Four teams, four Cinderella stories

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I don’t think it would be fair to call the 2011 NCAA tournament the greatest tournament of all-time. At least not yet.

The first half of the first day was outstanding. There were a couple of classics during the tournament’s round of 32. The Sweet 16 featured plenty of intrigue, and the Elite 8 was as good as any Elite 8 since 2005.

But does that make the best NCAA tournament of all-time?

Who knows. That answer is far too subjective — and far too reliant on where you happened to attend undergrad — to have a definitive answer. It also depends on your definition of great. There are plenty of fans out there that think that the 2008 Final Four, in which all four No. 1 seeds advanced for the first time, was the greatest Final Four of all time. There is an equally large faction that considers this year’s Final Four, in which we don’t have a No. 1 or No. 2 seed for the first time ever and have the highest total seeds in tournament history, to be the greatest ever.

Arguing greatness is, in the end, pointless. Everyone has a different definition and a precious few will be convinced to change their opinion.

But the one thing we can agree on is that this NCAA tournament may be the most unexpected and unconventional. I’d go as far as to say that each of the four teams in this NCAA tournament can be considered a cinderella of sorts.

None of the four teams headed to Houston were supposed to here.

East region champ: No. 4 Kentucky

This wasn’t supposed to be the year that Kentucky made the Final Four.

This was supposed to be their in-between season, with a loaded recruiting class coming to campus next year.

Kentucky sent five players to the first round of the NBA draft in 2010. Everyone knew John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins were going to be gone after one season. Big Blue Nation probably got two extra years out of Patrick Patterson, who could have been a lottery pick as a freshman. But two of those first rounders, Eric Bledsoe and Daniel Orton, were surprise departures. Combine those losses with the decision by the NCAA to render Enes Kanter permanently ineligible, and this Kentucky team was left with just a six-man rotation.

Three of those players were highly touted freshmen. The other three? DeAndre Liggins, Darius Miller and Josh Harrellson. Liggins and Miller were top-50 recruits who had underperformed in their two seasons in Lexington. Harrellson was a JuCo transfer known more for being a fan favorite and the team’s resident jokester than an interior force.

And although Big Blue Nation probably would disagree with me, the Wildcats probably deserved their four seed. This is a group that underperformed throughout the regular season, struggling away from Rupp Arena and finishing at 10-6 in a weak SEC.

But something happened in March.

Something clicked.

Harrellson has become a monster in the paint, using every bit of skill in his 6-foot-11, 250-pound frame to become a blue-collar workhorse. Liggins has developed into a defensive stopper that, at 6-6, is to the Wildcats what Chris Kramer was to Purdue and David Lighty was to Ohio State. Miller has become a knock-down shooter with a knack for making a big play.

It feels weird touting Kentucky as an underdog, but that is what they were just three weeks ago. The NCAA tournament is all about matchups and who gels at the right time.

And this Kentucky team has gelled. The Wildcats are playing their best basketball of the season, they are getting significant contributions from everyone on the floor, and they are in the Final Four after beating both Ohio State and North Carolina despite not having gotten anything close to their best player’s (Terrence Jones) best basketball.

West region champ: No. 3 UConn

Back in May, when UConn received their Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, I questioned whether it would be the death penalty for UConn basketball.

And although it looks quite silly now, based on what has happened in the last 10 months — well, the last month — knowing what I know now, my opinion would not have changed.

That should tell you just how impressive this run has been for the Huskies.

UConn was picked 10th in the Big East in the preseason, and rightfully so. NCAA sanctions hung over the Huskies, with a head coach who appeared to be one step from a convalescent home, and with a young and unproven roster surrounding a 6-foot-nothing point guard who still had a ways to go before his skill set caught up with his tools.

After a terrific non-conference portion of the schedule, which included a Maui Invitational title and a win at Texas, the Huskies came back to earth in Big East play. They went 4-9 against the 11 Big East teams that made the NCAA tournament, lost four of their last five games in the regular season, and finished ninth in the Big East and playing on the Big East tournament’s first day.

That’s when this magical run started.

