Big 12 Preview: Death, taxes, Kansas atop the Big 12

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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 Big 12.

The Big 12 has been arguably the best conference in the country the last few seasons but their play in the postseason last year leaves a lot to be desired. While 70 percent of the league’s membership made the NCAA tournament last season, nobody in that group of seven advanced past the Sweet 16.

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. Kansas remains atop the league until proven otherwise, with or without Cheick Diallo: Kansas has won at least a share of 11 consecutive Big 12 regular season conference titles, and they return plenty of talent from last year’s team. While one-and-done freshmen Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander are gone, experienced players like Frank Mason, Wayne Selden and Perry Ellis return as the Jayhawks appear to be even deeper this season. One thing to monitor in terms of Kansas potentially being an elite team: the NCAA situation with freshman big man Cheick Diallo. The McDonald’s All-American was one of the best players during the senior all-star games last spring and his high motor and ability to defend the rim could put the Jayhawks over the top. He has yet to be cleared to play this season as the NCAA is looking into his high school, Our Savior New American in New York.

2. Iowa State is transitioning from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, but they still have title aspirations: Fred Hoiberg and his innovative offensive attack has moved on to the Chicago Bulls, but Iowa State is returning nearly its entire roster from a team that was a No. 3 seed last season. Now enters former Murray State head coach Steve Prohm, who is letting an experienced group do a lot of what they were doing before while also adding some of his own new wrinkles. Senior forward Georges Niang is an All-American candidate and point guard Monte Morris remains as steady as any floor leader in the nation. If the Cyclones have enough depth and their defense improves, they are also potentially an elite team.

3. Texas is moving from Rick Barnes to Shaka Smart. Can they adjust to “Havoc”?: Texas has moved on from the Rick Barnes era as they made the decision to pursue VCU’s Shaka Smart instead of Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall. Now that the popular Smart is in the fold, Texas is hoping to become a perennial power in basketball, and the most intriguing part of Shaka taking the job is how he’ll incorporate his “Havoc” style of play into the equation. Many believe that “Havoc” can’t work at the highest level of college basketball, but at the same time Smart hasn’t had this kind of talent at his disposal. Junior point guard Isaiah Taylor is back and the Longhorns have plenty of size and senior leadership.

Buddy Hield (AP Photo)
Buddy Hield (AP Photo)

4. Oklahoma returns Buddy Hield and plenty of talent: Reigning Big 12 Player of the Year Buddy Hield returned for his senior season and gives the Sooners a chance to be in the Big 12 title picture. While the Sooners will miss the play of TaShawn Thomas inside, they return most of the roster. Dependable big man Ryan Spangler is back along with the backcourt of upperclassmen Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard. Cousins has drawn rave reviews from scouts and coaches this fall and could be poised for a big senior season as Hield’s second banana.

5. Baylor and West Virginia are still lurking: Baylor and West Virginia both took some lumps this offseason with key losses, but they both still have plenty of talent to win a lot of games and potentially make the NCAA tournament. The Bears still have the tremendously talented duo of Taurean Prince and Rico Gathers to work with and a team that has a lot of length on the defensive end. West Virginia has to replace Juwan Staten, but Bob Huggins has a roster that completely bought into the press that he was selling last season as they made the Sweet 16.

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

COACH’S TAKE:

  • Favorite: “You can certainly make a strong case for a few teams, but until proven otherwise, it’s probably Kansas.”
  • Sleeper:
    • “West Virginia lost Juwan Staten but they’ll have just another chip on their shoulder. Their style of play will help them with the shorter shot clock.”
    • “Most of the guys in our office believe that Baylor has the length and talent to be a factor.”
  • Best player: “It’s close between Buddy Hield and Georges Niang but Hield gets it done on both ends of the floor. Plus, Buddy is more of an emotional leader and his big plays seem to lift his teammates.”
  • Most underrated player:
    • “Isaiah Cousins seems to be getting a lot of attention this fall — and deservedly so. He can really play.”
    • “I haven’t seen Johnathan Motley’s name in a lot of preseason stuff, but he could be a problem.”

PRESEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Buddy Hield, Oklahoma

He won this award for real last season, so it’s only right that Hield starts the season atop this list as well. A dynamic scorer, Hield can hit 3-pointers in bunches and also got to the free-throw line 130 times last season. In addition to his scoring, Hield also led Big 12 guards in rebounding last season.

