Buzzer-beaters, beatdowns — Big Dance’s second weekend had it all

0 Comments

As much as I love the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, I think that the second weekend — the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 rounds — are actually my favorite part of the dance.

The chaos, coast-to-coast madness, and desire to be able to watch and listed to all four games at once makes that first weekend wild and fun and entertaining, but the second weekend is when every game becomes a heavy weight battle. It only helps when the results are as memorable as they were this past weekend.

Six No. 1 and No. 2 seeds went down over the past four days. A No. 11 seed made the Final Four. A No. 8 seed out of the Horizon League made its second consecutive Final Four. Two of college basketball’s elite advanced to the Final Four despite what most assumed to be a down year.

There were buzzer beaters and there were beatdowns, all exciting and shocking and memorable in their own right. Here’s my attempt at recapping that madness:

Game of the Weekend: Butler 74, Florida 71 OT

This game was Butler basketball at its finest. The Bulldogs were outplayed fairly thoroughly in the first half, but thanks to some tough defense and timely shot-making, Butler was able to cut the deficit to 33-32 at the half. In the second half, Florida continued their terrific play, pounding the ball inside and flustering the Bulldogs with a zone that they switched to man with less than 10 seconds left on the shot clock.

But with the score 51-42 midway through the half, Brad Stevens put in Chrishawn Hopkins, a seldom-used freshman point guard that had played well in practice, and Hopkins delivered. On the first possession he was in the game, he threw a gorgeous, no-look pass for a layup. 30 seconds later, he drilled a three that cut the lead to four. He didn’t do much the rest of the game, but those five points were enough to tip the momentum into Butler’s favor. The game would eventually end up in overtime, where we had one of the most exciting four possessions of the tournament. Butler had opened up a 67-64 lead with Erving Walker found Kenny Boynton for a three with just over two minutes left. After Ronald Nored gave Butler the lead back with two free throws, Walker drilled a three to give the Gators the lead. But at the other end, Shelvin Mack — who had 27 points in the game — answered with a three of his own, and Florida was never able to get the lead back. Walker and Boynton both misfired on threes in the final minute.

Studs of the Weekend: VCU Rams

What the Rams did this weekend cannot be understated. Hell, what they have done in this tournament deserves massive amounts of credit. On Friday, VCU took on a Florida State team that was a terrible matchup for them. They were obliterated in the paint, to the tune of 21 offensive boards and 20 second chance points, but still managed to hit enough from beyond the arc to take the game to overtime. With 7.9 seconds left, Joey Rodriguez found Bradford Burgess for a layup to give the Rams the win.

On Sunday, however, is when the Rams made history. VCU played a nearly perfect game, knocking Kansas off-balance early, to beat Kansas and advance to the Final Four. VCU tied a season high (that they set in the tournament) with 12 threes, got 26 points and 10 boards from Jamie Skeen, and saw Rodriguez make three huge plays down the stretch as they beat the tournament’s most talented remaining team to advance to the Final Four. It was a perfect storm of opportunity and execution.

They showed out too:

  • Kentucky Wildcats: Believe it or not, the Wildcats were a bit of a cinderella story in this tournament. Not in the way that Butler and VCU are, but because this team was not supposed to be Final Four good this year, especially with Enes Kanter sitting out. But Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins stepped up to play their best basketball of the season while Coach Cal’s trio of talented freshmen combined to hit some timely shots as the Wildcats played their way to the Final Four.
  • Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb, UConn: Kemba was just as good as he has been all season long. He had 36 points in the Sweet 16 win over San Diego State and followed that up with 20 points and seven assists in the win over Arizona. But UConn woudl not be where they are right now without Jeremy Lamb. The freshman averaged 23.0 ppg in the two games, but it was his play down the stretch in both that made the difference.
  • Derrick Williams, Arizona: Despite losing in the West Regional Final, Williams may have been the most impressive player of the tournament. He had 25 first half points against Duke, finishing with 32 and 13 boards, as the Wildcats knocked off No. 1 seed Duke. Against UConn, he got into foul trouble early, but his strong second half gave Arizona a chance to win. Unfortunately, his decision to hoist a couple of threes late in the UConn loss will be what he is remembered for in this tournament.
  • Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard, Butler: Howard was the hero against Wisconsin, scoring 20 points and grabbing 12 boards while shutting down Jon Leuer as the Bulldogs dominated the Badgers. Against Florida, it was Mack’s 27 points that carried Butler to the overtime win.

