Pac-12 Conference Catchup: Will the league earn six NCAA bids again?

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After some lean years the Pac-12 took some positive steps forward in 2013-14, with regular season champion Arizona leading the charge. Sean Miller’s Wildcats reached the Elite Eight despite losing starting forward Brandon Ashley in early February to a broken bone in his foot, with Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky essentially being the difference between a painful conclusion to the season and a trip to the Final Four.

And while the Wildcats will have to account for the early departures of Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson and forward Aaron Gordon, with the latter being a likely lottery selection in next month’s NBA Draft, the program has reached the point where it simply reloads on the recruiting trail.

RELATED: Read through all of our Conference Catchups here

Arizona returns the rest of their rotation, including point guard T.J. McConnell and Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski in the front court, and they add one of the nation’s best recruiting classes. Stanley Johnson is the obvious headliner, but keep an eye on junior college transfer Kadeem Allen as well. With the combination of returnees, newcomers and coaching staff Arizona will once again be the favorite to win the Pac-12. As for the rest of the conference, the view isn’t as clear thanks to a combination of departures and an off-court scandal at Oregon that led to the dismissal of three players.

UCLA, winners of the conference tournament, lost three perimeter players from last season’s Sweet 16 team (Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and Zach LaVine) and with the Wear twins gone as well the Bruins will be young in the front court. But they will be talented, with Kevon Looney and Thomas Welsh being McDonald’s All-Americans, and Isaac Hamilton will help Norman Powell on the perimeter. Joining UCLA in the race to challenge Arizona are programs such as Stanford, Utah and Colorado with the Cardinal coming off of a Sweet 16 appearance.

As for Oregon the return of Joseph Young and the arrival of JaQuan Lyle will help Dana Altman, but you have to wonder how much of an impact this tumultuous spring will have on the program moving forward. Six Pac-12 teams reached the NCAA tournament last season, and the Pac-12 may very well match that number in 2014-15 with Arizona leading the way.

THREE UP

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Utah: When the Utes first joined the Pac-12 they didn’t have the look of a program capable of competing with the league’s best programs. That isn’t the case now thanks to the hard work Larry Krystkowiak had his staff have put in. Jordan Loveridge and Delon Wright are expected to once again lead the way for Utah, which also adds a solid recruiting class that includes forwards Kyle Kuzma (he practiced during the spring semester) and Brekott Chapman. The question for the Utes is how they’ll deal with the expectations, given the fact that they haven’t been in this position as a member of the Pac-12.

Stanford: Last fall the general consensus was that Johnny Dawkins needed to lead the Cardinal to the NCAA tournament in order to remain in Palo Alto. That happened, and after wins over New Mexico and Kansas the question for 2014-15 is what can Stanford do for an encore. Losing Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell in the front court is a big deal, but with Chasson Randle and Anthony Brown leading the way the Cardinal should be an NCAA tournament team again. Stanford brings in one of the conference’s best recruiting classes, led by Reid Travis, and Rosco Allen’s healthy after playing in just one game due to injury. Contender? That’s likely.

USC: Andy Enfield’s first season at USC didn’t go smoothly, with the Trojans winning just two conference games and finishing last in the Pac-12. But what the Trojans have done on the recruiting trail can’t be ignored, with guards Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart being two of the talented newcomers. USC also adds two transfers in guard Katin Reinhardt (UNLV) and Darion Clark (Charlotte), and the return of rising sophomores Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic will help as well. The Trojans are unlikely to be an NCAA tournament team given their youth, but the talent level has improved. Conference foes better get their licks in now, because it won’t be so easy in the years to come.

THREE DOWN

Oregon: The Ducks incurred some important personnel losses at the end of the 2013-14 season, with Mike Moser and Jason Calliste both out of eligibility. But there was also the dismissal of Dominic Artis, Damyean Dotson and Brandon Austin, and while there may be some debate with regards to the impact on the court this was a bad way to go into the offseason. The Ducks return high-scoring guard Joseph Young and forward Elgin Cook, but a lot will be asked of their newcomers. JaQuan Lyle and Casey Benson will help on the perimeter, but the interior depth could be a concern. Ray Kasongo will be a key figure in this area. Oregon will still have a shot at reaching the NCAA tournament, but there look to be more questions than answers at this time.

