CHICAGO — When the FBI busted down doors in September and arrested four Division I assistants in a corruption scandal that turned college basketball into an ’80s mafia movie, the entire sport absorbed the mess.
Four coaches, 10 people in all, could face prison time after the FBI uncovered a scheme to pay and influence recruits with illegal cash funneled through financial advisors and an Adidas shoe executive.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino lost his job, and the scandal could cost other coaches their high-profile positions before the 2018-19 season begins.
Onlookers, both casual and connected, viewed the FBI’s revelation as a sign of widespread corruption.
That’s why college basketball needed Tuesday.
The Champions Classic matchups at the United Center — Duke over Michigan State and Kansas over Kentucky — featured the March-like atmosphere that presented college basketball at its best: a collection of diverse talent and styles capable of manufacturing captivating action on a big stage.
And nothing like the derelict sport the headlines suggest college basketball has become in recent months.
College basketball just needed a chance to step outside the shadow of the scandal, not that basketball can erase anything that has transpired or any additional scandal the FBI might uncover in the coming weeks or months.
But the game needed the chance to try.
“Obviously, it’s a great event, and I think it’s good to get the season started, without question,” coach Bill Self said after his Kansas squad’s 65-61 win over Kentucky.
College basketball needed controversial star Grayson Allen to turn into Christian Laettner and score 37 points, a career high, against Michigan State. Freshman prodigy Marvin Bagley III entered the locker room in the first half and did not return to the game after suffering an eye injury 10 minutes into the matchup. And Allen’s young teammates, Gary Trent Jr. and Trevon Duval, shot like former high school stars who seemed stunned by the moment.
But Allen decided to play like a Wooden Award winner and carry his team.
“I just felt hot,” he said after his 7-for-11 effort from beyond the arc in Duke’s 88-81 win over Michigan State.
College basketball needed Miles Bridges, a late starter Tuesday, to hit clutch shots and keep the Spartans alive in the final minutes. It needed Jaren Jackson Jr.. (19 points), a 6-10 forward with an NBA future, to show the college basketball world Bridges alone would not be responsible for Michigan State’s national title aspirations.
The game needed a raw, frustrated, emotional coach Tom Izzo to go off after the game and tell reporters in his news conference he was tired of just “holding his own” versus Duke. He said “hell no” in response to another question. And then he promised to get better.
“This event has been as good as any event I’ve ever been in,” Izzo said about the Champions Classic.
The sport needed a young Kentucky squad to show that it can evolve into a dangerous group if Kevin Knox & Co. can put their length to good use on the offensive glass and find a shooter or three.
College basketball needed Hamidou Diallo to leap off the floor on a fast break, hang in the air long enough to do his taxes if he’d wanted to and slam, satisfying all who’d gathered at the United Center.
College basketball needed Kansas to win a game against a top-10 opponent with Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk and Malik Newman — arguably the most talented backcourt in America — despite shooting just 14-for-46 in the game, showcasing its resilience. The Jayhawks lack depth in the paint. But Udoka Azubuike (13 points, eight rebounds, two blocks) dominated the young Kentucky bigs all night.
College basketball needed Kentucky fans to chant “Goooo Big Blue! Goooo Big Blue!” as Kansas fans screamed “Goooo KU! Goooo KU!” toward the end of a nail-biter.
College basketball just needed to have fun again.
“This was such a great idea,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Whether you win or lose, it’s a great idea because it affords all these four teams an opportunity to play in an Elite Eight, Final Four atmosphere in these beautiful venues. It’s good in every way. I wish, hopefully they change the start of the season to start on Tuesday, that this will be one of the things that kicks it off, events like this where we can kick off college basketball. This is a big-time night here.”
One night — one season — will not change the narrative for college basketball. The FBI’s declaration that it has college basketball’s “playbook” suggests more arrests and indictments might arrive in the coming months and pluck more players, assistants and coaches from their respective teams, temporarily or permanently.
But college basketball can’t wait for that day.
Tuesday’s energized Champions Classic felt like the first time in three months that the game actually took a step forward.
And college basketball, including all who follow it and play it and coach it and love it, needed that.