Strange but true: It's been nearly 20 years since the 2000 publication of "Sole Influence" by Dan Wetzel and Don Yeager, whose book uncovered the shameful dynamics infusing the relationship between athletic shoe companies and college basketball.

Way back then, the conspiracy actually was shocking ... only to be left to fester and enable more brazenness.

At least until it all could no longer be willfully ignored because of the ongoing FBI probe that led to the Adidas college basketball corruption trial last year that exposed the underbelly of the game.

"The difference is wiretaps," Houston coach Kelvin Sampson bluntly put it on Thursday at Sprint Center. "What if they didn't have the wiretaps now? Would we know?"

Not to be outdone, Kentucky coach John Calipari said: "You know, if you're going to do something (illicit) now, you're going to get on the phone or you're going to go meet with somebody and try to do something, you either got some chutzpah or you're really stupid. Like, stupid."

So Calipari suggested this could be a time of "cleansing," and a pivot point for the NCAA to say "how do we deal with this stuff? They can clean the slate and start all over."

Well ... maybe.

But just how is another matter even as the looming issue is freshly reprised with the recent allegations that Nike is engaged in the same practices (albeit allegations tinged by the pesky fact accuser Michael Avenatti, who was arrested and charged with attempted extortion).

And just how, when its most effective enforcement tactic seems to be relying on ... wiretaps and the FBI.

In the moment, the reality is this lament _ a methodical method of cheating has flourished for too long and warped the game and our sense of what and who to believe in. Even if this gets fixed, you're left to wonder what takes its place?

"The game will survive obviously in time," Sampson said. "But it certainly puts a tarnish on it."

That it does, making for a confounding time for those who love the game. Just when we want to be celebrating it with the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional in town this week.

Then again, as a longtime power conference athletic director put it to me when I asked recently if he felt the game was in trouble: "Yes," he said, pausing, smiling and adding, "But ..."

The "but" is that scandals and all, television ratings for the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament are tied for their highest since 1991 and that most fans still care more about their program winning than whether it's ethically compromised.

How many followers are remotely bothered by the fact that every coach here, and many in the Sweet 16, has faced scrutiny about events under his jurisdiction and that three have been strongly disciplined in the past by the NCAA?

The exception is North Carolina, which went unpunished for a spectacularly sprawling academic scandal largely on the defense that non-athletes were involved, too _ a notable contrast to Missouri getting blasted for the trespasses of one rogue tutor.

Calipari's Final Four appearances at Massachusetts and Memphis were vacated; Sampson was smacked with a five-year show-cause penalty from his work at Indiana and Auburn's Bruce Pearl was the recipient of a three-year show-cause after being ousted at Tennessee and encountered more controversy in his current job.

So how to process their words on the state of the union is in the eye of the beholder, really, particularly considering the conflict the topic must present with the stakes they all hold.

Each view perhaps comes with its own asterisks and spin and grains of salt while also providing some points worth pondering lest we see this all too cynically.

"No, (the game is) not a cesspool," said Pearl, who suggested 99 percent of what's going on in the game is great. "There are some things that are wrong with it, things that take place that are inappropriate. That's the business of college basketball.

"The reason why the NCAA is involved in this is because it's their job to monitor. It's their job to enforce. It's their job to encourage people to work hard, to do it the right way and not allow some of the other things to seep into the business because of the business and the money and the pressures.

"So again, it's part of the process. The question is, 'What do you want to focus on?' We need to continue to work to keep it clean, but we need to understand all the good that's being done."

Meanwhile, for his part, Williams conceded the sport is bearing a "black eye" even as he sought to distance himself from the shoe controversies.

"I've been criticized because I don't move in that world," he said, adding that he doesn't "deal with agents. I wear shoes, but that's (all) I do with them."

As for what else is to be done with the shoes, stay tuned: The next phase of the federal basketball trial is scheduled for April 22, and who knows what's to come with the rumblings about Nike?

But this we do know: Anyone in the game who professes shock now at this ongoing mess is fibbing at best. And while there's a lot to still love about the game, it's at a crossroads in terms of its credibility.

Because it took wiretaps to expose what others were unwilling or unable to reveal even as it went on for years, leaving to question what it's really all about even amid March Madness.


Vahe Gregorian is a columnist for The Kansas City Star/TNS.