VCU can be really good when Brad Burgess plays like a leader

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WASHINGTON – VCU is no longer a secret.

Like it or not, this team is going to have a target on their back all season long. Every stop they make on the road, the Rams are going to attract a larger media horde. And after every game, they are going to be asked questions about last season’s run to the Final Four and how it affected some random aspect of that evening’s game.

“Everyone wants to talk about last year,” VCU coach Shaka Smart said after the Rams beat George Washington 75-60 in the opener of the BB&T Classic. “We get lots of questions from the media, even now on Dec. 4th, about last year. We’re going to be polite, we’re going to answer questions, but at the same time in our mind, last year’s over. And its not going to win us any games this year.”

VCU learned that the hard way early in the season, as they last to both Seton Hall and Georgia Tech by double figures while struggling to beat Western Kentucky and St. Francis (PA).

But the last four games have been a different story. VCU smacked WKU — in one of the stranger scheduling quirks of the year, VCU played WKU in the 7th place game at the Charleston Classic three days before they played them in Bowling Green — and gave Alabama everything they could handle before winning the last two games by an average of 19 points.

The difference is easy to spot.

In the Rams’ first four games, senior forward Brad Burgess averaged 10.0 ppg while shooting 25.6 percent (10-39) from the field and 29.4 percent (5-17) from beyond the arc. In the last four, he’s looked like the guy that many, including myself, thought had the ability to be the CAA’s Player of the Year. Burgess has averaged 18.3 ppg over that stretch, hitting 45.1 percent (23-51) from the floor and 43.3 percent (13-30) from deep.

And against GW, Burgess had easily his best game of the season. He finished with 24 points and five boards, knocking down 8-15 from the floor and 4-8 from three while also tallying two steals, a block and not a single turnover. Burgess was hot early, helping VCU build a lead that grew to 13 in the first half, and hit a number of big jumpers down the stretch when GW made their run.

“The difference was Brad. He played like a senior, he played like a leader. He allowed us to keep the lead at the end,” Smart said. “It was great to see Brad start to hit shots. We want him shooting the ball a lot. I think our guys are learning more and more to look for him.”

What makes Burgess so dangerous in the VCU offense is that he has the skills of a guard, but the size, strength and toughness to hold his own in the paint. That allows Smart to use Burgess at the power forward spot, where his perimeter skills and shooting ability creates mismatches on the offensive end of the floor. The Rams are an uptempo team that love to press defensively and spread the court offensively, looking to create space to penetrate and open looks from beyond the arc, a system that fits Burgess’ skill-set perfectly.

“Honestly, I consider him a guard, but he is 6-6 and he’s big and strong so it allows us to play him at the four spot and it allows us to create mismatches for the other team,” Smart said. “Hopefully, its not too big of a mismatch for us at the other end. It allows us to have another ball-handler out there, a really good shooter. On some of our ball-screen stuff, it allows us to throw it back to him and he gets wide open shots.”

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VCU’s struggles in their first four games caused some people to write this group off. That’s what happens when you lose four starters — including stars Joey Rodriguez and Jamie Skeen — from a team that finished fourth in the Colonial during the regular season. Instead of playing a role this season, Burgess is being asked to be the star, to be the face of the program. The Rams need him to be the guy that is not only going to be counted on to hit the big shot but to be the guy that picks up one of his young teammates when they are having an off-night.

Smart is counting on Burgess to not only be the leading scorer and the star, but to be this team’s inspirational leader.

“Brad has always been someone that leads by example,” Smart said, “but he’s learned this year that he’s someone we need to step up and talk more. And he’s done that. Games like today, he’s really been our vocal leader. We wouldn’t have won the game without him.”

VCU is a very young team. Burgess is the only senior on the roster. Only two juniors — Troy Daniels and Darius Theus — are in the rotation. Everyone else is either a freshmen or a sophomore. There’s certainly quite a bit of talent on the rest of the roster — sophomores Rob Brandenburg, Juvonte Reddic and DJ Haley all look like they have a chance to become all-CAA players down the road, while freshmen Reco McCarter and Teddy Okereafor were good enough to earn a handful of high-major offers — but its raw talent.

That group of youngsters has been forced to learn on the fly, and they’ve done a pretty good job. The Rams handled South Florida and GW easily and nearly beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa. That counts for something, but these kids still have plenty of room to grow, and its not just developing their basketball skills.

“Just confidence, every body playing with confidence,” Burgess said when asked about where his team needs to grow. “We’re a young team, sometimes if things don’t go well, we drop our games and get down on ourselves. We’re a good team, so when things don’t go well, you have to battle through and move on to the next play. You have to make sure that at the next opportunity, you make the play.”

Smart, on the other hand, is looking for more consistent effort, saying “When we are the aggressor, we’re pretty good. We have to be the tougher, scrappier team.”

The CAA is wide open this season, as league favorites — Drexel and George Mason — struggle and CAA stalwarts — Old Dominion, Hofstra and even VCU — are all in rebuilding years. There’s no reason that the Rams can’t grow into a team capable of winning the Colonial come February and March.

But they will only go as far as Burgess leads them.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

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

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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

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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.