tuesday are U.S. Attorneys, a vindictive ex-con, experts on Chinese law and LaVar Ball? Congratulations, college hoops. You’ve surpassed boxing in the Tawdry Sports Sideshow Hierarchy.

The games start Friday, but clearly the curtain already has lifted on this sport’s 2017-18 theater of the absurd.

There also is National Letter of Intent signing day Wednesday, and there is some good news associated with that. Let’s just say that this could be the cleanest signing period in college basketball history. With indictments coming down and news about wiretaps and video surveillance and coaches losing jobs, this isn’t quite the climate for doling out big dollars for players.

The sport has been scared straight. Or should be. If you’re paying players now, you’re crazy or desperate or incredibly good at keeping it hidden.

“Do I think it will be clean?” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, referring to signing day. “I definitely think it will be cleaner.”

Ringing endorsement of a new era? Not quite. But at least Izzo isn’t in the apologist camp, trying to make excuses for the state of the game. Critical self-reflection — if not outright self-loathing — within the coaching profession is wholly appropriate at this point.

“We’ve got people saying, ‘Let’s not put a black eye on the profession,’ ” Izzo said. “But there is a black eye, guys. Wake up.”

If the coaches can’t issue enough excuses for the sorry state of the sport, others are sure to try. There is no shortage of defenders of the indefensible.

Defend the Georgia Tech players who took the impermissible benefits? Plenty willing to do that. Because, see, players are being shafted by NCAA amateurism rules, so that excuses anything and everything in search of a freebie.

Here’s the problem with that: The currently ineligible Yellow Jackets and every other Division I player in America knows the rules. The players in question simply chose not to follow them. You may dislike the rules, but disliking them doesn’t mean they no longer apply. If you’re not a believer in the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit and decide to drive 70 all the time, you still run the risk of facing consequences. A judge is unlikely to be moved by a defense of, “I don’t think the speed limit is fair, so I ignored it.”

Defend the UCLA players who were arrested in China? Surely, some will lament the scary potential legal price they could pay. But if you choose to shoplift in a country with totalitarian tendencies, you lose. This isn’t Beverly Hills. Think about that before you allegedly boost something from the Louis Vuitton store next to the team hotel.

(And that, of course, makes this story all the more amazing. The poor collegians, sent on an expense-paid, once-in-a-lifetime trip to China to play ball, allegedly decided they needed some free Louis swag. I mean, how are they supposed to support their Vuitton lifestyle on an amateur student-athlete budget?)

Defend LaVar? A host of enablers already have. He’s a marketing genius, they say. He’s done a great job raising his kids, they say. He’s just having fun, they say.

He’s a blowhard who has trampled the parental virtues of humility and civility in search of his next look-at-me moment. If he would shut up and let his kids play, we’d all be better for it. And the headlines wouldn’t be as big when one of them screws up, as LiAngelo allegedly has in this instance.

But, hey, college basketball welcomed LaVar Ball inside its carnival tent. It welcomed in Ron Bell, the former friend of Josh Pastner who nuked him for not wishing him happy birthday. It welcomed in sneaker pimps and shady agents and financial advisers.

And now, on the eve of a new season, you look at the headlines and realize that there is no reason to wonder why the sport is off the rails.

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