THE REST OF THE BIG 12 FIRST TEAM:

  • Georges Niang, Iowa State: As versatile as any forward in the country, Niang is looking to close out his career by knocking Kansas out of the top spot. Watching Niang play for Prohm should be a fascinating early-season study.
  • Monte Morris, Iowa State: The nation’s leader in assist-to-turnover ratio the last two seasons, now Morris gets to work with a new head coach who put Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne in the NBA.
  • Taurean Prince, Baylor: Arguably the nation’s best sixth man a year ago, Prince is incredibly versatile on both ends of the floor. Not many forwards around can knock down nearly 40 percent of 3-pointers and defend multiple positions the way Prince can.
  • Perry Ellis, Kansas: Before getting hurt during the tail end of Big 12 play, Ellis was playing at an incredibly high level. The Jayhawks are hoping that version of their senior forward comes to play every night this season.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Rico Gathers, Baylor
  • Frank Mason, Kansas
  • Isaiah Taylor, Texas
  • Devin Williams, West Virginia
  • Phil Forte, Oklahoma State

BREAKOUT STAR: Jevon Carter, West Virginia

With the departure of Juwan Staten, the sophomore will be tasked with taking over full-time point guard responsibilities. After leading West Virginia in both steals and 3-pointers as a freshman, Carter is ready to be one of the focal points  for the Mountaineers.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Travis Ford needs to have a solid year at Oklahoma State in order to keep the heat off of him from fans. You know things are getting a little testy when both the athletic director and the school’s largest donor, T. Boone Pickens, have to publicly show signs of support.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : The Big 12 regular season was exciting, but did these teams beat each other up too much for big tournament runs?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Seeing how “Havoc” is going to work with the Texas players and against Big 12 defenses. This debate has been raging among college basketball types for a long time and now Shaka gets to see if his system can translate to the highest level.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • 11/17, Michigan State vs. Kansas
  • 12/2, Oklahoma vs Villanova
  • 12/8, West Virginia vs. Virginia
  • 12/19, Baylor @ Texas A&M
  • 12/22, Kansas @ San Diego State

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @RustinDodd

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Kansas: This won’t be like the Kansas team we’ve seen the past two seasons with jumbo wings in Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre. The Jayhawks plan to go smaller with Frank Mason and Devonte Graham in the backcourt while Wayne Selden will likely slide over to the three.
2. Iowa State: We already know Iowa State can put points on the board but how will they look defensively during the final year this core group is together?
3. Oklahoma:  Oklahoma seems to be flying a bit under-the-radar nationally this preseason. Remember when TaShawn Thomas became eligible and the Sooners turned into a darkhorse national title contender last preseason? Essentially the same team is back, minus Thomas, and college basketball is weaker this season.
4. Baylor: Baylor’s imposing frontline is well-established but the backcourt is the key question for the Bears this season. With the loss of Kenny Chery, who does Drew pair with Lester Medford?
5. West Virginia: This West Virginia roster perfectly fits what Huggins wants to do — especially with toughness and defense — but without Juwan Staten, scoring is going to be a major concern. The new focus on officiating could also hurt the way the Mountaineers like to defend, but the 30-second shot clock should help them.
6. Texas: The (multi) million dollar question is whether Havoc works against the likes of Monte Morris and Frank Mason? How do big men like Cameron Ridley and Shaquille Cleare fit in Shaka Smart’s system? One thing will be certain: Texas will play hard and bring a lot of energy under its new coach and there’s a lot of upperclass leadership on the roster.
7. Oklahoma State: Oklahoma State’s backcourt will be among the Big 12’s most talented, as Phil Forte returns and McDonald’s All-American point guard Jawun Evans enters Stillwater. Replacing the front court of LeBryan Nash and Michael Cobbins is the bigger issue. The Cowboys have size on the roster, but not many have produced highly at the Big 12 level.
8. Texas Tech: There weren’t a lot of positives from last season’s 3-15 Big 12 showing, but the Red Raiders return 85 percent of its scoring and 86 percent of its rebounding. With some of the other teams in the league adding a lot of new pieces, Texas Tech should be more cohesive out of the gate.
9. Kansas State: Kansas State’s roster was gutted this offseason and it’s hard to say if it will be a good or a bad thing entering this season. While a lot of talent left the Wildcats, a lot of bad apples walked out the door as well. Can improved chemistry lead to a better season for Bruce Weber’s ballclub? Almost the entire roster is unproven.
10. TCU: TCU started 13-0 last season, but played a cupcake schedule, as a 4-14 conference mark brought them back down to Earth. After losing Kyan Anderson, Trey Zeigler and Amric Fields, it’s difficult to say that the Horned Frogs will be much better.

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.