What’s plaguing Memphis?

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The final buzzer sounded at just past 9 p.m. ET as No. 15 Georgetown put the finishing touches on a 70-59 victory over Memphis at the Verizon center, wrapping up what was a crisp, two-hour basketball game.

It wasn’t until 10:45 pm, however, that Memphis head coach Josh Pastner finally emerged from his team’s locker room in the bowels of the Verizon Center. For the second time in the span of 10 days, the Tigers had a team meeting in an effort to cure what ails them, this one lasting just 15 minutes less than the game itself.

“We just had a team meeting and needed to air a few things out,” Memphis head coach Josh Pastner said after the game. “It was the right thing before we got to Christmas break. It was a good open discussion. I love those guys, no one in there is happy to be 6-5. Have we played a tough schedule? Darn right. But we’re too good to be sitting at 6-5.”

He’s right.

The Tigers are as talented as any team in the country. On paper, they are a top ten team. But there is a reason this group is sitting just a game over .500 heading into the Christmas break, the second straight season they have have stumbled out of the starting blocks.

And only one possession is needed to give you an idea of why.

With just under six minutes left in the second half of No. 15 Georgetown’s 70-59 win over Memphis, Joe Jackson missed an open three that could have cut what was once a 20 point lead to eight. He missed it, but Will Barton grabbed the offensive rebound. Barton’s follow-up attempt was blocked by Henry Sims, and the ball ended up on the floor. Three different Memphis players had a chance to pick up the loose ball, but it was Jason Clark that eventually dove on the floor and called a timeout, giving possession back to the Hoyas.

In the grand scheme of things, that single possession really didn’t mean all that much. The Tigers were still able to cut the Georgetown lead to as close as seven and they had numerous other possessions during a late-second half rally that could be pinpointed as critical failures in their comeback.

But that possession epitomizes what is currently plaguing the Tigers. The failure to execute and the inability to hit open shots is obvious. More importantly, however, the Tiger’s have a chronically inconsistent effort level, and that is why Memphis finds themselves in the position that they are in.

“You’re losing and there was bad energy,” Pastner said. “That’s been an achilles heel for us, we haven’t been able to sustain a 40 minute game of energy.”

“We can’t have energy for 18 minutes, its gotta be for 40. Basketball is a game of energy and if you don’t have the energy its hard to win at a high level.”

Its gotten to the point that the question has to be asked: will this team respond to Josh Pastner? Is he the kind of coach that is capable of lighting a fire under this group? Is he the guy that will convince them that, unless they are playing for 40 minutes the way they played in the final ten, they will continue to lose games?

Because at this point there can be no more team meetings.

“A lot was aired out, which I think was very good,” Pastner said. “But in the end I said ‘Guys, we can’t have this. We can’t have anymore meetings.’ We’ve gotta do our jobs and get the job done.”

Its time to put up or shut up. Either the kids that step foot on the basketball court in a Memphis jersey every night are going to decide that they are sick of losing and sick of being embarrassed by falling to teams they can — and should — beat, or they are going to continue to disappoint and underperform. Its up to the players to decide whether or not they make this loss and the resulting team meeting the turning point of their season.

“We just got to go out there and play for each other. That’s when we’re going to be a great team,” Will Barton said after the game. “Teams aren’t better than us talent wise, but talent can only take you so far. We gotta really play for each other and want each other to succeed. That’s when we are going to take off. You can’t have those bad vibes out there.”

And that’s where the frustration lies for Pastner.

In the end, there is only so much that he is going to be able to do. He’s can’t go out there and make the plays. He can’t be the one that boxes out on the defensive end of the floor or pulls the ball out and runs their half court offense when a transition opportunity isn’t there. When it is all said and done, all that Pastner is able to do is to prepare his team as well as possible and hope that they take what he says in practice, during film sessions and in huddles on the bench during games and turn it into victories.

And right now, that isn’t happening.

It doesn’t help matters that the Tigers have virtually zero veteran leadership on their roster. Charles Carmouche hasn’t played since the team got back from Maui. Wesley Witherspoon has become a shell of himself, going scoreless in three of the past five games and managing to see the floor for a whopping eight minutes in the last two. DJ Stephens has been sidelined with a bum knee and Stan Simpson has proven nothing except the fact that he is not ready to compete at this level of basketball. What that means is that Ferrakhon Hall, a junior that played just his third game with the Tigers after transferring in from Seton Hall midway through last season, is the only upperclassman that sees any kind of significant playing time right now.

