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Kansas AD confident in hoops program dogged by issues

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LAWRENCE, Kan. — Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger understands people may have questions about the many legal issues surrounding the Jayhawks’ storied basketball program, an avalanche of off-the-court news that in recent weeks has cast a shadow over Allen Fieldhouse.

He also hopes people understand many of them cannot be discussed publicly.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press, Zenger maintained his confidence in Kansas coach Bill Self’s handling of the program and insisted the athletic department has “a very healthy” relationship with the university and local law enforcement.

“There are many legal and ethical reasons I can’t discuss anything that’s ongoing, primarily any investigations,” Zenger said. “All I can tell you is this university and this athletic department will forever be committed to its core values, and its priorities of all students, staff and guests.”

Still, the past few weeks have been dominated by headlines the Jayhawks could do without.

It began with news that police are investigating a reported rape at McCarthy Hall, the $12 million dormitory that houses the men’s basketball team and other students. No suspects have been identified in connection with the incident the night of Dec. 17. Five members of the team are listed as witnesses.

During the investigation, police uncovered two glass smoking devices with residue inside. Sophomore forward Carlton Bragg Jr. was charged with misdemeanor possession in that case and promptly suspended, a punishment that was lifted this week when he was granted diversion. Bragg was also arrested in December following an altercation with a woman, but a charge of domestic violence was dropped when video evidence suggested he was acting in self-defense.

More bad news hit last week when The Kansas City Star reported sophomore guard Lagerald Vick may have struck a female student two years ago. The school’s Office of Institutional Opportunity and Access investigated the case and recommended he receive school probation.

Meanwhile, star freshman Josh Jackson and Vick have been linked to a vandalism investigation stemming from an incident in December, when a vehicle sustained nearly $3,000 in damage outside a Lawrence bar.

Those are damaging cases individually. Taken collectively, the reports have overshadowed just about everything the third-ranked Jayhawks have accomplished on the court, from their win over Kentucky at Rupp Arena to their defeat of then-No. 2 Baylor to their season sweep of rival Kansas State. The team’s pursuit of an unfathomable 13th Big 12 Conference title is alive and well.

“I can’t really speak to why or how that’s happened,” Zenger said of the cases stacking up. “All I can tell you is we have to stay focused on being true to our values.”

Yet the legal issues have put Self in a delicate situation.

On the one hand, he has to maintain order within a program that some critics argue already has gone rogue, where athletes who generate millions of dollars for the school often appear coddled or favored. On the other hand, his players deserve to be treated like anybody else accused of a crime or misconduct, and that means allowing any investigations to run their course.

“We don’t have anything to do with how the police does their job, nor would we interfere,” Self said. “I would tell you this, Carlton Bragg or your son or your daughter or anybody else who is a student here should be treated the exact same. I’m not running from that at all.”

Zenger said he speaks frequently with donors, many of whom have contributed millions to the program and sit courtside at Allen Fieldhouse, and nobody has expressed concern about the legal problems.

“I think our fans and donors, they’ve been around a long time,” he said. “They’ve followed this program a long time. They have a lot of faith in the university, in Coach Self and in doing things the right way. I believe everyone is being patient and thoughtful.”

Zenger also has no issue with Self operating as a de-facto school spokesman.

After all, the coach is the highest-paid employee of the university, along with the most visible. And it’s a burden the even-keeled Self has assumed before, whether during controversies that brought down football coach Mark Mangino or a messy ticket scandal that surfaced several years ago.

“We’re focused on basketball. That’s our job,” point guard Frank Mason III explained. “We don’t focus on anything outside of that, besides school. Just let coach deal with all of that. We’re just here to play ball.”

There is hope around Lawrence that the cases will be resolved in the coming weeks, before the Jayhawks head to Kansas City for the Big 12 Tournament. And certainly before they are thrust onto the national stage of the NCAA Tournament, chasing their sixth national title and first since 2008.

But that remains out of Zenger’s hands, he insisted. All he can do is keep preaching patience.

“We just have to weather the time period when there may be incomplete or inaccurate public conversations,” he said, “We do that as you ought to in this country, to protect all the individuals, all the people, everyone involved in any investigations, or more broadly the investigative process.”

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.