No Judgment for Nunberg/ Cavaliers Look to Finish the Job

March Madness came early this year.

I refer not to the howling winds which ravaged the East Coast and uprooted a large tree in my back yard on March first, nor to Michigan’s stirring victory in the Big Ten tournament, which was held a week early to accommodate Madison Square Garden scheduling, but to Sam Nunberg, a virtually unknown former Trump Aide, who dispensed his own brand of insanity during multiple interviews on CNN and MSNBC last Monday.

Nunberg reacted to a Robert Mueller grand jury subpoena by going on TV and defiantly declaring that he would ignore it. “Screw that,” he said of the summons. He also had racy things to say about Trump (“Idiot”), Sarah Huckabee Sanders (“A fat slob’), Corey Lewandowski (“scum bag”), and others in the Trump circle. He fanned the flames of Trump involvement with the Russians. It was refreshing to finally hear a Republican call these deplorables out; but Nunberg’s narrative,though juicy in parts, sounded like a desperate and disjointed plea for relevance by a lost soul.

Maybe Nunberg is smarter than we think, and coyly seized a chance to make himself famous by acting eccentrically on a national stage. Not likely. He came across as unhinged and not very bright. Remember, he was initially fired by the Trump campaign for making racial taunts on Facebook, and called Al Sharpton’s daughter the N-word.

Two questions come to mind. First, who’s loonier, Nunberg or Carter Page?

Secondly, is Nunberg Jewish? Probably. His first name is Sam. He went to law school. His name ends in “Berg.” But he acts and sounds more like a Non-Berg than a Nunberg. None of the Bergs, Greenbergs, Grossbergs, Sternbergs or Ellenbergs that I have known has been a 36-year old schlemiel with the temerity, make that stupidity, to challenge the world’s toughest prosecutor on national television.

Not surprisingly, Nunberg appeared before the Grand Jury on Friday and avoided a court-ordered jail sentence for contempt. He is free to renew his career as the poster boy for lowlife political operatives. As long as Trump’s in power, there will always be demand for his services.
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With Nunberg having receded from view, we can focus on the real March Madness without the distraction of cable news. But there are other distractions. Casting a giant shadow over the NCAA tournament, which begins tonight, is a federal investigation into the seamy relationship between sports agents and coaches affecting the recruitment of star athletes.

A September, 2017 indictment in the Southern District of New York charges four assistant basketball coaches, including Emanuel “Book” Richardson of Arizona, as conspirators in a scheme with sports agents to lure athletes to schools with secret cash payments, and then through the good offices of the assistants, to refer them to the conspiring agents for lucrative representation agreements. The sources of the cash were the agents and apparel companies who paid both the players and the assistant coaches.

And it’s possible that the wrongdoing stretches beyond the assistants. Acccording to an ESPN report, there exists a taped phone conversation in which Arizona head coach Sean Miller is heard discussing and/or authorizing a $100,000.00 cash payment to current Arizona sensation Deandre Ayton. Miller denies involvement and has been allowed to stay on the job after a meeting with the Arizona Board of Regents. The NCAA has provisionally cleared Ayton to play in the NCAA tournament, but if Ayton received under-the-table cash to play for Arizona, there remains the possibility that any victories achieved with him in the line-up could be retroactively voided.

It is not a crime by itself to pay a player to attend a school or to sign with an agent. The statute which the defendants are claimed to have violated is 18 U.S. 666, entitled Theft or Bribery Concerning Programs Receiving Federal Funds. The essence of the crimes charged is that the payments made were in violation of NCAA rules against impermissible benefits. The irony here is that the NCAA would love for the indictment to disappear, but its archaic rules against athletes receiving compensation gave rise to the charges. There will be great pressure on the NCAA in the months to come to permit regulated compensation to student athletes.

You can understand why Miller might have bent the rules to secure Ayton’s services. The 7’1” – 260 lb forward-center is being heralded as the best big man prospect since Shaquille O’Neal. And he is coming on like gangbusters. In the final two games of the Pac-12 tournament, against UCLA and USC, Ayton averaged 32 points and 16 rebounds shooting 27 of 36 from the field and 9 of 10 from the foul line. He shoots 36.4% from 3-point land. Ayton is certain to be the first player selected in the NBA draft and may overtake Trae Young as player of the year.

Arizona is a center of attention for reasons other than the looming scandal. Ayton’s development and its late burst to win the Pac-12 regular season and conference tournament make it one of the hottest teams in the NCAA’s. Under-seeded at number 4 in the South, the Wildcats stand to face Kentucky in round 2 and if successful, Virginia in the sweet sixteen. They will be a tough out for the Cavaliers.

Virginia, the top-rated team in the tournament, has had a most remarkable season in a most unorthodox fashion. Its primary guards are two skinny white guys; their starting forwards average 18 points/game between them; their center primarily sets picks and rebounds; and their best athletes come off the bench. They average 67.5 ppg, a full six points less than any other team in the NCAA field.

Yet they finished 31-2 overall, 17 and 1 in the tough ACC, and set a record by winning all of their ACC road games. How did they do it? The answer is by defense, by a smothering, suffocating, swarming assault on the ball which leaves no entry pass or shot unchallenged. The result is a team which is greater than the sum of its parts. They allow 53.4 ppg, more than ten points less than any other team in the tourney, save Cincinnati. And when they take a lead, they hold onto it, by being careful with the ball and by making their foul shots.

Can they be beaten? Yes, by a hot shooting team which takes a lead, controls the pace, and can get into the 70’s. Arizona, averaging 80.9 ppg with three future pros in its starting five, meets the description. But their defense failed them in February losses to Oregon, Washington, and UCLA, and it’s not at all clear that they have elevated their game to Virginia’s level.

Villanova (30-4) has an easier run than Virginia to the Final Four. Only second-seeded Purdue in the round of eight is capable of giving ‘Nova a hard time. Kansas,the number one seed in the Midwest, will either fall to Seton Hall in the second round or in the round of eight to the Duke-Michigan State winner. The West’s top seed, Xavier, will be hard-pressed to get by Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen.

Despite Virginia and Villanova’s gaudy records, this NCAA field resembles the pool of candidates for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. There are no standouts, only contenders. Some of the contenders bring a lot of firepower. But unlike offense, which comes and goes, defense always travels.

And the Cavaliers have their bags packed. Virginia to win it.

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