Dud of the Weekend: Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar, Kansas

Its tough to place the blame for a loss on any one player, especially when a team combines to go 2-22 from three and 15-28 from the free throw line. But its also difficult to ignore just how poorly Reed and Morningstar played in the loss to VCU. The two senior started combined for just 11 points in the loss to the Rams, shooting a combined 2-16 from the floor and 1-10 from three. There were multiple other factors in the loss, but that shooting performance — many of those misses came late in the game as Kansas was trying to make a comeback — may as well have been the nail in the coffin.

They didn’t show up:

  • Nolan Smith, Duke: You can blame it on team chemistry if you want, but there is no denying that Smith struggled mightily in Duke’s Sweet 16 loss to Arizona. He finished just 3-14 from the floor for eight points while turning the ball over six times.
  • Chandler Parsons, Florida: In the Gator’s overtime loss to Butler, Parsons disappeared. He finished with just five points on 2-9 shooting with just two assists and not a single free throw. He didn’t score in the final 34 minutes of the game.
  • Derwin Kitchen, Florida State: I really don’t want to pile on the kid, but his late game blunders probably cost Florida State a trip to the Elite 8. He dribbled out the clock with a chance to win the game in regulation and overtime, and as also the guy that got beat by Brad Burgess for the game-winning layup.
  • Marquette Golden Eagles: Known for being a scrappy team that is never out of a game, the Golden Eagles picked the absolute worst time to have their worst performance of the season. Against North Carolina in the Sweet 16, Marquette allowed the Tar Heels to go on a 38-5 run that turned a 10-8 lead with just under 12 minutes left in the first half to a 46-15 deficit a minute into the second half.
  • Jon Leuer, Wisconsin: Leuer was downright awful in Wisconsin’s 61-54 loss to Butler. He finished the game shooting 1-12 from the floor and was a non-factor on either end of the floor.

Biggest Shot: Brandon Knight vs. Ohio State

After Jon Diebler hit a three with 20 seconds left in the game to tie it at 60, Brandon Knight hit a ridiculously tough pull-up over Aaron Craft, who had held him to just seven points on 2-9 shooting prior, for his second game-winner of the tournament.

Biggest Shot Part Deux: Bradford Burgess vs. Florida State

With VCU down 71-70 in overtime and just 7.9 second left on the clock, Burgess managed to lose Derwin Kitchen on an out-of-bounds play under the basket.

Biggest Shot Redux:

  • DeAndre Liggins, Kentucky: UNC had just made a run to cut what was once an 11 point lead down to a single point. With the shot clock winding down, Liggins got a pass in the corner and knocked down arguably the biggest shot of his career, a three to give Kentucky a three point lead less than 30 seconds left in the game.
  • Jeremy Lamb, UConn: Lamb hit a shot that was almost exactly the same in nature. SDSU had just gone on an 8-0 run to cut the UConn lead to 65-64 when Lamb knocked down a three with less than a minute to go. On the ensuing possession, he stole a pass and finished with a dunk at the other end that all but sealed UConn’s win.

Safe Travels: Jimmer Fredette, BYU

On Thursday night, Florida knocked off the Cougars in overtime, ending the career of one of the most entertaining players in the recent history of college basketball. And as only The Jimmer can do, he went out with a 32 point performance which drew criticism from the experts.

That criticism was probably fair. Fredette was just 11-29 from the floor and 3-15 from beyond the arc, missing a number of shots that he has hit all season long. But that one poor performance should not sully the reputation of the guy that became college basketball’s hero this season. Jimmer lit up scoreboards all season long. He hit jumpers from 30 feet on a consistent basis. He scored 29 points a night and carried a BYU team that was thoroughly mediocre without him all the way to the Sweet 16.

Fredette was going to lose at some point. He simply did not have the supporting cast to make a run at a national title. The shame is that immediately after his career ended, the talk started about what kind of pro he would become. The kid was a hero this season. Before we go discussing what he’ll be at the next level, let’s all sit back and remember just how good he was at this level.

Jimmer, it was a pleasure, my friend. You will be missed.

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

ncaa
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
2 Comments

The days of postseason bans and crippling scholarship reductions to punish schools for breaking NCAA rules appear to be winding down.

Memphis was placed on three years of probation earlier this week with a public reprimand and fined for NCAA violations related to the recruitment and short college career of James Wiseman, who is about to start his third season with the Golden State Warriors. The NCAA also wrapped up an investigation of Air Force football for breaking the COVID-19 recruiting quiet period.