Arizona State: The Sun Devils took the step forward they were expected to in 2013-14, reaching the NCAA tournament with Jahii Carson, Jordan Bachynski and Jermaine Marshall leading the way. Now Herb Sendek’s program will look to build on that, but with one big problem: all three of those players are gone. Contributors Jonathan Gilling and Shaquielle McKissic return, but a lot will be asked of a seven-member recruiting class that boasts four junior college transfers. The most important of those transfers may be point guard Gerry Blakes given the fact that Carson played 35.4 minutes per game in 2013-14.

UCLA: This has more to do with the production UCLA lost than the players they still have, because the Bruins will be good once again. Four of UCLA’s five newcomers (counting Isaac Hamilton) are front court players, and they’ll add depth to an area that at present time has just Tony Parker and Wanaah Bail. Parker’s shown flashes of the skill that made him one of the best players in the 2012 class; the key heading into his junior season is consistency. Hamilton, Bryce Alford and Norman Powell will have to lead the way on the perimeter, and their productivity will be key. UCLA will be in the mix of contenders, but will they be Arizona’s biggest threat? That isn’t as clear-cut as it was in 2013-14.

FIVE NEW FACES

Stanley Johnson, Arizona: Of the five players Arizona’s added to the program (not counting Boston College transfer Ryan Anderson) it’s Johnson who’s expected to have the biggest impact. He’s a physical wing who can score from anywhere on the floor, and the Mater Dei product will likely slide into the hole left by the departure of Nick Johnson. Stanley’s a tenacious competitor as well, so he’ll be a valuable asset to Sean Miller’s program. If Johnson produces at the level he’s capable of, he can help Arizona at the very least reach the Final Four.

Kevon Looney, UCLA: UCLA’s adding some very good front court players (Thomas Welsh and Jonah Bolden both being four-star prospects) but Looney’s the best of the bunch. The Milwaukee native averaged 27.9 points, 12.7 rebounds and 8.0 blocks per game at Hamilton HS, and he’ll have every opportunity to earn a starring role in the paint for UCLA. The good news for Steve Alford and his staff: Looney’s talented enough to do so, and better yet he brings the consistent effort that’s expected of an elite prospect.

JaQuan Lyle, Oregon: Lyle’s recruitment was an interesting one, with his at one point in time being a verbal commitment to attend Louisville. His final choice of Oregon is a big deal for the Ducks, who lost both Johnathan Loyd and Jason Calliste from their backcourt, not to mention Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis. Joseph Young’s going to need help, and the talented Lyle is capable of providing that assistance. Lyle played at Huntington Prep last year, and his size (6-foot-5) makes for a tough matchup for many opponents.

Cuonzo Martin, California: Martin’s one of three new head coaches in the Pac-12, with Ernie Kent (Washington State) and Wayne Tinkle (Oregon State) being the others. And of the three Martin’s the one with the roster best equipped to make a run at finishing in the top half of the Pac-12 in 2014-15. Jabari Bird, David Kravish, Jordan Mathews and Tyrone Wallace all return for Cal, who will have to account for the losses of point guard Justin Cobbs and center Richard Solomon. And Martin made a big addition to his coaching staff, hiring Yanni Hufnagel as one of his assistants and that will help with the program’s recruiting efforts.

Jernard Jarreau, Washington: Jarreau’s obviously played in the Pac-12, as he saw action in 31 games in 2012-13. But thanks to a torn ACL the New Orleans native played in just one game last season, and his absence was a big deal for a team that lacked front court depth. Jarreau’s return will be big for the Huskies, especially when taking into consideration the graduation of both guard C.J. Wilcox and forward Perris Blackwell. Fresno State transfer Robert Upshaw will be key as well, but Jarreau was a player expected to be a quality member of the rotation before getting hurt.

Way Too Early Power Rankings

1. Arizona
2. Stanford
3. UCLA
4. Utah
5. Colorado
6. Oregon
7. California
8. Arizona State
9. Washington
10. USC
11. Washington State
12. Oregon State

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.