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Filling out your March Madness bracket might be a real head scratcher this year. Forget the Cinderella stories and the 5-versus-12 first-round upsets. The big question in 2018 is whether there will actually be four eligible teams left by the time we get to the Final Four.

Have you heard? NCAA basketball is being sucked into a massive scandal. No team, no program, no university is safe, as far as we know. And with Selection Sunday less than two weeks away, the defense that coaches are drawing up has nothing to do with the box-and-one and everything to do with crafting a plausible legal argument.

And it’s all so stupid.

The NCAA is basically Saddam Hussein’s palace, circa 2002, except there are a thousand little Saddams instead of one big one. It is a primordial swamp of vice that exists primarily for the efficient flow of bribes. Dignitaries enter and exit, dine on caviar and champagne, and everyone leaves the palace either richer or poorer, depending on which direction the payoffs traveled.

And now the FBI has battered down the front doors and charged inside, guns blazing. And agents have identified the problem: A couple of the maids stole ashtrays.

Wait, the FBI? That’s right. The NCAA is not investigating itself because, you know, that would be awkward. So the Feds are on the case. The bureau has been investigating impropriety in college basketball for at least three years, and the hammer is coming down.

Last September, federal prosecutors in New York announced fraud and corruption charges against 10 people involved in the sport, including assistant coaches with four prominent teams. And as Yahoo Sports first reported Friday after getting a look at documents unearthed in the probe, the scope of the investigation is even more massive than expected.

The dominoes have already started to fall. Arizona coach Sean Miller was nowhere to be seen when the Wildcats lost at Oregon on Saturday. He decided it was best to lie low after ESPN reported that FBI wiretaps had picked up his conversations with ASM sports agent Andy Miller, who is at the heart of the investigation, discussing a payment of $100,000 to ensure that stud high school player Deandre Ayton would sign with Arizona.

Will the Wildcats be allowed to play in the tournament? If they are, will Sean Miller be coaching them? How nervous are schools like Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Xavier, all of which showed up in Yahoo’s reporting?

Can’t wait to hear the bracketologists break down which programs are clean, which are dirty and which are “on the bubble.”

When the Yahoo story broke, noted Kansas coach Bill Self had this reaction: “After reading the article this morning, like most of us involved in college athletics, we’re hearing and learning about it for the first time.”

That’s kind of amazing, because everyone not involved in college athletics is hearing about it for the millionth time. I mean, we might not have known the dollar figures or the particular athletes involved. But we knew the basic hustle, didn’t we?

And that’s why these bombshell allegations are so stupid. The secret mechanics of big-time college sports are really no secret at all. Does any of the following sound familiar? AAU basketball coaches around the country sniff out the best talent when the kids are 10 or 12 years old. By the time they reach high school, the boys are surrounded by a murky haze of club coaches, shoe-company reps, tournament directors and “family friends.” When it comes time to select a university, or an agent, it’s the biggest group decision you’ve ever seen. While in college, players drive around in expensive cars and get extra help from tutors.

This is a fairly bizarre model of college sports, and it’s all traceable to the NCAA’s self-serving definition of “amateurism.”

The NCAA will make more than $1 billion for permission to broadcast this year’s Men’s Basketball Tournament. That says nothing of TV rights through the rest of the season, or ticket sales, or merchandise, or the use of images in advertising. The system is awash in money, and everybody in the chain gets their share above the table — except for the guys scoring all the points and grabbing all the rebounds. And of course they’re the ones who need it most, for themselves and the families.

Oh, sure, the players get scholarships. And if you figure out how, exactly, a scholarship benefits a one-and-done superstar like Deandre Ayton, please let me know.

So the athletes get their cut under the table. And the NCAA puts it hand to its forehead and faints in shock when a payment make the headlines.

“Simply put, people who engage in this kind of behavior have no place in college sports,” said NCAA president Mark Emmert, the man most responsible for ensuring “this kind of behavior.”

Yeah, I know, the players understand what they’re getting into, for the most part. That doesn’t mean they aren’t being exploited. I have sympathy for basketball fans, too. March Madness might be the greatest extended sporting event in America, and it will be played under a cloud of uncertainty this year, possibly minus some marquee players.

But I’ll tell you who I really feel bad for: FBI agents.

Imagine it for a minute. You’ve grown up your whole life wanting to be a modern-day Eliot Ness. You excel at the FBI Academy, where you learn the latest investigative techniques and firearm skills. You’re hired at the bureau, and you’re ready for your first big job. Will you be fighting terrorism? Preventing cyber crime? Breaking up the mafia or nailing bribe-taking Congressmen?

No. The assignment lands, and you are directed to investigate NCAA basketball. Your first task is to look into the lunch that Duke recruit Wendell Carter’s mother allegedly had with Christian Dawkins, another ASM agent, when Carter was a high school junior. Yahoo got a copy of Dawkins’ expense report, and the bill for this lunch is recorded as $106.36, though it’s unclear whether Carter’s mom paid for her own meal or not.

Some of your friends from the academy are sniffing out domestic terrorism plots aimed at harming schoolkids. Others are going undercover to expose insider trading on Wall Street. And you’re spending eight hours a day trying to determine whether Mrs. Carter ordered the shrimp scampi or the Thai chicken pizza, and whether the restaurant was offering free refills on fountain drinks.

It’s all so stupid. March isn’t here yet, but the madness is upon us.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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