BIG TEN CONFERENCE RESET: Michigan State reigns, questions abound after top three

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College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Today, we’re taking a look at the Big Ten.

BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

Valentine isn’t only the best player in the Big Ten this season, he’s been the best player in college basketball, period. He’s slowed a bit the last two weeks — and he’ll be out for at least another week with a knee injury — but as of today, and with all due respect to the likes of Melo Trimble and Caris LeVert, there really isn’t a discussion to be had. Valentine should be the consensus Big Ten Player of the Year right now.

That certainly doesn’t mean things can’t change by March. If Trimble leads Maryland to an outright Big Ten title he’ll have a strong case, as will LeVert or Jarrod Uthoff if they can find a way to steer their team to a tournament berth and a top 25 ranking come the end of the year. And all of that is assuming Valentine comes back from his knee injury totally healthy. But we’re talking today, and as of today, this is an easy pick.

ALL-BIG TEN FIRST TEAM

  • Melo Trimble, Maryland
  • Caris LeVert, Michigan
  • Denzel Valentine, Michigan State
  • Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa
  • A.J. Hammons, Purdue

[2015 REVIEW: Best Dunks | Best Games]

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  1. Maryland will be challenged: Entering the season, the Terps were the clear-cut favorite in the Big Ten race. With Melo Trimble returning and getting flanked by newcomers Rasheed Sulaimon, Robert Carter and Diamond Stone, they a trendy pick to be preseason No. 1. And while they haven’t quite been as dominant as many thought, they will head into Big Ten play with their lone loss coming at North Carolina in what was arguably their best game of the season. But here’s the kicker: the Terps are not the favorite to win the Big Ten at this point. Michigan State is. If fact, it’s safe to say that, right now, there is a …
  2. … clear cut top three: Michigan State is the No. 1 team in the country, and deservedly so. Maryland still looks like a team that could end up winning the conference if things break their way. And then there is Purdue, a team with the biggest and best front line in the country and arguably the best defense in college basketball. The Boilermakers were considered, at best, a borderline top 25 team entering the year, but with the way their guards have been able to shoot and the sheer dominance of their front line, it’s not a stretch to call Matt Painter’s club Final Four caliber. But beyond that …
  3. … the drop-off right now is huge: Indiana has not been as good as we thought they would be. The same goes for Michigan. Wisconsin is in full-on rebuilding mode, which has included a midseason coaching change. Ohio State did beat Kentucky, but they also lost at home to UT-Arlington and Louisiana Tech and are just 7-5 on the season. Iowa has looked really good at times this season, but they also looked like the same old Iowa when they blew a 20-point second half lead at Iowa State. Nebraska? Illinois? Someone is going to emerge from the pack. The question is who?
Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)
Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)

[CONFERENCE RESETS: ACC | Big Ten | American]

KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  1. Izzo’s greatest season ever?: Tom Izzo has coached a long time in the collegiate ranks. He’s been the head man at Michigan State for 20 years, long enough to get himself nominated for the Naismith Hall of Fame. And there is a chance that this could end up being the best season that Izzo’s ever had in East Lansing. Not the best team, mind you. The best season. He’s currently sitting at 13-0 and No. 1 in the country in both polls. He will only face a currently ranked team twice during the rest of the regular season. The current favorite for National Player of the Year is on his roster; the only time Izzo has coached a Player of the Year was win the NABC somehow gave their award to Draymond Green over Anthony Davis in 2012. Oh, and he could end up enshrined in the Hall of Fame during Final Four weekend. Can it possibly get any better than that?
  2. Indiana’s defense: This is a drum that has been beaten over and over again, but the bottom line is this: Indiana has one of the nation’s most potent offensive attacks, but their defense has been impressive for a grand total of about five minutes — the comeback against Notre Dame — all season long. It’s not time to throw in the towel on them just yet. Remember, Duke was a disaster on the defensive end of the floor for much of the season prior to last year’s NCAA tournament, and the Blue Devils ended up making a run to the national title because they suddenly started to defend at an elite level. If the Hoosiers can find a way to start stringing together stops on a consistent basis, this is a team with top 15 talent and the ability to make a Final Four if they get hot in March.
  3. Michigan’s health: The issue with the Wolverines entering the season was whether or not they were ever going to get healthy. Through the first month and a half of the season, they haven’t been. Zak Irvin took awhile to get back into a rhythm after September back surgery. Derrick Walton has been dealing with an ankle injury. Spike Albrecht’s Michigan career may have come to an end because of a hip problem. Their second-leading scorer is a kid that played at Division III Williams two seasons ago. Michigan’s issues in the paint — how about this stat: their three leading rebounders are LeVert (5.4), Walton (4.7) and Irvin (3.6) — essentially ensure that they won’t be competing for a Big Ten title, but without a healthy back court, they won’t be making a run at the NCAA tournament regardless of how good Caris LeVert is.

