BOISE, Idaho — There is little doubt that somewhere early Friday morning, NCAA president Mark Emmert was breathing a huge sigh of relief.
Not only did 13th-seeded Buffalo’s stunning 89-68 rout of fourth-seeded Arizona here at Taco Bell Arena cap the NCAA Tournament’s opening day with the kind of unforgettable upset it is known for, it also removed the NCAA’s biggest headache from its signature event.
From the moment the field was unveiled Sunday night, it was hard not to look at not only how the tournament’s selection committee handled Arizona — giving the Wildcats an incredibly difficult draw — as well as the other three teams caught up in scandal this season — Oklahoma State, Louisville and Southern California, all of whom were bubble teams left out of the field of 68 — and think that the NCAA was doing its best to eliminate continued discussion about the FBI investigation hanging over the sport.
Whether it did or not, it succeeded — though not in the way anyone could have expected.
With arguably the best player in the tournament — center DeAndre Ayton, the potential No. 1 pick in this year’s NBA draft — on its roster, Arizona had the potential not only to make a deep tournament run, but make it all the way to the Final Four in San Antonio.
Anyone watching the Wildcats play Buffalo on Thursday night, however, would have had a hard time believing that.
“We knew we had a very tough draw,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “We knew we were playing an excellent basketball team — and a team, quite frankly, that we didn’t necessarily match up well with.
“We prepared hard, but we ran into a team that played well on a night where we didn’t. They certainly had a lot to do with that.”
Sure, Buffalo played great, getting a combined 67 points from three guards while shooting 54.8 percent from the field and 50 percent (15-for-30) from 3-point range. But while there will be plenty of talk about the boisterous Bulls leading into Saturday’s game against fifth-seeded Kentucky, a lot of focus will be on the complete capitulation of the Pac-12 regular season and tournament champions.
It is hard not to wonder whether all that has happened to Arizona over the past year did not take its toll on this team. Ever since Miller’s longtime assistant, Emanuel “Book” Richardson was arrested in September by the FBI in its investigation into bribery and corruption in college basketball, Arizona’s future has been in question.
It was then thrown into complete chaos last month when ESPN reported that Miller had been overheard on a wiretap discussing a potential payment of $100,000 to secure Ayton’s commitment, and Allonzo Trier was suspended for testing positive for a performance enhancing substance. Miller stepped away from the team for one game before returning for the season finale and professing his innocence, while Trier was also reinstated after it was determined that the substance in his system was the reappearance of a trace amount of the same substance that caused him to be suspended for 19 games the previous season.
It all clearly wore on the program, which has spent all season — and especially the past month — answering a constant stream of questions about it.
“I’ve made my statement,” Miller said Wednesday, when asked a broad question about the impact the investigation has had on the sport — not even his own program specifically.
With Arizona’s season now having reached a shockingly early end, there are far more questions than answers ahead about the status of the program. Ayton is leaving for the NBA draft, as are Trier and Rawle Alkins. The other two members of Arizona’s starting five this season, Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright, are graduating seniors.
The Wildcats only have six players on scholarship for next season — and have no commitments. When the report about Miller surfaced last month, Shareef O’Neal — the son of Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal — decommitted, only to commit to UCLA a short time later.
And Miller’s status, given everything that has happened, is tenuous. It remains to be seen what else will come out about the FBI’s investigation, and whether Miller can survive it.
If he cannot, this offseason could see two of the premier programs in college basketball — Arizona and Louisville — both looking for new coaches to lead them back from basketball purgatory.
But that will be a discussion for another day — discussion that will happen outside the purview of college basketball’s signature event.
For Emmert and the rest of the NCAA’s leadership, there could not have been a better outcome.