Jamar Samuels took a seat at the end of Kansas State’s bench Saturday afternoon, spotted his family sitting across the court at the Consol Energy Center and lifted up his hands as if to say, “I don’t know what to tell you.”
He was wearing a black track suit instead of a uniform. He couldn’t play in K-State’s NCAA Tournament game against Syracuse and his family, teammates and fans didn’t know why. K-State had just announced that Samuels was dealing with an eligibility issue, but offered no details.
Later Saturday — after Samuels’ absence played a role in the Wildcats’ season-ending 75-59 loss to the top-seeded Orange — two sources within the athletic department confirmed the issue stemmed from a $200 wire transfer sent to Samuels from a former coach, Curtis Malone, who runs the DC Assault AAU basketball program.
Samuels received the money on Monday in Manhattan, a source said. K-State athletic director John Currie said he became aware of an eligibility issue Friday.
The Wildcats learned from coach Frank Martin late Friday night in a team meeting that Samuels, their only scholarship senior, wouldn’t play. Not only did the Wildcats lack time to reconstruct the game plan, they didn’t even know why their teammate couldn’t join them on the court.
“We were all shocked,” said Omari Lawrence, who sat next to Samuels throughout the game. “He’s a senior. He’s a leader. He does a lot for us. It was a blow not having him out there.”
The shorthanded Wildcats held their ground for 20 minutes, trailing by one at halftime. But the Orange’s size and zone defense held K-State to 31 percent shooting and Syracuse pulled away in the second half, hitting five three-pointers.
After the game, Samuels was inside a locked room within K-State’s locker room, and his teammates struggled to explain how difficult it was to play without him. Martin didn’t disclose many other details.
“I told the team that we owed it to Jamar to play the best that we can play,” Martin said. “The kids laid it on the line to make that happen. Unfortunately it wasn’t good enough.”
Before the game, Currie would not comment on the nature of the issue but said Samuels had worked hard academically.
Martin might not have agreed with the decision to bench Samuels.
“Jamar, in my opinion, has done nothing wrong,” Martin said. “But the school has to protect its integrity. I wasn’t part of the decision.”
NCAA student-athletes are not allowed to accept money or gifts from anyone who is not considered a friend or family member. Malone told CBSSports.com after the game he didn’t think he was violating NCAA rules by sending money because of their long-standing relationship.
“If I knew it and wanted to hide it, I would have done it differently,” Malone said. “The kid’s family doesn’t have anything and he called me for money to eat.
“The kid didn’t do anything wrong. To be honest, I didn’t think I did anything wrong, either. If a kid who plays for me needs money to eat, I’m going to help them.”
Malone, who has had other former DC Assault players at K-State — Rodney McGruder, Michael Beasley, Wally Judge and Dominique Sutton — did not immediately return calls and text messages.
Samuels, 6 feet 7, averaged 10 points and 6.6 rebounds. He had struggled at times in the NCAA Tournament, including a one-point game against Southern Mississippi on Thursday, but he could have been valuable against Syracuse.
Freshman Thomas Gipson started in his place and had eight points and eight rebounds, but Samuels’ size and experience could have made a difference.
“He’s a leader,” K-State guard Angel Rodriguez said. “He has experience. He has been here before. That would have helped us. He probably would have been more effective in the middle of their zone making shots.”
K-State players were disappointed by the loss, but seemed more upset about Samuels missing the game. Sophomore guard Will Spradling hugged Samuels on the sideline after fouling out and didn’t want to let go.
“It’s just sad he wasn’t able to play his last game in this jersey,” Spradling said.
Martin had the difficult task of telling Samuels he wouldn’t play after Currie made the decision to withhold him. Reliving the conversation brought Martin to tears.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder of a kid, because of the way he has grown and matured,” Martin said, his voice cracking. “The job he did for this team this year. As crazy as he drove me for five years, it’s frustrating that I don’t get to coach him anymore.”