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BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: Everyone knows what the issue is with Indiana. Are they going to be able to consistently get enough stops to beat good teams and win enough games to get into the NCAA tournament. I’m of the belief that they’ll figure it out, and the way they were able to defend down the stretch against Notre Dame is what, more than anything, has me convinced. They’re never going to be great on that end of the floor, but with that offense, they don’t need to be to be good.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: Slowly but surely, Northwestern is reaching a point where we need to start talking about them. They’re 11-1 on the season. They’ve beaten Columbia, who is one of the better mid-major teams in the country. They’ve beaten Missouri. They’ve won at DePaul. Their only loss is to North Carolina. Chris Collins’ club has gotten our attention. Now they need to go out and beat someone other than a high-major cellar dweller.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Tom Crean entered the season as the Big Ten coach with the most on the line, and after a disappointing trip to Maui, an awful performance at Duke on national television and a defense that hasn’t addressed the issues that plagued them last season, the Hoosier faithful have never been more fed up.

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1. Michigan State (13-0): Losing Denzel Valentine might cost them a win or two in January, but getting Eron Harris on track and lighting a fire under Bryn Forbes is going to be better for this team in the long run.
  • 2. Maryland (11-1): Melo Trimble is the best closer in college basketball, but I think they’re one guard away from being the best in the Big Ten. I worry about Trimble and Sulaimon having dead legs come March.
  • 3. Purdue (11-1): The combination of A.J. Hammons, Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan is impossible for just about anyone to matchup with, and their defense will keep them in every game. If their guards are hitting threes, they can beat anyone in the country.
  • 4. Indiana (10-3): I don’t think that the Hoosiers will ever truly be a contender for the league title, but I think they’ll be a top 25 team by the end of the season, one that can get to the Sweet 16.
  • 5. Iowa (9-3): Jarrod Uthoff is awesome and the Hawkeyes have looked great at times this year. But, to be frank, I just don’t trust this team to be able to win games.
  • 6. Michigan (10-3): Getting healthy will make them good. The lack of any presence on the interior keeps them from being anything more than that.

NIT teams

  • 7. Wisconsin (8-5): Yes, Wisconsin has issues. They also have two of the ten best players in the conference in Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig.
  • 8. Ohio State (7-5): The Buckeyes’ win over Kentucky is going to look really good on Selection Sunday, but I’m not convinced this team can add enough filler to their résumé.
  • 9. Illinois (8-5): Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn have actually been really good this season, but I just can’t see them overcoming the injuries this season.
  • 10. Northwestern (10-1): The injury to Alex Olah is a tough blow and their record is inflated because of a weak schedule, but I’ll go ahead and buy-in … at least for an NIT bid.

Autobid or bust

  • 11. Nebraska (8-5)
  • 12. Penn State (9-4)
  • 13. Minnesota (6-6)
  • 14. Rutgers (5-7)

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.