With that much youth playing that many minutes, ups-and-downs are going to be inevitable. The problem is that the downs last far too long, that no one involved with this team seems to be able or willing to rip into this team when they need a fire lit under them. Its no secret that Pastner is one of the nicest coaches around. He doesn’t drink or curse and he’s young enough that he could easily be mistaken for a player if he showed up for a game in a jersey instead of a suit.

That’s just who he is, his defenders will tell you.

Honestly, I have no problem with that. To tell you the truth, its actually refreshing to see a coach at a big-time program that has values beyond winning at all costs. But you better believe the media in Memphis is sharpening their knives. He’ll only get a pass for so long before people start calling for his job, and in Memphis, when the media starts calling for your job, you’re in trouble. They ran off the football coach. The athletic director got it too.

And if things don’t start heading in the opposite direction soon for Memphis — like, for example, if the Tigers lose to Tennessee next month after losing out of top ten recruit Jarnell Stokes on Thursday night — the columnists are going to start coming after him.

If who he is is a coach that doesn’t win games at Memphis, he won’t be long for that job.

So what needs to change?

For starters, Pastner needs to find a way to start being the bad guy, and the easiest way to motivate a basketball player is by sitting him down. If a player isn’t performing the way he is expected to, than he can grab a seat on the pine. He’s already started that process with Witherspoon, who has become a complete non-factor and a sulking presence on the bench.

Next up is Tarik Black. Frankly, it is unacceptable for the starting center of any team to go an entire game without grabbing a rebound, and that is precisely what Black did on Thursday night against Georgetown. He fouled out after just 13 minutes of play, including a whopping three minutes and three fouls in the second half. Hall, in his absence, wasn’t exactly the second-coming of Dennis Rodman, collecting just two rebounds in his 22 minutes, but he brought an energy and a toughness to the interior that we haven’t seen out of Black all year long.

“I thought Ferrakhon gave great effort. He was battling and competing,” Pastner said.

Black wasn’t, and he hasn’t all season. Hall was, so next Thursday when Robert Morris comes to town, put him in the starting lineup.

“That’s what my niche is with this team,” Hall said. “That’s what I can do to help the team. I’m not a guy that’s going to come out and score 30 points. I just go out and I put my heart into it and I know that’s how I can affect the game.”

Jackson should be third on Pastner’s list. This was easily the talented point guard’s toughest outing of the season, as he finished 0-7 from the floor with four turnovers while sitting the final three minutes of the game, but it certainly wasn’t the first time he’s struggled this year. The issue with Jackson is that Pastner doesn’t seem to quite understand how to use him. He’s a scoring guard, but he’s very generously listed a 6’1″ (more like 5’10”) and needs to have the ball in his hands.

The bigger problem? Jackson doesn’t take failure well. When he misses a couple of shots in a row, it throws him off for the rest of the game, and not just offensively. It affects his defensive effort and his decision-making process with the ball in his hands. Jackson starts to think instead of react, and that, frankly, is the worst thing that can happen to a player as talented as him.

Memphis was at their best on Thursday when both Black and Jackson were strapped to the bench. The Tigers made their run in the second half when Pastner had both Bartons, Hall, Chris Crawford and Adonis Thomas on the court together. That team scrapped. They hustled. They turned defense into offense. They played with pride, and that’s something that we haven’t seen enough of this season from the Tigers.

“We’re playing good teams every night,” Barton said. “You just cant have nights that you take off. Thats a big past of it. We have some metal lapses. We’re just trying to get a feel for each other and get to know each other.”

“Every game, I’m not going to be able to just dominate the game. Its strategy. Teams aren’t going to let me kill them all the time. When I have my supporting cast helping me and they’re doing they thing, that’s just going to make the game easier for me. They focus on them and I can go right back to dominating the game. I need that from them on a more regular basis.”

The answer? Play the group that provides that help “on a more regular basis”. Play them together. As much as possible. Put that five on the floor to start. And maybe, when the rest of the Tigers start to see their minutes get cut, they’ll buy in.

Pastner’s right when he says that changes need to be made, that the Tigers are past the point of having team meetings.

But he needs to be the guy that creates the spark that leads to that change. He needs to get his team’s attention.

If they aren’t going to play his way, they aren’t going to play.

You’d be surprised how good of a motivator the bench can be.

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.