2014-15 Season Preview: Villanova is the heavy favorite in an uncertain Big East

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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.

Today, we will be previewing the Big East.

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

The 10-team Big East debuted during the 2013-14 season. The relaunch season featured national player of the year Doug McDermott, who went on to be a lottery pick, and Villanova, which ended up being a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Villanova will remain a top-15 team heading into the 2014-15 season. After the Wildcats, there are several teams with questions that also have the tools to solve them over the course of the next five months.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Villanova will build off last season: The Wildcats had a disappointing finish to their 2013-14 campaign, but heading into this year, Jay Wright will have a more seasoned team. He gets four starters back, including Darrun Hilliard, JayVaughn Pinkston and Ryan Archidiacono. Villanova will be the flag bearers for the Big East as the only team ranked in the preseason. The Wildcats can make a statement in the non-conference, as they did last season, with games against VCU (potentially Michigan), Illinois and Syracuse.

2. St. John’s will go dancing again: In Steve Lavin’s first season at St. John’s, the Red Storm reached the NCAA tournament — Mike Dunlap, now at Loyola Marymount, was coaching while Lavin battled cancer — and hauled in a heralded recruiting class. The Johnnies won 20 games last season, but they did no favors by digging themselves into an 0-5 hole to begin Big East play. It’s been three seasons since St. John’s went dancing, and it would take some heat off Lavin and help the growth of the new Big East if the Red Storm could get back in 2015. And, if everything comes together, they should. D’Angelo Harrison, Phil Green IV and Sir’Dominic Pointer — all part of that heralded recruiting class — are now seniors. Chris Obekpa reversed his decision to transfer and, most importantly, x-facotr Rysheed Jordan is coming off a promising freshman campaign.

MORE: Can Kris Dunn ever be the player that he was coming out of high school?

3. Despite significant losses, Xavier has plenty of depth: Semaj Christon was drafted in the second round and Justin Martin decided to use his last year of eligibility at SMU. Despite the losses, Chris Mack will have plenty of options with six returners and seven newcomers — six freshmen and Indiana transfer Remy Abell. Seniors Matt Stainbrook and Dee Davis are back while Jalen Reynolds and Myles Davis could both be in line for big seasons.

4. Providence adds McDonald’s All-American: Kris Dunn was rated the top point guard in 2012 by Rivals. His collegiate career has gotten off to a slow start thanks to nagging shoulder issues that occurred before the start of his freshman season, limiting him to 29 games in two years. A redshirt sophomore, Dunn is finally healthy, giving Ed Cooley a lead guard to help fill the void left behind by Bryce Cotton. Add in LaDontae Henton, an all-conference caliber forward, and the Friars have a nice one-two punch.

5. March failure: The mark of a conference is how it fares in March. The 1985 Final Four featured three Big East teams, serving as the benchmark of NCAA tournament success. In 2014, the new Big East had 40 percent of the league dancing, only to hear the music stop playing after the first weekend. Xavier lost in the First Four, Providence nearly upset North Carolina, Creighton was caught in an unfavorable matchup against Baylor and Villanova was bounced by the eventual national champion UConn Huskies. Success in March will continue to be a topic of discussion for the Big East.

RELATED: The Big East will be better than their second season

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D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera (AP)

PRESEASON BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown

As a sophomore, the 6-foot-3 Smith-Rivera averaged 17.6 points, 5.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists en route to all-Big East second team honors. He finished top 10 in scoring and was one of the best rebounding guards in the conference. This season, with the graduation of Markel Starks, Smith-Rivera will also be tasked with handling the ball for the Hoyas.