UConn won five games in five days in New York City, winning the tournament title and earning that three seed. And after winning four games over the past two weekends, the Huskies are headed to Houston for their second Final Four in three seasons.

Southeast region champ: No. 8 Butler

It might be unfair to call a team making its second straight Final Four a Cinderella, but everything about this Butler team screams Cinderella.

The Bulldogs finished in a three-way tie for first place in the Horizon League at 13-5. To do so, they had to bounce back from a stretch of four losses in five games, capped when Butler fell to Youngstown State, a Horizon bottom-feeder.

Butler came into the NCAA tournament on a roll, winning its last nine games (two of which came in the Horizon tournament), earning an eight seed and a date with Old Dominion in the first round. That roll didn’t slow in the dance, as the Bulldogs won four more games to get to the Final Four.

Those wins, mind you, weren’t blowouts.

Like any Cinderella, Butler has had to scrap and claw to get where it is, taking advantage of some lucky bounces along the way. In the Bulldogs’ first-round game, Matt Howard happened to have a loose ball land in his hands before scoring the buzzer-beating layup in the first-round win over Old Dominion. The Bulldogs nearly blew a second-round game against Pitt on a silly foul by Shelvin Mack, but thanks to a missed free throw from Gilbert Brown and an even sillier foul by Nasir Robinson, Butler once again advanced.

The Bulldogs managed to avoid blowing a 20-point lead to Wisconsin before taking on Florida in the Elite 8. More magic was in store against the Gators. Seldom-used freshman Chrishawn Hopkins made two plays in the second half to help erase an 11-point deficit and swing the tide of momentum in the Bulldogs’ favor before some questionable late-game shot selection from Florida put Butler in another Final Four.

In some ways, Butler’s run to the Final Four this season is much more of a Cinderella story than last year’s. The Bulldogs had some expectation last season. They were a preseason pick to make the Final Four. They struggled through non-conference play, which put a damper on their seeding and their status nationally, but that was still a team with a lottery pick that defended as well as anyone in the country.

This year? They have no such lottery pick, and probably don’t have an NBA player on the roster. They don’t play an elite level of defense. Yet, here they are.

Back in the Final Four.

Southwest region champ: No. 11 VCU

The Rams might be the biggest Cinderella of all time.

Very few people thought the Rams had a shot at making the NCAA tournament on Selection Sunday. Not after they lost their last four games in Colonial play. Shaka Smart was so convinced that his team wasn’t going to get a bid that he didn’t even get them together for the selection show. Brad Burgess went to Five Guys. Ed Nixon watched cartoons. Brandon Rozell did his homework. Joey Rodriguez was the only player who watched.

And he was rewarded.

VCU got in, just barely. It had to take part in the first ever at-large play-in game. The Rams locked up USC defensively, advancing to face Georgetown in the round of 64. They ran the Hoyas and then Purdue off the court with a barrage of three-pointers, following that up with a nail-biting, overtime win against Florida State.

Up next was powerhouse Kansas, who was staggered by a series of haymakers thrown by the suddenly confident Rams early in the game. VCU answered a 6-0 start by the Jayhawks with a 19-4 run that was pushed to a 39-15 surge. Kansas was never able to take the lead back, and VCU was headed to the Final Four.

What makes the Rams’ run so incredible is that they are playing, without a doubt, their best basketball of the season.

The Rams are undersized, but they are loaded with shooters and difficult matchups for teams with more traditional lineups. They also like to press and get their opponents out of an offensive rhythm. And that is precisely what they have done in their first five games of this tournament. For a team that barely cracked the top third in defensive efficiency in the regular season, they have been one of the best defensive teams in this tournament. Even their shooting from beyond the arc is at a level that the Rams have not experienced this season. VCU never hit more than 11 threes in a game in the regular season. They have made 12 in a game three times in five NCAA tournament games.

VCU has already set a record of sorts.

After Saturday’s national semifinal against Butler, VCU will become the first team to ever play in six NCAA tournament games without having played in the national championship game.

It doesn’t get more Cinderella than that.

Even this season.

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

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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

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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

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


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

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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.