Kansas assistant caught on wiretap discussing money issues over Zion Williamson -- and that's a problem for Duke

Duke's Zion Williamson, the sculpted superstar who's built to become the face of college basketball this season, has ostensibly been lassoed into the sport's biggest ethical saga in ages. 

As the college basketball corruption trial makes its way to a highly anticipated verdict in the coming days, Tuesday's reports from federal court in Manhattan presented a fascinating scenario that brought possible/serious NCAA violations to public disclosure.  

The revelations, which include potentially incriminating (and unrelated) phone calls involving Kansas assistant Kurtis Townsend and LSU coach Will Wade, were brought up by the defense.

After the prosecution rested its case, defense lawyers for James Gatto, Merl Code and Christian Dawkins prepared arguments and fought for inclusion of evidence that would be seen and heard by the jury. As they lobbied for this with Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, the jury was not present in the courtroom. Kaplan first had to rule if the evidence the defense was fighting for was relevant to the fundamental arguments and facts of the case. The prosecution, naturally, was fighting the inclusion of said evidence.

Kaplan ultimately sided with the prosecution and didn't allow wiretapped calls from Dawkins to Wade and Code to Townsend into evidence. The jury will make its verdict without knowing those calls exist. It was undeniably a blow to the defense, which continues to attempt to convince the jury that coaches were knowledgeable, if not active in some cases, in facilitation of payments to prospects' families -- and therefore incapable of defrauding their own schools. 

But even if the jury doesn't know about the calls, everyone else following the case now does. These discoveries lack corroborated violations on the back end, but you'd have to be as green as it gets to not smell even a little smoke here. Things got more unnerving Tuesday for Kansas, LSU and, well here we are, Duke. 

This is what was let out of the bag by the defense, via Yahoo Sports. It's a tapped called of Code talking to Townsend in September 2017. Code's relaying to Townsend what the recruiting circumstances are with Williamson's father. 

"Hey," said Code, according to his attorney, Mark Moore. "Between me and you, you know, he asked about some stuff. You know?"

Who is "he?" Zion Williamson's father, per Moore's courtroom account.

"I know what he's asking for," Code continued. "He's asking for opportunities from an occupational perspective, he's asking for cash in the pocket and he's asking for housing for him and his family."

If this was to follow the basics that played out over the past 2½ weeks here as the underground economy of college athletics was laid bare in a federal fraud trial, that meant a job (lucrative with little to no work), a lot of cash (six figures, minimum) and an apartment or house (rent-free, of course). If you've seen Zion play, you'd know that isn't a bad deal.

Which might be why Townsend sounded unfazed.

"I've got to just try to work and figure out a way because if that's what it takes to get him here for 10 months, we're going to have to do it some way," Townsend said.

Code's message to Townsend isn't a clean look for Williamson's family, nor are these calls something that can quickly be explained away by the coaches caught on wiretap. So the big matter here, as it pertains to the schools, is what the NCAA thinks of this and what it ultimately decides to do. And if it's to take information corroborated, or even strongly alleged, within the esteemed halls of federal court and apply it to its own investigations, then many of the most important programs in college basketball stand to face inquiry. (Let's all agree that it would be poor PR strategy for the NCAA to cherrypick which schools to investigate and which to not.) 

Dragging Williamson (and Duke by proxy) into this undeniably amps up the scope of the trial and the impact of its findings. The Williamson stuff will probably trail him all season long, with opposing fans heckling the kid and attempting to get their accusatory signs on television broadcasts. 

If you're skeptical on the Williamson situation, remember that government witness/former Adidas money-dropper T.J. Gassnola already testified to paying a family friend of Deandre Ayton's $15,000 in addition to attempting to set up Ayton's mother with a job and permanent housing in a failed attempt to get Ayton to Kansas. Gassnola, facing the prospect of going to federal prison if he doesn't fully cooperate with the government, has no impetus to lie. 

Gassnola also admitted that he felt he let KU coach Bill Self down by failing to deliver Ayton to Lawrence. He told this to Self and he said it in front of the jury.  

Code and Gassnola were associates, both in a small "underground" group at Adidas known as the "Black Opp's." The Williamson story obviously has similar components to Ayton's. Yet to be proven is Ayton getting paid to go to Arizona, just as is the case with Williamson to Duke. Ironically, Kansas' inability to land those two prominent prospects has put it in the crosshairs of this case and, you'd have to think, the NCAA. After all, payments on behalf of Adidas to guardians or family members of Silvio De Sousa and Billy Preston have been corroborated.

Tuesday's news also makes a smart man look willfully naive. Duke held its big basketball media day on Monday, before all of this came out, and Mike Krzyzewski dismissed the notion that what this trial is providing is a widening view into the realities of recruiting in major college basketball.

"It's a blip," Krzyzewski said. "It's not what's happening."

That's head-in-the-sand talk, and it's surprising to hear it from the man who's considered to be the most powerful person in the sport

And now one of his own players is irrefutably associated with this story. No one who's credible is currently accusing Duke of going dirty to get Williamson to Durham. The more you peel away at context of this story, the more interesting it gets, though. Code is from South Carolina, which is where Williamson's from, and played at Clemson in the mid-'90s. Clemson is never expected to beat out Duke for a prospect, but this was the one time where people thought it really had a shot. And Williamson's pledge to Duke was a stunner at the time. (Just as Ayton to Arizona was and Brian Bowen II to Louisville was. Go back and read the stories from when they happened.)

Krzyzewski, who's coached many of the greatest college and pro players in basketball history, is not dumb. He obviously wants to protect his sport, but doing so by severely downplaying what the federal government has uncovered at nearly a dozen schools in major conferences set him up for criticism. 

You can say cheating isn't happening at most or all programs, but you can't say this isn't what's happening in general. Even if the NCAA's rules on amateurism are wrong or unfair, they're still the rules in place, and this is what's happening. This is college basketball and has been for decades. The trial has provided ample proof of that, with attempts by the defense to show that Nike and Under Armour are no different from Adidas. 

We haven't even gotten to the assistants implicated yet. Their two trials are set for 2019. This only stands to get more embarrassing for the sport. 

Tuesday's revelations made a complicated case even more problematic. After the FBI went public with its bombshell probe, NCAA president Mark Emmert hastily asked for huge reform and scarier penalties in college basketball. With all we've learned in the first of three federal trials, it must now be asked: Can the NCAA bear to honestly investigate its biggest programs?

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his eighth season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics,... Full Bio

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