Manhattan’s returnees look to build on the achievements of last season’s senior class

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Manhattan’s Steve Masiello (AP Photo)

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.

When it comes to sports, for as much as we like the spontaneity of the events, many are also fans of the storyline. And when it comes to the NCAA tournament, one of the usual storylines is that of the smaller school that takes advantage of its opportunity on the big stage. Whether its an upset victory or a valiant fight to the bitter end, that program becomes (for the time being) a fan favorite and the head coach, if young enough, is labeled the next “rising star” in the business.

In making their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2004, the Manhattan Jaspers looked to fit the bill, playing an uptempo, attractive brand of basketball led by a passionate coach in Steve Masiello, who both played for and coached under Rick Pitino. Led by seniors Rhamel Brown, George Beamon and Michael Alvarado the Jaspers gave Louisville a run for its money before falling short, and shortly thereafter Masiello came to an agreement to take over as the head coach at South Florida.

The familiar storyline seemed to fit Manhattan … until it didn’t.

A background check revealed that Masiello hadn’t completed his bachelor’s at Kentucky, resulting in USF pulling its offer off the table and many wondering how Manhattan would handle the situation. The school gave Masiello the opportunity to take care of the situation, reinstating him once that was accomplished. But what about the players? To say that the situation was a roller coaster for them would be an understatement, as they went from having a coach to seeing him prepare to move on, only to have him return amidst controversy.

They simply made the best of the situation, applying some of the lessons learned during a three-year process in which Manhattan went from winning six games in the season prior to Masiello’s arrival to reaching the NCAA tournament in March.

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“In every situation I think you have to find the positive and learn from things, good, bad or indifferent,” Masiello told NBCSports.com earlier this month. “The one thing that really hits home is that I deal with 18, 19, 20 and 21-year old men every day, and something I did at that age could have cost me my career. I’m thankful that it didn’t. So I’m constantly preaching to my players that the decisions they make today can affect them at 35, 40, 45 (years of age). It’s a great lesson of accountability in that everything we do there are consequences.

“We’ve really put a microscope on it from a preaching standpoint,” Masiello continued. “What we want our culture to be, how we hold ourselves accountable, how we view ourselves and putting ourselves in the best position to be successful at all times. I think it was a great lesson to learn from my mistake, and make yourself better because of it.”

What also helped the players was the fact that they had veteran leaders capable of shepherding them through that period, and that includes the three seniors (Alvarado, Beamon and Brown) who exhausted their college eligibility in March. At a point in time when most seniors would be focused solely on what their next step would be, whether it’s moving into the work force or playing professionally, those three helped the remaining Jaspers stay on task with the goal being to make sure that the work put forth to rebuild the program didn’t go to waste.

“I give a lot of credit to the seniors, who helped me a lot both on and off the court,” senior forward Emmy Andujar told NBCSports.com. “Especially with the leadership role that I’ll have to take on this year.”

And while the losses of Alvarado, Beamon and Brown are big, Manhattan returns multiple contributors from last year’s rotation. From a leadership standpoint one player in particular, senior guard RaShawn Stores, is expected to be the “influencer.” Stores is the classic case of a player who’s overlooked by the uninitiated, with the focus on statistics resulting in some not understanding his impact on the team. As a junior Stores accounted for 4.9 points and 1.9 assists per game, but it’s the intangibles he brought to the locker room that were so valuable to the Manhattan program. And that isn’t expected to change at all, with his head coach noting that the team will go as far as Stores can lead them.

“As much credit as I want to give those three seniors, and they deserve it all, we had a lot of guys who were big pieces of the puzzle. We bring a lot back,” Masiello noted. “As for RaShawn, I’ve said for the last two years that we go as he goes. When he’s in a good place and feels good about himself, this team is a different team. RaShawn Stores has a greater impact on this team than I do, and I’ve said that for years because he’s such a great leader and guys follow him.

“I can be in a great place, but if RaShawn’s not I know the team’s going to struggle. It’s my job to make sure RaShawn Stores is in a good place because of the impact he has on this program.”

Players such as Andujar, Shane Richards and Ashton Pankey will be asked to take on greater responsibility on both ends of the floor in light of Manhattan’s personnel losses as well. Richards was one of the best freshmen in the MAAC in 2012-13, and he followed up that debut season with a solid sophomore campaign. Richards led the Jaspers in made three-pointers (77), scoring 8.3 points per game while shooting 41.4 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from beyond the arc. The goal for Richards heading into his junior season is easy to see when looking at his numbers from a season ago, but it’s a goal that can be tough to reach for a player who was most productive as a jump shooter.

