Wojo: Spartans keep plowing through all the clamor

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

It’s supposed to be the most exhilarating time, climbing ladders and snipping nets. Instead, it’s an endless swirl of unanswered questions and incomplete investigations.

Before March Madness could turn completely into March Messiness, the NCAA did what it does so well — delay and deny. It’s a self-preservation tactic, one that Michigan State and others have adopted. And frankly, it’s the only approach you can take at the moment, until more is known about the FBI’s ongoing investigation implicating at least 20 programs for possible rules violations.

The Spartans dutifully charged forward, no turning back now, and won the outright Big Ten championship by beating Wisconsin, 68-63, Sunday. By any on-court measure, they’ve had a spectacular season, a 28-3 mark, a program-record 16 Big Ten victories. They’ll again be a Final Four favorite and popular national-title pick.

Amid all the uncertainty, the only certainty for Tom Izzo these days is that his team will lock down defensively late in games, Cassius Winston will make clutch plays, and Jaren Jackson and Miles Bridges will take turns providing the star power. The Spartans have won 12 straight heading into the Big Ten tournament, and you can celebrate that without ignoring the mess that college basketball has become.

The problem is, nobody knows how long any celebration can last anymore. In a thinly veiled attempt to protect its billion-dollar March Madness baby, the NCAA will look away, for the moment at least, from the allegations of payments to players and players’ relatives. Nothing to see here because nothing is proven, and hey, Selection Sunday is less than two weeks away!

More: Stan Van Gundy rips NCAA: ‘Maybe the worst organization in sports’

That’s why Bridges was allowed to play after a quick coordination — can you even call it an investigation? — between the school’s compliance department and the NCAA cleared him. Presumably, that means the NCAA determined in the space of about 24 hours that Bridges’ mother did not receive a $400 payment from disgraced agent Christian Dawkins.

“I can’t explain it because I didn’t investigate it,” Izzo said Sunday. “But our people investigated it, their people investigated it, and I wasn’t involved in any way. … But I don’t think they do those things unless they’ve vetted it pretty good. As far as I’m concerned, as far as I know, I have no reason to believe any member of my staff or student-athletes here have violated any NCAA rules.”

Running the risk

At first, it appeared it would be for an enormous risk for Michigan State to play Bridges. Izzo said he initially prepared as if Bridges would have to sit while the issue was sorted out. If a team uses a player later deemed ineligible, it could have its victories and championships wiped away.

But the NCAA swiftly removed that burden, as it did for Duke and other schools with players named in the Yahoo Sports investigation. Duke’s Wendell Carter Jr. was in the report — Dawkins’ expense report lists a $106.36 meal with Carter’s mother — and he was cleared to play.

Much more sordid is the situation at Arizona, where coach Sean Miller reportedly is heard on a wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment to land freshman star Deandre Ayton. Miller sat out the Wildcats game Saturday night, but Ayton played. It shows how weak the NCAA is viewed that FBI wiretaps aren’t enough to scare a program into taking a strong proactive measure. In fact, Miller’s statement said he was “confident I will be vindicated.”

It’s hard to imagine Miller surviving with his job intact, but then the NCAA has proven to be so toothless at times, it’s easy to imagine anything. That’s why the teams must play on, including Alabama, Kentucky and USC, who all played stars named in the report.

Who knows if more details will emerge, but for now, Michigan State is playing the game the only way it can. There has been a troubling delay-and-deny strategy going on for a while at Michigan State, involving issues far larger than alleged $400 payments. At some point, better responses will be required before anyone is absolved.

But in this case, Izzo doesn’t have to justify or apologize because the NCAA isn’t equipped to push it, and doesn’t have the power to prove anything yet. One caveat: It’s unclear exactly how much leeway the NCAA has afforded programs. For instance, if more information emerges, would cleared players still face eligibility issues?

“I think it’s over, but you’d have to ask our compliance people or the NCAA on that,” Izzo said. “Miles Bridges wasn’t the only guy that played, a lot of guys played. I think we have a unique situation, one unprecedented at least in my era, and I appreciate that the NCAA took the time and energy to go over everything and come up with this kind of answer.”

Bridges appreciated the quick resolution, too. He said he didn’t know anything about the alleged payment and didn’t even know Dawkins.

The idea that his college career could’ve ended so abruptly did enter his mind.

“I was kind of nervous, because it’s nothing to play with,” said Bridges, who struggled amid the scrutiny, shooting 3-for-15 Sunday. “I’m grateful.”

Heavy mettle

The Spartans are grateful but weary. Izzo said on his postgame radio show the championship was embraced, but the celebration was muted.

“To be honest with you, it’s almost not as joyful as it should be, only because I think they’re just spent,” Izzo said. “Mentally and physically, this team has gone through the ringer a little bit, and done an unbelievable job.”

To their credit, the Spartans are playing as if doubly determined to show people who they really are, not the image blurred by incidents outside the program. Situations like this can be galvanizing, even emboldening. And if the FBI probe shows anything, it’s that issues run deep across the sport.

College basketball long has had a systemic problem compounded by the enormous amount of revenue it generates, the outsized value one player can bring to a program, and the antiquated ideals of amateurism.

NCAA president Mark Emmert appointed a commission, chaired by former U.S. Secretary of the State Condoleezza Rice, to address the various ills but that will take time, and the answer isn’t as simple as “pay the players.”

Should players be allowed to make money off their name or likeness and be permitted to work above-board with agents, as Olympic athletes can? That’s certainly reasonable. College careers are so short for elite players, it’s irresponsible to forbid them from gaining representation. There’s so much to be figured out, so much to be fixed.

“This is a horrible time for the game,” Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski said. “Sometimes, unless something horrible happens, you just don’t change. We need to change.”

It can be a beautiful sport, and when these Spartans are on, they’re a captivating team capable of rising above the fray. They’re all in now, and as the stakes soar and the Tournament beckons, the victories get bigger and bigger, on and off the floor.




At New York

All games on BTN unless noted.


■No. 12 Iowa vs. No. 13 Illinois, 5:30 p.m.

■No. 11 Minnesota vs. No. 14 Rutgers, 8 p.m.


■No. 8 Maryland vs. No. 9 Wisconsin, noon

■No. 5 Michigan vs. Iowa/Illinois winner, 2:30 p.m.

■No. 7 Penn State vs. No. 10 Northwestern, 6:30 p.m.

■No. 6 Indiana vs. Minnesota/Rutgers winner, 9 p.m.


■No. 1 Michigan State vs. Maryland/Wisconsin winner, noon

■No. 4 Nebraska vs. Michigan/Iowa/Illinois winner, 2:30 p.m.

■No. 2 Ohio State vs. Penn State/Northwestern winner, 6:30 p.m.

■No. 3 Purdue vs. Indiana/Minnesota/Rutgers winner, 9 p.m.



■Michigan State/Maryland/Wisconsin winner vs. Nebraska/Michigan/Iowa/Illinois winner, 2 p.m. (CBS)

■Ohio State/Penn State/Northwestern winner vs. Purdue/Indiana/Minnesota/Rutgers winner, 4:30 p.m. (CBS)


■Championship, 4:30 p.m. (CBS)