Belmont’s struggling, but it can win a tourney game

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NASHVILLE, Tenn – Belmont’s chances of getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament died a long time ago. If it wasn’t when the Bruins came up short in their upset bids at Duke and at Memphis, then it was when they had a stretch of three losses in four games against the likes of Marshall, Miami OH and Middle Tennessee State.

When you play in a conference like the Atlantic Sun, you can’t lose three games to teams that have no shot of getting an at-large bid and still expect the committee to call your name come Selection Sunday without your league’s auto-bid. You just can’t.

But that doesn’t mean that the Bruins are incapable of winning a game in the NCAA Tournament. It doesn’t mean that they have no shot of making it to the second weekend, something that a lot of folks had speculated was possible back in October. And while losing to Lipscomb at the Curb Center after blowing a 12 point lead in the final 12 minutes is going to sting, it certainly doesn’t alter the talent level on this team.

As the saying goes, in a rivalry game, you can throw the records out.

“I felt that the team that wanted to win, and played the hardest, won the game tonight,” Belmont head coach Rick Byrd said after the game. “Their kids deserve a great deal of credit. They made hustle plays. They got loose balls, offensive rebounds, and long rebounds. I told our team that the team that plays hard, the breaks seem to fall their way.”

“This was an upset, based on where the teams were at the time, and how they’ve played to this point, but they outplayed us and deserved to win.”

Frankly, Byrd is probably right when he calls this game an upset.

Coming in, Lipscomb was 6-9 on the season and 2-2 in conference play. They had lost five of their last six games, including a 21 point drubbing at North Florida on Wednesday, and while this was technically a road game for the Bison, it was the first time they had played a game in Nashville in exactly one month to the day.

It was also the best game that Lipscomb has played all season long. The Bison put six players in double figures, led by 17 points from Jacob Arnett, 16 points from Jordan Burgason and the best all-around performance of Justin Glenn’s career — 14 points on 5-6 shooting, 10 boards, six assists, five blocks and four steals.

It was Arnett and freshman Deonte Alexander who sparked a 28-6 Lipscomb run to close the game. Alexander, in particular, had a big finish to the game, scoring eight points in a four minute span that included a banked-in 28 footer that gave Lipscomb their first lead of the second half with 3:53 left in the game.

“He told me he called it,” Lipscomb coach Scott Sanderson said after the game, which Alexander, who gave the rowdy Belmont student section the double three-goggles as he hopped back down court, immediately confirmed: “I did.”

As well as Lipscomb played, this was a bit of a fluky loss for the Bruins. Outside of Ian Clark — who was simply outstanding, finishing with 28 points (including seven threes), six boards and five assists — no one on Belmont played well. Their front line of Scott Saunders and Mick Hedgepeth got out-muscled by the burly Justin Glenn, finishing with a combined 11 points and nine points. They came in averaging 19.3 ppg and 12.0 rpg combined.

“They were collapsing on them as soon as they caught it, so we had to hope to get some in and out scoring,” Byrd said. “When we’ve got Mick out there, his man would double, and we didn’t take advantage of that with him cutting to the basket like we could have.”

And while I’m sure Glenn would love for me to give all of the credit for those struggles to his play defensively, the fact of the matter is that Lipscomb’s game-plan had just as much to do with that performance as anything. Every single time that Hedgepeth and Saunders touched the ball on the block, they got double-teamed. Neither of them would get put in the same sentence as, say, Chris Webber for their ability to find open teammates out of the post, but both Hedgepeth and Saunders are certainly capable of recognizing and finding the open man.

They did a solid job of that on Friday night as well.

The problem?

No one on Belmont’s perimeter was able to finish the open opportunities they got as a result of that ball-movement. JJ Mann was 4-14 from the floor and 2-11 from three. Kerron Johnson, who is one of the more exciting point guards in the country to watch, was 4-15 from the floor and 0-5 from three. In fact, if you take away the 8-15 that Clark shot and the 7-11 that he made from beyond the arc, the Bruins made just 6-25 from deep and shot a frigid 35.3% from the floor.

For Johnson, the struggles were more than just his ability to shoot the ball. Byrd gives him a long leash when it comes to attacking the basket, and deservedly so. Johnson is quick as lightening, left-handed and capable of finishing over bigger defenders in the paint. That’s a good combination for a point guard to be. But on Friday, he overpenetrated, he threw the ball away and he missed far too many open looks from the perimeter. More importantly, he played poorly defensively. After Alexander banked in the three to take the lead, Johnson missed shots on the next two possessions while getting beat on the same play — a UCLA cut for a layup — twice.

You simply are not going to see Johnson play that way too often.

And you are not going to see Belmont get the kind of performance they got out of Hedgepeth, Saunders, Johnson and Mann too often.

But there was more to this loss than simply an off-night. In fact, there are a couple of issues with this Belmont team that seem to be chronically plaguing them this year.

The biggest issue may actually be the loss of Jon House. House wasn’t a big scorer (just 5.3 ppg in 19.0 mpg), but he was Belmont’s glue-guy. He was the guy that guarded their best wing player and the guy that dove on the floor and got that key loose ball and the guy that set a screen to free a shooter. He did the things that don’t show up in the box score that help a team win, and Belmont hasn’t found someone to effectively fill that role yet.

The other issue is that sophomore JJ Mann hasn’t been able to fill Jordan Campbell’s shoes. Campbell shot 46.8% from three as a senior. He didn’t miss. Neither does Clark, and when you have Johnson penetrating with two shooters on the wings that defenders absolutely cannot leave, well, that’s a good thing. Mann has improved on the 32.7% he shot as a freshman, but he’s far too streaky with his jump shot. When he gets it going, he can make four or five in a row. But when he’s off, you see games like Friday. And he’s had too many games like Friday of late.

The Bruins have not been playing the same level of defense that they did last season, either. Their pressure forced a ton of turnovers that led to easy layups and open threes last season, and Belmont isn’t getting those same opportunities this season.

Belmont still has the pieces to win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. They have a front line that is big enough to hang with a high-major team. They have a talented, play-making point guard and a big-time scorer on the wing. They have depth. They are very well-coached and, for the most part, they usually understand how to run their offense and execute defensively.

But they simply cannot have the defensive lapses and lose their composure they way they did on Friday.

Because every loss right now affects where Belmont will be seeded should they win the Atlantic Sun’s automatic bid.

Belmont as a 12 seed will be a trendy pick to pull off an upset.

Belmont as a 15 seed is simply first round chum for a UConn or a Baylor.

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.