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Amid bribery probe, USC will keep De'Anthony Melton out of lineup for rest of the season

Amid bribery probe, USC will keep De'Anthony Melton out of lineup for rest of the season
USC guard De'Anthony Melton (22) takes a shot defended by Southern Methodist forward Semi Ojeleye on Nov. 25, 2016. (Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

USC will sit De'Anthony Melton for the remainder of the season after the sophomore was linked to the college basketball bribery case.

The decision Thursday, first reported by The Times and later announced by USC, ends a three-month saga.

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The school has held Melton out of all 18 games this season as a precaution while it investigated his ties to the scandal that rocked the sport and resulted in the indictment of Trojans associate head coach Tony Bland.

"It's sort of the whole impression they're concerned about," Melton's attorney, Vicki I. Podberesky, said of USC's reasoning. "It's very disappointing, but not unexpected."

Federal prosecutors alleged David Elliott, a close family friend of Melton's, received a $5,000 bribe in August to direct the player to use would-be agent Christian Dawkins and financial advisor Munish Sood when he joined the NBA. Elliott's attorney denied his client accepted any money or otherwise violated NCAA rules.

USC declared Melton ineligible last month after receiving unspecified new information. The school's concerns, people familiar with the matter said, included who paid for a plane ticket and hotel room when Elliott visited Las Vegas in July. If someone else paid, the NCAA could regard the trip as an extra benefit and penalize both Melton and USC.

Elliott's attorney, Alex Kessel, said USC received documentation showing Elliott's room at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino was comped by the establishment, as is common in Las Vegas, and he paid for all of his food and beverage on a personal credit card. A family friend, not believed to be connected to the bribery case or any sports agency, purchased the plane ticket.

Elliott had no contact with Dawkins in Las Vegas, according to Kessel.

"It's a clear case … of guilt by association with no evidence of any NCAA violations," Kessel said. "That is USC's prerogative, but it's wrong and they're hurting a player who can help the team and is absolutely blameless."

Federal prosecutors haven't been in touch with Kessel since November.

Melton, interviewed by prosecutors for about 40 minutes in October, gave USC cellphone data, bank statements and other records.

"Based on information discovered through its internal investigation regarding the receipt of extra benefits, primarily to a close family friend of De'Anthony Melton, USC has concluded that De'Anthony will not compete with the USC men's basketball team in the 2017-18 season," the school said in a statement.

USC's Chimezie Metu, who bypassed the NBA to return to school for his junior season, blasted the decision. He has worn a white "#FREEDMELT" T-shirt during several postgame news conferences.

"Punishing innocent ppl...I see what y'all on now @USC_Athletics," Metu wrote on Twitter. "'He didn't do anything wrong but let's suspend him bc we're selfish and have to protect our image' ...makes sense."

Melton was "extremely disappointed" by the decision, Podberesky said, one USC athletic director Lynn Swann played an "instrumental" role in. Melton plans to discuss his future with Trojans coach Andy Enfield and assistant Jason Hart in the coming days.

USC will keep Melton on scholarship, and allow him to practice, but he can't travel with the team.

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"They're thinking that keeping him out for the season should be more than enough to allow him to regain eligibility for the coming season," Podberesky said.

Melton, who hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing, was among 20 players on the preseason watch list for the Jerry West Award for the nation's top shooting guard.

"Based on USC's statement, it is pretty clear that De'Anthony is a victim in this situation," said Russell White, who coached Melton at Crespi High School and remains close to him. "It is unfortunate that USC and the NCAA are going to stand by an arcane system of rules to keep De'Anthony from playing. … This is a decision that has the fingerprints of a large, power-wielding bureaucracy all over it."

Twitter: @nathanfenno

UPDATES:

6:15 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional details.

2:45 p.m.: This article has been updated with comments from Russell White and with additional background information.

2:15 p.m.: This article has been updated with comments from Chimezie Metu.

1:20 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with comments from Vicki I. Podberesky and USC and with background information.

This article was originally published at 12:05 p.m.

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