In the month and a half since federal prosecutors charged USC associate head coach Tony Bland in the sprawling college basketball bribery and corruption investigation, the school remained tight-lipped.
That changed Friday, on the cusp of one of the most anticipated seasons in Trojans history.
Nine minutes before the scheduled tipoff of the opener against Cal State Fullerton at Galen Center, USC issued a two-sentence statement making official what had long been expected. Do-everything sophomore guard De’Anthony Melton wouldn’t play because of the case.
“USC is working diligently to independently investigate this matter in order to confirm that De’Anthony meets the NCAA eligibility requirements,” the statement said, describing the move as a “precaution.”
Ranked among the top 10 teams in the preseason Associated Press poll for the first time since 1974, the Trojans coasted to an 84-42 win over the Titans in front of a crowd of 6,327. The more consequential development, however, revolved around the 19-year-old in a gray sweatsuit on USC’s bench.
Melton’s attorney, Vicki I. Podberesky, told The Times the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which is prosecuting the case, has “unequivocally” cleared Melton of wrongdoing. She hopes the matter will be resolved and he can return to the court in the next week.
“Multiple investigations have found no evidence that De’Anthony Melton knew of or participated in any conduct that would make him ineligible to play basketball,” Podberesky said.
“It is extremely disappointing for De’Anthony not to be on the court playing the game he loves for the school he is committed to. He hopes that USC will demonstrate the same level of loyalty and commitment to him that he has given to the school and the USC basketball program.”
Melton, among 20 players on the preseason watch list for the Jerry West Award for the nation’s top shooting guard, sat out two closed-door scrimmages this month. He wasn’t among eight players pictured on Trojans’ season tickets, either.
“We’re very hopeful it will be quick,” USC coach Andy Enfield said of Melton’s absence.
Prosecutors alleged Bland facilitated a $5,000 payment to a “family member and/or close family friend” of a USC player during a meeting at a Los Angeles hotel in August. In exchange, the associate would direct the player to use would-be sports agent Christian Dawkins and financial advisor Munish Sood as a professional. The payment would violate NCAA rules.
The criminal complaint identified the sophomore as “Player-9.” The relative of an unnamed USC recruit is also alleged to have received $4,000 in August, according to the complaint.
Bland, indicted by a federal grand jury Tuesday on four charges, is on administrative leave. Mention of the charismatic assistant has been scrubbed from the school’s website and media guide.
He remains listed as an assistant coach in the online staff directory, the only visible evidence of his connection with the program. The other assistant coaches charged in the case have either been fired by their schools — Arizona, Auburn and Oklahoma State — or are contesting termination proceedings.
On the court Friday, Chimezie Metu led the Trojans with 18 points and 10 rebounds in 23 minutes. The Trojans forced 21 turnovers and added 10 three-pointers in a game that was only close at tipoff.
Melton watched near the end of the bench as his teammates dismantled Fullerton. He rarely looked away from the action, waiting for his season to begin.