Why Sean Miller still has a tough road ahead despite Arizona's support

Arizona coach Sean Miller listens to questions during the Pac-12’s media day in San Francisco. (AP)

SAN FRANCISCO — Eight minutes into a relentless barrage of questions about the FBI investigation that has ensnared his program, Arizona coach Sean Miller at last received a reprieve.

A kindhearted reporter at the Pac-12’s men’s basketball media day finally asked Miller about his team, the one that is the favorite to win the league this year and should start in the preseason top three nationally.

“I appreciate the question,” Miller responded with a weary chuckle.

The previous dozen questions Miller fielded inspired more winces than words. They each pertained to the arrest of his longtime assistant coach Book Richardson, who faces a battery of fraud and bribery charges pertaining to an alleged scheme to pay prospects to come to Arizona and then funnel them to an agent bankrolling the operation.

Miller’s only previous comment about the FBI investigation was a statement he released last week describing himself as “devastated” to learn of the allegations against Richardson and pledging to continue to work to promote a “culture of compliance” at Arizona. He repeatedly referred to that statement Thursday as reporters tried in vain to entice him to reveal more.

Did Miller have any inkling that Richardson was involved in a bribery scheme?

“I’m going to stand by the statement that I gave,” he said.

Does Miller believe that a head coach has a responsibility to know what his assistants are doing?

I’m going to stand by the statement that I’ve given,” he repeated.

Miller offered similar responses a half dozen more times including when asked if he has spoken to Richardson, if he has been questioned by the FBI and if any Arizona players could be suspended due to eligibility concerns. Only a few times did he let his guard down, most notably after a question about the statements Arizona’s president and athletic director released last week backing Miller barring further evidence emerging.

“It meant the world,” Miller said. “Meant more than any words that I can express. They didn’t have to do that, but I appreciate it and hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to make both of them proud.”

This won’t be the last round of hard questions Miller faces as the FBI investigation unfolds. It’s way too hard to believe that Richardson was a rogue assistant seeking to make a quick buck and advance his career. Or that a head coach as famously detail-oriented as Miller wouldn’t know how his longest-tenured assistant was operating.

The federal complaint indicates that Richardson accepted a total of $20,000 in bribes from agent Christian Dawkins, most of which he allegedly gave to a top point guard who committed to Arizona in early August. The only player who fits that description is five-star point guard Jahvon Quinerly, who announced on August 8 that he would play for the Wildcats.

An Adidas executive is quoted in another section of the complaint saying that a recruit believed to be five-star forward Nassir Little had been offered $150,000 to commit to Arizona. In the complaint, Dawkins also references not being able to get involved with a current Arizona player because he is already being paid by someone else.

It’s no mystery why Arizona is standing by Miller in spite of those allegations. He’s valuable to the university because he wins. This is a man who brought stability to a proud yet floundering Arizona program when he arrived eight years ago, leading the Wildcats to a 220-66 record and six Sweet 16 appearances without so much as a hint of NCAA impropriety.

The concern for Arizona is the strong possibility that evidence further implicating Miller may yet emerge. Not only could the FBI discover new incriminating evidence against Miller on its own, it could also offer Richardson a deal in exchange for new information about Miller. That might be tough for Richardson to turn down considering he is facing up to 60 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines if convicted of all charges.

“The criminal law violations here create an environment that is conducive to people cutting deals that would be self-serving to maintain their freedom,” said Alabama-based attorney Don Jackson, who specializes in NCAA infractions cases.

“In an NCAA case, we’re concerned about show-cause sanctions, suspensions and the potential of losing a coaching career. With the criminal aspects of this case, now we have coaches who are concerned about losing freedom. That creates an incentive to cut the best deal possible. And I suspect cutting a deal may require pointing the finger at individuals higher in the food chain.”

Even if no further evidence emerges tying Miller to the bribery scheme, he’s still far from in the clear.

NCAA bylaws state that a head coach is presumed responsible for the actions of his staff and “will be held accountable for all violations in the program unless he can rebut the presumption of responsibility.” That means that to avoid crippling NCAA sanctions, Miller somehow would have to prove he fostered an atmosphere of compliance within his program yet he didn’t know and had know way of knowing about Richardson’s alleged misdeeds.

“The head coach is going to want to establish that the assistant coach acted totally in isolation, that he was a rogue actor,” Jackson said. “It’s a rebuttable presumption of guilt, and that presumption becomes more difficult to rebut when you’ve got the kind of relationship [Miller had with Richardson]. I think that increases the potential exposure.”

The threat of potential NCAA sanctions or worse has already spooked several top prospects Arizona had been pursuing.

In the past two weeks, Little committed to North Carolina instead of Arizona, Canadian standout Simi Shittu canceled a previously scheduled visit to Tucson and five-star prospects R.J. Barrett and Bol Bol both dropped the Wildcats from among their finalists. Quinerly, guard Brandon Williams and forward Shareef O’Neal all remain committed to Arizona for the Class of 2018, but there’s a sense those pledges are more tenuous than they were a few weeks ago.

Losing a few key recruits is undoubtedly the least of Miller’s worries right now

Before federal authorities dropped a bomb on Arizona and the rest of college basketball two weeks ago, the biggest question facing the Wildcats entering the new season was whether Miller could finally reach his first Final Four. Now his right-hand man is facing felony charges, his program is under fire and the questions are a whole lot tougher.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!