No postseason bans or scholarship reductions in either case. The Independent Accountability Review Panel, the NCAA’s outside arm of enforcement, said in its decision in the Memphis case that it did not want to punish current athletes.

That sentiment is widespread in college athletics these days, even with millions of dollars suddenly flowing to athletes from various sources for their celebrity endorsements amid concerns over improper inducements. In fact, it is on the way to being codified: Last month, the Division I Board of Directors adopted three proposals to change the infractions process.

The board also committed to “identifying appropriate types of penalties and modifying current penalty ranges, including identifying potential alternative penalties to postseason bans.”

Trying to predict what those alternatives will be is difficult, but if the goal is to avoid harming athletes and others who were not involved in the violations the options are limited.

“I emphatically believe it’s the wrong direction to go,” said Nebraska law professor Jo Potuto, who spent nine years on the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“If you’re going to deter, the punishment has to fit the offense, right?” Potuto added. “You’re not going to deter serious violations with penalties that are not perceived to be really serious.”

Since January 2020, there have been at least 45 major infractions cases decided by the NCAA. Of those, at least 15 involved Level I allegations, the most serious and those carrying the most severe penalties; six cases resulted in some kind of postseason ban, with four of them self-imposed.

The Memphis case went through the IARP, which was created in response to the FBI’s investigation of college basketball corruption but is now being discontinued. Sunsetting the IARP was among several recommendations put forth by the NCAA’s Division I Transformation Committee earlier this year and recently adopted by the board.

As college sports moves toward less centralized governance by the NCAA and deregulation in general, the hope is to create a more streamlined enforcement process.

If justice is swift, the thinking goes, it is more likely to be applied fairly.

“The reality is the current system is broken,” said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, a member of the transformation committee. “I think everyone in the association, in the enterprise, understands it. When (an investigation) takes the amount of time that it does now and you start to penalize young men and women that were high school, if not middle school-age (when the violation occurred), it’s not an effective process.”

The IARP is still handling cases stemming from the FBI probe involving Louisville, Arizona, Kansas and LSU. Those have been in the NCAA enforcement pipeline for years. A related case against Oklahoma State did not go through IARP and the Cowboys did end up with a postseason ban.

David Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and former compliance director for several schools, said even though the IARP failed, NCAA enforcement would be best handled by an independent organization.

“No system is perfect, but if you’re going to have an enforcement system at the end of the day you need to provide basic due-process protections and then you have to be able to consistently punish people,” he said.

In the Memphis case, Wiseman received $11,500 from Hardaway in 2017 while Hardaway was coach at a local high school. Hardaway was hired as Memphis’ coach in March 2018, and Wiseman committed to the Tigers in November 2018.

The NCAA accused Memphis of four Level I and two Level II violations, including lack of institutional control, head coach responsibility and failure to monitor. In the past, those types of allegations could strike fear into athletic directors but probation and fines seem much more likely to be the outcome now instead of the sweeping scholarship sanctions, vacated victories and postseason ban that Southern California received in 2010 for the Reggie Bush improper benefits case. Those penalties set USC football back years.

In the end, the IARP essentially reduced the charges against Memphis and cleared Hardaway of wrongdoing.

While the NCAA is losing sway in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling, with more power being shifted to its member conferences, it also remains clear the schools still want the association to handle enforcement.

But what exactly is being enforced?

Athletes can now be paid for endorsement and sponsorship deals and college sports is still waiting on and hoping for help from federal lawmakers to regulate name, image and likeness compensation.

Plus, as revenue skyrockets for schools at the top of major college sports, the NCAA is trending toward fewer restrictions on what financial benefits can be provided to athletes.

“Until we have clarity and certainty on what schools and boosters and athletes can and can’t do, I think many recognize that it’s dangerous to hand down significant punishments when it’s not clear what you can and can’t do,” said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane. “And I think unless you have clear rules, it’s hard to harsh punishment.”

Still, punishments directed at schools (fines) and coaches (suspensions) could become steeper and longer, Feldman said.

Potuto said with so much money flowing into the top of college athletics, it is doubtful fines could be large enough to be a true deterrent. While she understands the desire to not have current athletes pay for the sins of previous regimes, loosened transfer rules could mitigate the potential harm.

“I will make one prediction: If there is a move to impose penalties much less frequently in five years there is going to be a move to put them back in,” Potuto said.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK
0 Comments

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times/USA TODAY NETWORK
0 Comments

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

Joe Rondone/USA TODAY NETWORK
2 Comments

SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

uconn
Michael Hickey/Getty Images
0 Comments

STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.