UConn, Geno Auriemma raising the bar in women’s game more important than Wooden comparisons

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UConn looks to move to 10-0 in national title games (AP)

With the juggernaut that is No. 1 UConn a victory over No. 1 Notre Dame away from earning its tenth national title, one of the focuses will be the achievements of head coach Geno Auriemma. A win would also be his tenth national title, matching the number reached by the late John Wooden at UCLA. Are there differences in the ways the two great coaches went about their business? Sure there are, and Auriemma said as much during the team’s press conference Monday afternoon.

“Well, we are a lot different. Come from different eras, different backgrounds,” Auriemma said. “I couldn’t tell you one piece of that pyramid, because at the time that I was growing up and they were winning every game, I was more interested in, you know, how good Mike Warren was.

“I was more interested in how Valley shot the ball or why Shackleford was so good, or, holy s***, they’ve got Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe and they’re still winning like that. So I didn’t pay attention to the other stuff.”

When it comes to Auriemma’s work, focusing on how he compares to Wooden shouldn’t come at the expense of acknowledging how he’s transformed UConn basketball into the program that currently sets the bar in women’s college basketball.

A young program that didn’t play its first season of college basketball until the 1974-75 campaign (it isn’t all that uncommon for programs to be that young, with Title IX being signed into law in 1972), UConn women’s basketball tallied just one winning season prior to Auriemma’s move to Storrs. Auriemma won the program’s first Big East title in his third season at the helm, and two years later the Huskies made their first Final Four appearance.

While it took more four years for the program to win its first national title, with Rebecca Lobo and company running the table (35-0) and beating Tennessee in the title game, the work then set the stage for UConn moving forward. Not only did they engage in a chase for supremacy in the sport with a Tennessee program that under Pat Summitt set the bar, UConn eventually caught up and raised that bar even higher.

Detractors may use that dominance as an excuse to not tune in, citing the product as being “boring” and lacking intrigue, the excellence of those elite programs has helped boost others as well. While UConn has dominated the trophy count of late, winning four of the last six national titles (Huskies have won eight since 2000, with the rest of the country getting seven), other programs have stepped forward.

Notre Dame, their opponents Tuesday night, won a national title in 2001 and has been in each of the last five Final Fours and other national champions (who didn’t win one prior to UConn’s first in 1994-95) include Baylor (twice), Maryland and Texas A&M.

The Fighting Irish have enjoyed success against UConn in the past, having won seven of the last eleven meetings and holding a 3-2 record against the Huskies in national semifinal/title games (all three wins coming in the semis). It’s a game they look forward to, and it’s one that has helped Muffet McGraw build her program into one of the nation’s best. With that being the case, they won’t show up at Amalie Arena in Tampa looking to participate in some kind of coronation, but there is an understanding of what this matchup has done for all involved.

“I like playing UConn.  It’s definitely a learning experience,” Notre Dame guard Jewell Loyd said Monday. “Winning and losing against them, whatever it is, you learn so much and it really‑‑ I think it’s good. Every time we’ve played them, it’s always been a good battle. That’s what you want for women’s sports.”

UConn entered the Final Four as prohibitive favorites, and that remains the case ahead of the national title game. National Player of the Year Breanna Stewart leads the way for a team with three first team All-Americans (Moriah Jefferson and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis being the others) and a fourth player in Morgan Tuck who many, including McGraw, believe is deserving of such praise herself.

With that kind of talent comes the pressure of expectation, especially with UConn have a 9-0 record in championship games, but that’s something the program’s had to navigate for quite some time. However being undefeated in title games isn’t an achievement that’s taken lightly, even with the amount of success that the Huskies have experienced.

“You don’t realize while you’re doing it, but when you bring it up like that and you really force yourself to look back, man, I really can’t explain it either.  Can’t explain it,” Auriemma said Monday when asked about the 9-0 record in title games.

“And I said this [Sunday], for those of you that were here, it’s going to end,” Auriemma continued. “It might end tomorrow. Might end if we’re in that situation next year, following year. This isn’t something that’s going to last forever. Not going to win every single championship game that we’re in, if we’re in some more, but up to this point, man, it is something that’s really hard to explain. And I’m just incredibly grateful.”

One year after going 40-0, UConn is one victory away from winning a third straight national title and putting together a three-year stretch of 113 wins and five losses. While some will point to that dominance as an example of what’s “wrong” with women’s college basketball, the fact of the matter is that it isn’t their responsibility to make sure everything’s “even” like in youth sports (in some cases, not all) where every kid gets a ribbon for showing up.

Other programs have worked to reach UConn’s level and will continue to do so, which can only be a positive for the sport moving forward. UConn’s “job” is to set the bar, not make sure that others can reach it, and that is the case for great teams/programs in any sport. For that achievement, Auriemma and his program should be commended.

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.