THE REST OF THE BIG EAST FIRST TEAM:

  • D’Angelo Harrison, St. John’s: Harrison is the conference’s top returning scorer, trailing only Doug McDermott and Bryce Cotton in points per game at 17.7 in 2013-14.
  • Darrun Hilliard, Villanova: The Big East Most Improved Player from a season ago averaged 14.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists for the conference’s top team.
  • JayVaughn Pinkston, Villanova: The 6-foot-7 forward’s points, rebounds and shooting percentage all went up from sophomore to junior seasons. Arguably the best big man in the Big East.
  • Matt Stainbrook, Xavier: The Western Michigan transfer made an immediate impact last season with six double-doubles. The 6-foot-10 center will take on a greater role after the Musketeers lost several key players this spring.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Kellen Dunham, Butler
  • LaDontae Henton, Providence
  • Rysheed Jordan, St. John’s
  • Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova
  • Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall

BREAKOUT STAR: Deonte Burton, Marquette

The former four-star recruit saw only 12.6 minutes of action a night, but was able to score 6.9 points per game during his freshman season at Marquette. The 6-foot-4 power wing showed what he could do in extended minutes last season with a season-high 23 points (in 24 minutes) in the last game of the year against Xavier in the Big East Tournament quarterfinals.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Oliver Purnell, DePaul

There are several coaches feeling the heat heading into this season. But the hottest seat in the Big East belongs to Oliver Purnell at DePaul. The Blue Demons are 9-57 in the Big East over the last four years. And it’s not like he’s stockpiling young talent either. A handful of players have signed their letter of intent to play at DePaul, only to never play a single game.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : This league could be in line for five bids, but what if they only get one?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : A rivalry starting … somewhere … anywhere

At Big East Media Day I asked Georgetown head coach John Thompson III, who’s been around the Big East basketball since he was a child, about rivalries in the new league. “You know, the Georgetown-Syracuse rivalry didn’t happen in one year,” he said. It took battle after battle to develop those fiery rivalries back in the 1980s. In Year 2 of the Big East relaunch, hopefully we’ll start to see the foundation set for a new rivalry whether it be close game followed by an even better rematch, or controversial call that the losing team doesn’t forget the next time those two teams meet. Sooner or later a new rivalry will unfold.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Nov. 24, Villanova vs. VCU at the Barclays Center, Brooklyn
  • Nov. 26, Georgetown at Florida
  • Dec. 6, St. John’s at Syracuse
  • Dec. 10, Georgetown vs. Kansas
  • Dec. 20, Butler vs. Indiana at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW:

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Villanova: The unanimous pick to finish atop the conference standings for the second season in a row. Jay Wright has four starters back, as the Villanova adapts to having the target on its back.
2. Georgetown: With arguably the conference’s best player, the Hoyas look to bounce back from their 8-10 record in conference. Big question: how much of an impact will Josh Smith have?
3. St. John’s: Maybe the league’s most talented team, St. John’s has the pieces to not only finish in the top half of the conference, but could also be a threat to heavy favorite Villanova.
4.  Xavier:  The league’s deepest team will benefit from having seniors Dee Davis and Matt Stainbrook. That senior leadership can help the Musketeers reach their eighth NCAA tournament since 2007.
5. Providence: A healthy Kris Dunn helps combat the loss of PC’s two starting guards. Ed Cooley will have several young players who will need to make an impact. Come March, Friars could be back in the top 3.
6. Marquette: Hiring Steve Wojciechowski was a good move in the long run, but his Golden Eagles could surprise the rest of the league behind graduate transfer Matt Carlino and potential breakout star Deonte Burton.
7. Seton Hall: With five-star shooting guard Isaiah Whitehead, the Pirates bring in the conference’s top recruiting class.
8. Butler: Having Kellen Dunham back and Roosevelt Jones healthy is big for the Bulldogs, but for a program that has gone through a whirlwind of changes over the last five years, is this another transitional season?
9. Creighton: Greg McDermott and Co. are bound for a rebuilding season after graduating Doug McDermott and three other starters.
10. DePaul: The cellar is the likely destination for DePaul once again this season. Sophomore Billy Garrett Jr. is worth watching, though.

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.