Tradition of success through change raises expectations at Xavier

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Chris Mack has Xavier back in the Sweet 16 (AP Photo)

LOS ANGELES — Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino have stellar reputations for winning in March, combining to reach the Sweet 16 13 times in the last eight seasons. They also happen to head the only two programs that can say they’ve been to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament more often during that time than Xavier, who has won at least two games in college basketball’s biggest event five of the last eight years.

There’s more.

Xavier has been to the NCAA tournament nine of the last ten seasons, something that only ten schools can claim. Five of them — Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, Michigan State and Wisconsin — have been all ten years, which puts the Musketeers in a class with college basketball’s elite.

This current run has occurred under the watch of the two head coaches who will meet in a West Region semifinal Thursday night. Sean Miller, the head coach of No. 2 Arizona, ran the Xavier program from 2004-09, with his understudy and current head coach of No. 6 Xavier, Chris Mack, taking the reins from that point forward.

Mack was a member of Miller’s staff before getting promoted once Miller left for Tucson, and that is a storyline that has received an ample amount of attention this week. But there’s also the matter of continuity, and a look into that will reveal that both coaches had — or, in the case of Mack, have — tools at their disposal at Xavier that have helped the program both attain and sustain success despite multiple coaching changes and multiple conference affiliations.

“Everybody is aligned, and their basketball program is very important,” Miller said when asked about what stuck out to him during his eight years (assistant and head coach) at Xavier. “And because it’s very important, there are people that have given their heart and soul to make it the best it can be, whether it be the Cintas Center, and if you haven’t been there, in my opinion it’s one of the great arenas in the game that’s built right on campus. It’s a quest to be better every year. Never be satisfied.”

Those traits go well beyond the current ten-year run, with Xavier winning 21 or more games in 27 of the last 32 seasons going back to Bob Staak leading the Musketeers to 22 wins in 1982-83. Following Staak’s six-year run some familiar names have led the program, from Pete Gillen to the late Skip Prosser, and from Prosser to current Ohio State head coach Thad Matta who won 26 games in each of his three seasons (with Miller as one of his assistants) before moving on.

For some programs the coaching changes not only result in the occasional transition year, but a prolonged malaise of sorts where the act of winning 20 games in a season becomes something to celebrate as opposed to an achievement that is simply accepted.

“I would say that ever since Bob Staak and Pete Gillen, along with some great players, guys like Byron Larkin and Tyrone Hill and Derek Strong really put Xavier on the map, the expectations for Xavier basketball have been extremely high,” Mack said.

“Guys like Skip Prosser, Thad Matta, Sean, carried the torch and simply elevated the program to new heights. Our fan base has come to expect getting to the NCAA tournament, and that not even being acceptable, but to advance.”

The question for Xavier moving forward is whether or not those expectations have and will increase. When the Musketeers began this lengthy run of success in the early 1980’s they were a member of the Midwestern City Conference (which was eventually renamed the Midwestern Collegiate Conference and is now the Horizon League).

Since then the Musketeers have spent time in the Atlantic 10, and this is their second season as a member of the Big East. While the competition and traditions of the Atlantic 10 schools are nothing to scoff at, moving to the Big East changed the equation for Xavier and fellow newcomers Butler and Creighton.

“I think it’s been a natural progression for our program to go from the MCC, which is now the Horizon League, to the Atlantic 10, which was a great move at the time for Xavier, now to a conference that is arguably one of the best basketball conferences in the entire country,” Mack said of the conference moves. “It’s a hefty bar at Xavier.”

But does that move apply some sort of pressure to Xavier to get past the second weekend, despite the fact that many of the most powerful programs in college basketball can also tap into another revenue stream (major college football)? The program’s had the resources needed, from coaches to facilities to everything else that comes with college basketball, to be successful and Xavier’s history bears that out.

“That’s why when you look at seven Sweet Sixteens, when you look at [Xavier’s] tournament history…I was actually looking at our history at Arizona, which you could make the case is second to none,” Miller noted. “When you put up Xavier’s history, especially in the NCAA tournament, it’s amazing that there are some comparisons.”

While the final weekend of the college basketball season is obviously important, focusing solely on that can at times be at the expense of recognizing what’s been done leading up to that point. But as we’ve seen both this season and in years past, matchups have a lot to do with whether or not a program can navigate the bracket and reach the Final Four. And with those being unpredictable until the bracket is released, the best a program can do is to ensure that its coaches and players have everything they need to succeed.

Do that, and for many programs the one-game “lottery” that is the NCAA tournament eventually produces a favorable result. Will there be a point where a trip to the Final Four will be “demanded” of Xavier? Maybe so, but a lot of that depends upon factors such as seeding. Look at Gonzaga, which has transformed from a “Cinderella” program to one that’s been criticized in recent years for not backing up strong regular seasons with deep tournament runs (despite losing just one game to a lower-seeded team since 2009).

Whether or not questions are asked when it comes to the Final Four doesn’t matter, because they’re going to be there. All a program can do is assemble the resources needed to maximize their chances of breaking through, which is what Xavier’s worked hard to do over the years.

“The last level [Final Four] is the only thing that’s missing, and clearly they’re here to make that happen,” Miller added. “It’s just, I think, amazing when everybody cooperates and thinks the same, you have some really intelligent people at the top, how great things happen. The benefit in so many cases is the student-athletes, watching their experience and what they become when they leave the school.”

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.