2014-15 Season Preview: 20 Impact Freshmen

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Justin Jackson (left) and Jahlil Okafor (right) at the McDonald’s All-American Game

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Freshmen are a major part of the college basketball landscape. While basketball fans have become enamored with talk of “one-and-done” freshmen that pepper the top of the recruiting rankings, there will be difference-making freshmen at every level of college basketball this season.

So this isn’t your typical impact freshman list.

This one has been broken into four tiers: The headliners, the impact All-Americans, the  other high-major players to watch and mid-major players to watch. Only one player per team was eligible.

THE HEADLINERS

Jahlil Okafor, Duke – Not only is the 6-foot-11 Okafor the consensus No. 1 player in the country, but he’s also the biggest impact freshman of this college basketball season. The arrival of Okafor allows Duke to put Amile Jefferson to the four at his more natural position and it gives Coach K a natural post scorer to draw double teams and kick it out to Duke’s many perimeter threats. Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen could all show flashes this season, but Okafor doesn’t have anyone else like him on the Duke roster.

Stanley Johnson, Arizona – If Okafor isn’t the premier college freshman in the country than Stanley Johnson is. The powerful 6-foot-7 wing combines tremendous perimeter skill and a power drive game that is very tough to stop. Johnson already owns the body of a pro and people in Tuscan are excited for his arrival because he might be a better fit for the Wildcats current lineup than last year’s impact freshman, Aaron Gordon

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Karl-Anthony Towns (Getty Images)

Karl Towns Jr., Kentucky – Kentucky and head coach John Calipari bring in another class filled with McDonald’s All-Americans and the 7-foot-1 Towns might be the most talented player in the Wildcats’ roster. Towns showed flashes of brilliance during the team’s Bahamas trip this summer and gives Kentucky a skilled post player on the offensive end. Among Kentucky’s loaded front court, Towns could separate himself from the pack if he can defend and rebound his area with consistency because returnees Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson aren’t as talented on offense.

Cliff Alexander, Kansas – Kansas has a few potential impact guys in Kelly Oubre and point guard Devonte Graham in this class, but Alexander’s athleticism and raw power at 6-foot-8 means he could overpower college players this season. With Perry Ellis playing more of a finesse game on the interior, Alexander’s power game gives Bill Self some nice balance in the front court and Alexander is also a premier rebounder in this incoming group of freshmen.

Myles Turner, Texas – Rick Barnes returns Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes on the interior but Turner is more naturally talented as a shot blocker and perimeter shooter. Playing Turner alongside Ridley or Holmes — or in a jumbo line-up that features all three — could be a major problem in the Big 12 this season.

MORE: Best non-conference games | NBCSports.com’s Preseason Top 25 Countdown

THE ALL-AMERICANS

Rashad Vaughn, UNLV – The 6-foot-5 Vaughn might be the most physically ready guard in the freshman class and that strength allows the Minnesota native to make an impact on both ends of the floor. Vaughn and Emmanuel Mudiay waged war on each other in McDonald’s All-American practices this spring and Vaughn enjoys playing in the spotlight.

Justin Jackson, North Carolina – North Carolina is bringing in quite a bit of firepower in the 2014 class, but 6-foot-8, rail-thin wing Justin Jackson has a very developed mid-range game and he can also operate as a ball handler in pick-and-roll situations. Jackson might be slender, but he can score in bunches all over the floor.

Melo Trimble, Maryland – The 6-foot-2 Trimble is Maryland’s first McDonald’s All-American since Mike Jones in 2003 and he gives Mark Turgeon a scoring guard that can also handle the ball. Trimble has a developed pull-up jumper and will be counted on to produce immediately after the Terps lost five transfers this offseason.

Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall – Kevin Willard did everything he could to get Whitehead to come to Seton Hall and he’ll give the ball to his new McDonald’s All-American from the opening game. Whitehead can score a lot of points in a hurry and can also handle the ball a bit in spot situations. The Pirates are going to count on Whitehead to make a major impact this season.

James Blackmon, Jr., Indiana – Indiana was able to reel Blackmon Jr. back in after the in-state guard briefly de-committed and now he’ll be asked to score points alongside starting point guard Yogi Farrell. Blackmon Jr. can catch fire from the perimeter and he’s a fearless scorer attacking the basket.

MORE: Top 25 Potential Breakout StarsCoaches on the Hot Seat 

HIGH-MAJOR PLAYERS TO WATCH

Daniel Hamilton, UConn – The younger brother of former Texas star Jordan Hamilton and guard Isaac Hamilton (UCLA), Daniel joins the Huskies as a 6-foot-7 scorer with a knack for hitting big shots. Expect Hamilton to get immediate minutes — and shots — from the wing.

Tra Holder, Arizona State – Herb Sendek re-loaded the roster with experienced junior college players but he’ll likely replace Jahii Carson with Holder as the Sun Devils’ starting point guard because he’s the most talented lead guard on the roster.

Kaleb Joseph, Syracuse – The No. 46 player in Rivals’ 2014 class, the 6-foot-2 Joseph should step in and be the starting point guard for Syracuse this season, the fourth starting point guard the program has had in as many seasons.

Vic Law, Northwestern – Chris Collins brought in a talented recruiting class and Chicago-native Law is a centerpiece of those efforts. The 6-foot-7 wing can rebound very well for his position and gives Northwestern an athletic on the wing that the program hasn’t seen in quite some time.

Jordan McLaughlin, USC – Andy Enfield needs a legitimate floor general to run his uptempo system and local point guard McLaughlin should provide a major boost for the Trojans. The 6-foot McLaughlin can hit shots and is a very good athlete.

RELATED: NBCSports.com’s Mid-Major Power Rankings | Mid-Major All-Americans

MID-MAJOR PLAYERS TO WATCH

Josh Cunningham, Bradley – After winning two Illinois Class 3A state titles at Morgan Park High School, the athletic 6-foot-7 Cunningham chose Bradley after programs like DePaul and Indiana offered scholarships and showed significant interest during his senior season. Rivals rated him as the No. 88 overall player in the 2014 class.

Omega Harris, UTEP – The Miners lost freshmen Chris Sandifer and Shaq Carr before the season because they didn’t qualify but the 6-foot-2 Harris can really score and should give Tim Floyd’s ballclub a boost on the perimeter.

William Lee, UAB – The Gatorade Alabama Player of the Year is a 6-foot-8, bouncy forward who should make an immediate contribution in the front court thanks to his athleticism and motor.

Wyatt Lohaus, Northern Iowa – The son of former NBA veteran Brad Lohaus, the younger Lohaus is a skilled 6-foot-2 guard with one of the best mid-range games in the class. He should contribute immediately for Ben Jacobsen.

C.J. Turman, Florida Atlantic – Turman was committed to Tennessee until Cuonzo Martin left and re-opened his recruitment before deciding on the Owls. New head coach Michael Curry will be thrilled to have a 6-foot-9 forward that had plenty of high-major interest.

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.