Richards will need to expand his offensive game in order to help Manhattan account  for the perimeter scoring provided by Alvarado and Beamon, and that’s something he’s worked to do this offseason. Of Richards’ 203 field goal attempts in 2013-14 183 were three-pointers, and he made just 35 percent of his attempts inside of the arc (7-for-20). Similar splits aren’t expected from Richards this season, and his progression will be something to keep an eye on as Manhattan works to navigate a difficult non-conference schedule.

source: AP
Emmy Andujar and Shane Richards will be key players for Manhattan. (AP Photo)

“You’ll probably see the biggest jump in Shane Richards,” Masiello said. “He’s by far the most improved player (on our team); I love Shane, but I don’t recognize him now. His mind is in a great place, he’s really confident and he’s put in a lot of work on his game. He’s doing a lot more things that he hasn’t done before on the basketball court; he’s become more than just a spot-up shooter.”

As for Andujar, his versatility is one trait that should serve the Jaspers well in 2014-15. The senior has been a steady player throughout his time at Manhattan, averaging 8.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists per contest last season. Shooting just over 53 percent from the field, Andujar also ranked second on the team in assists, and his passing ability from the forward spot can help Manhattan attack opposing defenses from multiple areas of the floor. But after starting just five games a season ago, Andujar’s had to prepare for a greater role in advance of his final campaign.

“Being more vocal on the court and getting quicker,” Andujar noted when asked what he worked to improve upon this offseason, and he also made note of his need to be a little more aggressive offensively. That plays into his coach’s desire to see a more consistent Andujar in 2014-15, as noticeable stretches of single-digit scoring nights were occasionally broken up by a double-figure night (he scored 28 in a home win over rival Iona in February).

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Andujar’s one of three players expected to lead the way in the front court for Manhattan, with Pankey and Cincinnati transfer Jermaine Lawrence being the others. Pankey was solid in his first season after transferring in from Maryland, averaging 7.1 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. Yet while he’ll be asked to step forward from a productivity standpoint, and the same can be said for Lawrence, they can’t get into the mindset of having to play the way Rhamel Brown did. Brown averaged 10.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game as a senior, winning MAAC Defensive Player of the Year honors in each of his last three seasons. He brought a different set of skills to the table than either Pankey or Lawrence.

And in the eyes of Masiello, while new players will look to earn the minutes left open by Brown’s departure there’s no replacing a player of his caliber.

“I don’t think you’re going to be able to account for Rhamel Brown,” Masiello stated. “He was one of the best big men in college basketball bar none, and I don’t think anyone realized how good he was. He was extremely underrated. That being said, what Ashton and Jermaine bring I don’t know if Rhamel could’ve brought so we’ll be different in that sense. Doesn’t mean we’ll be better or worse, I think you’ll see a different team.

“Jermaine and AP can affect the game in a lot of ways, and that’s what I really like about this team. This team will be different than teams I’ve had here in the past, but I think this team has a ceiling higher than any team I’ve had here.”

The scenario in front of Pankey and Lawrence is, in a sense, similar to what the entire program faces as it approaches the start of the 2014-15 season. Ten players played an average of at least 11.9 minutes per game last season, and given Manhattan’s style of play that should once again be the case with senior Donovan Kates and sophomores Rich Williams and Tyler Wilson back with four freshmen joining the program. Yet even with this being the case, this is a group different than any that Masiello has coached during his time at Manhattan.

Many of the available players having the combination of size and athleticism that can help the Jaspers in games against major conference opposition. Both Pankey and Lawrence are 6-foot-10, and in total Manhattan has six players who are at least 6-foot-8; last year’s team had just two (Pankey and 6-foot-10 Carlton Allen) with the 6-foot-7 Brown serving as the stalwart in the middle. Yet while some of the tangible characteristics have changed, Manhattan’s path to sustained success will continue to include the intangibles that resulted in the program’s turnaround.

While Masiello and his staff certainly deserve credit for the fact that Manhattan is in a position where the goal of extended success is undoubtedly attainable, the seniors who left this past spring shouldn’t be forgotten either. Not only did Alvarado, Beamon and Brown go through the full process of helping to rebuild the Manhattan program, winning just six games as freshmen, they also stepped forward at a point in time when uncertainty surrounded the program. And their efforts haven’t been forgotten in Riverdale, where the latest group of veterans hopes to build on what that trio was able to accomplish.

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.