Mountain West Preview: Boise State, SDSU to contend

San Diego State's Skylar Spencer (AP Photo)
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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Mountain West.

While the Mountain West did manage to get three teams into the NCAA tournament a season ago, 2014-15 also served as a wakeup call of sorts. The league put together an out of conference strength of schedule that was ranked 25th out of 33 leagues, and there was a price to be paid Selection Sunday. San Diego State received an eight-seed and Boise State, which shared the regular season title with SDSU and was the top seed in the Mountain West tournament, landed in the First Four where they got to take on Dayton, whose home arena hosted those games.

The Broncos and Aztecs are two of the teams expected to contend this season, with a talented UNLV squad looking to get into the mix and Fresno State and Utah State also capable of making a run. But even with the amount of talent possessed by those programs, what they do in November and December will have a major impact on how much respect they’re given in March. The Mountain West learned this the hard way last season.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. UNLV brings in the conference’s top recruiting class in what is a big season for Dave Rice: According to Rivals.com the Runnin’ Rebels have a class that’s the 11th-best in the country, with big man Stephen Zimmerman being the crown jewel of that group. Add in transfers such as Jerome Seagears (Rutgers), Ben Carter (Oregon) and Ike Nwamu (Mercer), and a sophomore class expected to take a step forward, and there’s no denying that Dave Rice and his staff have a lot to work with. But can they take advantage of it? Not only will the answer impact this season, but it could also impact the direction of UNLV basketball in seasons to come.

2. Nevada and Utah State made head coaching changes: There were two head coaching changes in the Mountain West this offseason, and the two hires are in far different situations. Eric Musselman, who has plenty of experience at both the college and NBA levels, takes over at Nevada and he’s already had success on the recruiting trail. The other move occurred at Utah State, where longtime assistant Tim Duryea slides over a seat to take over for the retired Stew Morrill. And with all five starters back, led by Player of the Year candidate Jalen Moore, Duryea could have a Mountain West contender on his hands.

3. San Diego State has some issues to sort out offensively: You know that Steve Fisher’s Aztecs are going to bring it defensively; that hasn’t been in question for a long time on Montezuma Mesa. But what is up for questioning is this group’s productivity on the offensive end, with their best perimeter shooter from last season out of eligibility (Aqeel Quinn) and the player expected to be that option (Matt Shrigley) sidelined with a torn ACL. Can Malik Pope develop into the talent that has some NBA Draft types discussing him as a possible first round pick? Is freshman Jeremy Hemsley the answer at the point? Those are two key questions SDSU faces heading into the season.

4. Anthony Drmic returns to the court after redshirting last season: When Boise State lost Anthony Drmic for the season in January due to a back injury, it was assumed that the Broncos were in trouble. Well everyone else got healthy, Derrick Marks emerged as the conference’s best player and James Webb III took off in conference play. While Marks is now playing professionally, Drmic returns for his final season, joining a highly experienced perimeter rotation on a team that can win another Mountain West title.

James Webb III
AP Photo

5. Colorado State, Wyoming looking to account for major personnel losses: Colorado State had a good case that it should have been in the NCAA tournament last season, as they won 26 games and finished third in the conference. But that senior-laden group landed in the NIT, and now Larry Eustachy has to account for the loss of his top three scorers from a season ago (J.J. Avila, Stanton Kidd and Daniel Bejarano). As for Wyoming, Larry Shyatt has just one starter returning (Josh Adams) from a team that got hot in Las Vegas and won the Mountain West tournament.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE:

  • Favorite: “I think you have to start two places. I think you have to start with Boise State, being the defending champs and having three elite players back in Webb, Duncan and Drmic. Those are three of the better players in the league on the team that won it. And I think the other place you have to start in this league is San Diego State. They’re the most physically gifted team in the league in terms of size and athleticism and length, and defensively they are the gold standard in this league.”
  • Sleeper: “I think that has to be Fresno State. Marvelle Harris, one of the top two or three players in the league is back, and Paul Watson’s good as well. I think they have a chance to be really good. They started out last year without their full contingent of players, and once they got everyone back they were extremely hard to guard. I think they’ll be (in the race) all year because they’re explosive offensively and put a lot of pressure on you defensively. They’re very athletic. I know they took a foreign tour this summer that I’m sure they think puts them in a good spot experience-wise.”
  • Best player: “I think, for the effect that they have on the game and for the efficiency they plays with, James Webb III from Boise State and Marvelle Harris from Fresno State. One of those guys is “1A” and the other’s “1B” because  they both have a huge impact on the game. In different ways, but both really affect the game so those are the two guys who come to mind right away.”
  • Most underrated player: “I thought Marvelle Harris (was underrated last year). There are a lot of similarities between he and Derrick Marks, and I think he’s a guy who could have a breakout year this year. I think he’s as good as anybody in the league, is a pro prospect and could have a special year.”

