Recruiting rundown: San Diego St. adds to stockpile; Nerlens Noel, Shabazz Muhammad set visits

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There’s little doubt that the San Diego State men’s basketball program is running on all gears right now. They’ve been extremely successful in what was expected to be a down season, and have talent waiting in the wings for next year in the form of two high-major transfer forwards in J.J. O’Brien (Utah) and Dwayne Polee (St. John’s). The Aztecs have also struck gold on the recruiting trail, as they now have their third, and best, pledge for the 2012 class in 6-8 forward Winston Shepard of Findlay Prep (Nev.).

Shepard was previously one of only a handful of top-100 players left still on the table, and has steadily been working his way up the player rankings charts with his play for the national No. 2 ranked high school basketball team, Findlay Prep. He’s a Texas native who was well-known for his defensive prowess, slashing offensive game and overall energy as a sidekick to Shabazz Muhammad on the AAU circuit, playing for the loaded Dream Vision team that also featured players bound to Boston College, Colorado, Kansas State and UNLV. Among that cast of stars, Shepard stood out at times with his long frame and game-changing potential.

The skill and talent levels aren’t entirely comparable, but the fairest comparison to Shepard’s overall game in the college ranks could Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky’s touted freshman forward. Shepard, like Kidd-Gilchrist, lacks a reliable outside shot, but brings tremendous intangibles, and plays to win at all times. Both show defensive prowess that isn’t seen in every elite prospect.

Shepard’s recruitment looked in the summer like it would come down to current Mountain West rivals San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico, but as of late, St. John’s, Connecticut and Oklahoma State were among the schools that jumped in the picture with scholarship offers. Still, San Diego State did a tremendous job in Shepard’s recruitment, and won out over some bigger “name” schools.

While Shepard is clearly a gem, the Aztecs previously signed two other excellent prospects from Southern California. Local wing forward Matt Shrigley should be a multi-year starter with his combination of bounce and skill, and many recruiting analysts are scratching their heads regarding the lack of Pac-12 offers to 6-9 center Skylar Spencer, who is expected to be a major factor down the road at San Diego State. Additionally, the Aztecs landed an under-the-radar transfer from Virginia, forward James Johnson, who could benefit with a year to develop following his change of colleges.

While the Big West isn’t the most lauded college basketball conference, there’s sure to be many schools taking their aim at San Diego State when the Aztecs become basketball members. With the talent that coach Steve Fisher and his staff have amassed, though, it’s easy to image a basketball dynasty in the making near the shores of the Pacific Ocean on San Diego State’s sunny campus, especially if they continue their recent recruiting successes.

Heads of the class take trips

The top dogs in the 2012 class, 6-6 wing Shabazz Muhammad of Bishop Gorman (Nev), and 6-10 Nerlens Noel of Tilton School (N.H.) are fitting in travel to their prospective college campuses, as their high school seasons wind down. Muhammad is expected to be at Kansas, as the Jayhawks prepare for what should be an epic tilt with Missouri this weekend, while Noel made his way to Syracuse and Kentucky in recent weeks.

Muhammad, the top prospect in the 2012 class until Noel recently reclassified, has taken official trips to Texas A&M and Kentucky, and is also expected to trek to Duke to be on scene for their tilt against North Carolina. Additionally, Muhammad is still considering, to various degrees UCLA, UNLV, USC and Arizona. He may not officially visit the schools nearest his Sin City home, as prospects are only allowed five official visits. He has been on those campuses, on unofficial visits.

Noel is not yet allowed, per NCAA regulations, to take any official visits, as his paperwork is not complete to be technically a member of the 2012 class, just yet. As a result, he is making unofficial trips on his own dime while he conducts his abbreviated recruitment. It’s no surprise that the Orange and Wildcats made up his first two visits, as those schools are expected to be the major players to land his unique, shot-blocking talent.

Still, Florida, North Carolina, Georgetown, Providence, UConn and others are attempting to make up lost ground for Noel, and work their way towards wresting him away from two elite programs in Syracuse and Kentucky.

The 2012 class is largely off the board, which puts the spotlight even brighter on Muhammad and Noel. Whichever school lands either prospect has an immediate starter for at least a year, and Kentucky fans have to be salivating as they remain on both lists. Along with 6-7 strong man forward Anthony Bennett of Findlay Prep (Nev.), only three legitimate impact players are left in the 2012 class, which makes their priority obvious for the schools in hot pursuit.

St. Mary’s recruit Cullen Neal spurns father’s school
Anyone who saw the New Mexico-based Danny Granger Hurricanes club basketball team over the summer saw two star players with deep ties to the New Mexico basketball program. Two standout 2013 guards, Bryce Alford and Cullen Neal, are the sons of Lobos coaches Steve Alford and Craig Neal. While Alford may still elect to play college at New Mexico, Neal committed last week to St. Mary’s. The move didn’t come as a shock though, as Neal was expected to blaze his own trail for college.

While he was recruited and offered scholarships to the Pac-12 level, Neal is an absolute steal and could star at St. Mary’s. He’s a rare recruit who will end up at a great fit, rather than the most prestigious sound opportunity.

Landing recruits like Neal is part of the reason for coach Randy Bennett and the Gaels continued success. At 6-3, the Eldorado (N.M.) star can play either guard slot, and sets up to be a scoring point guard in the WCC. While he won’t continue to average the 27 points per game he currently is against New Mexico high school competition, Neal could be an early and valued contributor at St. Mary’s.

Kellon Hassenstab runs Hoopniks.com. Follow him on Twitter @hoopniks.

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.