2014 Mountain West Tournament Preview: San Diego State, New Mexico clear favorites in Las Vegas

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After enjoying a very good season in which five teams reached the NCAA tournament, the Mountain West took a step back in 2013-14. Only two teams enter this week as locks to reach the field of 68, with regular season champion San Diego State and runner-up New Mexico being those squads. The Aztecs and Lobos have been the conference’s best all season long, with Steve Fisher’s team also picking up wins over Creighton and Kansas in non-conference play. With high-level stars and role players who understand what’s required of them, these are the two favorites in Las Vegas.

However there are teams capable of springing an upset along the way. Three-seed Nevada is led by explosive senior guard Deonte Burton, and the midseason addition of forward A.J. West made the Wolf Pack more formidable that some expected back in October. UNLV may get to play this event on its home floor but while talented the Runnin’ Rebels are no guarantee to take advantage of the familiar surroundings.

The plight of UNLV and six-seed Boise State is part of the appeal of conference tournaments, with teams who’ve failed to meet preseason expectations having one last chance to “catch lightning in a bottle” and make good on the early hype. Wyoming, Colorado State, Fresno State, Utah State and Air Force all have the ability to at the very least scare someone (if not win), and San Jose State is more than likely 40 minutes away from the end of a tough debut season in the conference.

There may not be the same number of tournament locks as there have been in prior editions of this event, but the combination of fan support (New Mexico and SDSU travel very well to this event), talented players and Las Vegas should make for an interesting Mountain West tournament.

The Bracket

When: March 12-15

Where: Las Vegas, Nev. (Thomas & Mack Center)

Final: March 15, 6:00 p.m. (CBS)

Favorite: San Diego State

The Aztecs aren’t a great offensive team by most measurements, as they ranked last in the Mountain West in both three-point and free throw percentage during conference play. But this is a group that knows where its bread is buttered on that end of the floor. Good luck keeping SDSU out of the lane because they simply refuse to settle for too many perimeter shots, instead using dribble penetration (Thames, J.J. O’Brien and Winston Shepard II lead the way here) to get into the lane. And when shots are missed, SDSU is capable of making teams play via the second shot as they led the Mountain West in offensive rebounding percentage.

As for the defense, San Diego State’s length is one reason why this group led the conference in efficiency (94.5), turnover percentage (20.6%) and three-point percentage defense (30.6%). They challenge shots and get out in passing lanes, with the latter spurring fast break opportunities for some very good athletes capable of finishing above the rim. And an important developments of late has been the improved play of their role players, with Dwayne Polee II, Aqeel Quinn and Matt Shrigley all earning more minutes. The offense won’t set the world ablaze, but San Diego State’s good enough defensively to more than make up for that.

And if they lose? New Mexico

Led by the experienced triumvirate of Bairstow (20.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg), Williams (16.4, 5.0 apg) and Kirk (13.7, 8.7 rpg), UNM was the Mountain West’s most efficient offense in conference play. They take good care of the basketball, and with Bairstow and Kirk getting most of the shots inside the Lobos made 52.5% of their two-pointers in league play. And it also helps to have role players who understand what’s needed from them, with Hugh Greenwood doing what ever needs to be done on the floor and Deshawn Delaney, Cleveland “Pancake” Thomas and Cullen Neal also being valuable contributors. The combination of experience and skill makes this group 1A to SDSU’s 1 in regards to who the favorites are this week.

Other Contenders:

  • UNLV: There’s no denying that Dave Rice’s team has plenty of individual talent, with Birch winning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year for the second consecutive season and Smith being one of the league’s best rebounders. But the lack of a steady hand at the point has been one reason for UNLV’s maddening inconsistency, and there are times where the basketball IQ displayed leaves viewers scratching their heads. That talent is tough to overlook, and if the proverbial light bulb turns on (and just as importantly, stays on) the Runnin’ Rebels may have a run left in them.
  • Nevada: Simply put, Deonte Burton is one of the most electrifying players in college basketball. Period. Averaging 20.0 points and 4.5 assists per game, Burton’s led the way for a team that has four players averaging double digits. Fellow guards Jerry Evans Jr. and Michael Perez can also score, with forward Cole Huff averaging 12.3 points per game. If Nevada can hold its own on the glass, they’re capable of making a run.

Sleeper: Fresno State

Rodney Terry’s Bulldogs have won eight of their last ten games, and with Tyler Johnson and Marvelle Harris leading the way for a team with multiple scoring options the Bulldogs are a team to watch in Vegas. If this group, which also includes Mountain West Freshman of the Year Paul Watson and entertaining guard Cezar Guerrero, defends they can pull off a stunner.

Deeper Sleeper: Boise State

The problem for the Broncos is a simple one: they arrive in Vegas having lost three of their last four games, the most recent being a two-point loss at Air Force on Saturday. Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks are the leading offensive options, and forward Ryan Watkins has been one of the league’s best big men. They’ll beat San Jose State, which would set up a winnable quarterfinal meeting with Nevada.

Studs you haven’t heard about:

  • Tyler Johnson, Fresno State: Averaging 16.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, Johnson leads the Bulldogs in both scoring and rebounding.
  • Tre’ Coggins, Air Force: After averaging 2.4 points per game as a freshman, Coggins is up to 15.9 points per game as a sophomore.
  • Daniel Bejarano, Colorado State: The league’s best sixth man a season ago, Bejarano’s averaging 16.7 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game.

CBT Prediction: Look for New Mexico to handle San Diego State’s 1-3-1 zone better than they did at Viejas Arena on Saturday night, winning what should be a classic title game.

Best Mountain West Tournament Memory: Nick Jacobson wins the 2004 title for Utah (apologies for the quality of the video)

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.