PRESEASON MOUNTAIN WEST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: James Webb III, Boise State

While Boise State getting healthy was a big factor in them getting hot in conference play, so was the emergence of Webb. In his first season in a Boise State uniform Webb averaged 11.2 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, shooting 55.2 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from three. A versatile offensive weapon at 6-foot-9, Webb could take off in 2015-16.

THE REST OF THE ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST FIRST TEAM:

  • Marvelle Harris, Fresno State: The 6-foot-4 senior averaged 16.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 2.0 steals per game last season.
  • Jalen Moore, Utah State: Moore’s added some weight to his frame after playing well enough to earn second team all-conference honors a season ago, and he could be in the Player of the Year conversation in 2015-16.
  • A.J. West, Nevada: One of the nation’s best rebounders, West grabbed 11.0 caroms per contest to go with 12.1 points and 2.6 blocks.
  • Josh Adams, Wyoming: Adams will have a lot on his plate with the Cowboys losing four starters from last season’s team. He averaged 12.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game as a junior.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Stephen Zimmerman and Jaylen Poyser, UNLV
  • Skylar Spencer, San Diego State
  • Anthony Drmic, Boise State
  • Emmanuel Omogbo, Colorado State
  • Cullen Neal, New Mexico

BREAKOUT STAR: Malik Pope, San Diego State

After dealing with two major injuries on the tail end of his high school career, Pope showed some flashes of his array of skills as a freshman. The next step for the 6-foot-10 forward is consistency, which could come with a season spent working on his body and game as opposed to having to focus on rehab. If he can do that, SDSU has its feature scorer and Pope’s name will continue to circulate amongst those who put together mock drafts.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Dave Rice, UNLV

Rice is the clear choice here, given UNLV’s underachievement in recent years. While many choose to focus on UNLV’s lack of national success when airing their frustrations, consider this: since Rice took over in 2011 UNLV’s finished no higher than third in the Mountain West in any of the four seasons he’s been in charge. Expectations are high in Las Vegas, with UNLV having the talent to be a factor both within the conference and nationally. Anything less could spell trouble for Rice.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Are any of these teams capable of getting to the second weekend?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Seeing if a player can step forward in the same manner that Derrick Marks did for Boise State last season.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • November 19, Boise State at Arizona
  • November 26, San Diego State vs. California (Las Vegas Invitational)
  • November 29, Utah State at Duke
  • December 9, UNLV at Wichita State
  • December 22, Kansas at San Diego State

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @GeoffGrammer

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Boise State: Derrick Marks has moved on, but the Broncos have a good mix of experience and newcomers to rely on. And James Webb III is going to be a star this season.
2. San Diego State: If Jeremy Hemsley is the answer at the point the Aztecs can win the league outright. But they still need to find dependable perimeter shooters.
3. UNLV: The raw talent is definitely there for the Runnin’ Rebels. But can Dave Rice make all the pieces fit together?
4. Utah State: With all five starters back longtime assistant Tim Duryea could be in for a big year in his debut as head coach.
5. Fresno State: With their entire rotation back, led by Marvelle Harris, this could be a big year for the Bulldogs.
6. New Mexico: The Lobos enter this season with hopes of avoiding the injury bug that derailed their 2014-15 campaign even before conference play began.
7. Colorado State: Larry Eustachy lost a lot from last season, but they’ve added some quality players to make up for that. One name to remember: Emmanuel Omogbo.
8. Wyoming: Larry Shyatt finds himself in a similar situation personnel-wise, with senior guard Josh Adams being surrounded by many new faces.
9. Nevada: While Eric Musselman’s first season at the helm may not churn out too many wins, he and his staff have done a good job on the recruiting trail thus far.
10. Air Force: Dave Pilipovich’s team was one of the better offensive teams in the league from an efficiency standpoint last year. But they have to get better defensively if they’re to make a move up the standings.
11. San Jose State: Already working with limited talent, losing Rashad Muhammad (transferred to Miami) doesn’t help Dave Wojcik at all as he looks to rebuild.

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.