BUBBLE BANTER: Clemson-Pitt in a key bubble battle headline the night

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The latest NBCSports.com NCAA Tournament bracket can be found here.

WINNERS

Clemson (13-7, KenPom: 51, RPI: 92) is shaping up to be one of the most interesting bubble teams this season. They already have five wins against the RPI top 50 and a sixth coming at Syracuse, who currently is sitting at 51st in the RPI. They do have a pair of ugly losses to Minnesota and UMass, who are sub-150 on both the RPI and KenPom, and a non-conference strength of schedule that ranks 331st, which is a major, major black eye on their profile.

In other words, that non-conference RPI number eliminates any margin for error that the Tigers have. If you remember, SMU was snubbed for the 2014 NCAA tournament in a season where just about every bracket projection had them slotted right around a No. 9 seed. They’re currently slotted as an one of the last four at-large bids in our latest bracket.

Clemson cannot afford another loss that could be considered even a moderately bad loss and they probably need to beat Virginia and Notre Dame at home to really feel comfortable. But the fact this team is even in the conversation at this point should go to show you just how good of a job Brad Brownell has done since league play started.

The rest of Wednesday’s winners:

  • Wichita State (15-5, KenPom: 17, RPI: 22): The Shockers are going to be another interesting at-large case. They’re 14-2 on the season when Fred VanVleet is in the lineup and both losses were true road games. But their two best wins are against a UNLV team that could be NIT bound and a Utah team that projects to finish in the middle of the pack in the Pac-12. The issue is that the MVC is only going to bring their résumé down, as Evansville is the lone remaining conference member in the RPI top 100, and Wichita State gets them on the road on Saturday. The Shockers beat Loyola (IL) Wednesday night.
  • Seton Hall (14-6, KenPom: 39, RPI: 49): The Pirates avoided losing to St. John’s at home, setting them up for a critical two-week stretch: at Creighton and then a three-game home stand against Marquette, Georgetown and Butler. For a team with just two top 50 wins (Wichita State at home, at Providence) they need to add some depth to their profile.
  • Colorado (16-5, KenPom: 48, RPI: 20): The Buffaloes added another solid win to an already strong résumé when they knocked off Stanford on Wednesday night. They have four RPI top 50 wins and their only two losses outside the RPI top 20 are on the road to league foes. That said, on KenPom, the Buffs only have one top 50 win to their name.
  • St. Joseph’s (17-3, KenPom: 54, RPI 37): The Hawks have no bad losses this season. They also have no good wins. Their best win is either Princeton or at Temple, and beating UMass Wednesday won’t change that. Assuming they beat who they’re expected to beat, the Hawks could see their season come down whether or not they can beat Dayton.
  • Butler (14-6, KenPom: 38, RPI: 53): Beating DePaul earned the Bulldogs their third league win of the season, all of which came against DePaul or St. John’s. Butler is 0-4 against the top of the conference, and while they have no bad losses this season, their only two good wins are against Purdue and over Cincinnati on the road. Butler needs to big off one of the Big East’s Big Boys down the stretch of the season.
  • Arkansas (10-10, KenPom: 55, RPI 103): The Razorbacks have a ways to go to really get back into bubble contention. A good way to start? Beating Texas A&M. Now they have a marquee win to hang on a profile with just one sub-100 loss.

LOSERS

The Pitt Panthers (16-4, KenPom: 50, RPI: 30) have been a bit of a running joke in recent years. That’s what happens when you don’t play anyone in the non-conference portion of your schedule and proceed to get worked over in league play. And while it may seem like the latter has happened this season, Pitt actually has a surprisingly solid résumé, even with Wednesday’s loss at Clemson. They have won at Notre Dame and at Florida State, which are top 50 wins in both the RPI and KenPom. They beat Davidson as well, and their two bad losses – N.C. State at home and at Clemson — both register as top 100 teams in both metrics. The bad? A non-conference strength of schedule that ranks in the 180s and 11 wins over teams that rank 115 or lower on KenPom.

In other words, Pitt has a record of 16-4, an RPI of 30 and a pair of top 50 road wins without a bad loss to their name and games left against Virginia, Miami, North Carolina, Syracuse, Louisville and Duke. They were a seven seed in our most recent bracket, and it’s hard to see a loss at Clemson changing that too much. So when we talk about Pitt needing to prove themselves and Pitt not being all that good, understand that Pitt can still be in a good spot when it comes to the NCAA tournament.

The rest of Wednesday’s losers:

  • Stanford (11-8, KenPom: 95, RPI 46): The good news for Stanford is that losing at Colorado is anything but a bad loss. The Buffaloes are 20th in the RPI and 48th on KenPom. The Cardinal don’t have a bad loss on their résumé, but they’re just 2-8 against the KenPom top 50 and they have just five total top 100 RPI wins. They’re not in a terrible spot to make a run at a bid, but they need to start racking up some wins.
  • Temple (11-8, KenPom: 97, RPI: 72): The Owls followed up a great home win over SMU by losing to East Carolina. They now have three sub-100 losses in the RPI while a sweep of Cincinnati and a win at UConn are their only other top 150 wins in the RPI. The Owls weren’t even one of the Next Four Out in our most recent bracket, and that was before the loss.
  • Cal (14-7, KenPom: 37, RPI: 35): The Golden Bears actually have a stronger profile that many will realize, particularly if value is put on the RPI. They have five top 50 wins and just two losses outside the top 50, the “worst” of which is against Richmond. A loss at Utah, who is ranked 18th in the RPI, is not going to hurt. The one red flag with this group is that they’re now 1-7 away from home this season.
  • Boise State (15-6, KenPom: 73, RPI: 62): The loss that Boise State took at UNLV on Wednesday will look a lot worse on paper than it was in real life. And if the Rebels continue to play up to their potential, as they have done in the last two weeks, this likely won’t be a sub-100 loss come the end of the season.
  • Tulsa (13-7, KenPom: 66, RPI: 61): The Golden Hurricane took a brutal loss on Wednesday night, getting blown out at Houston, who needed this win to get them back into the RPI Top 150. Tulsa is just 2-5 against the RPI top 100 with their best win coming against a Wichita State team that looks way better on KenPom (17th) than the RPI (50th).
  • Marquette (13-7, KenPom: 120, RPI: 117): This is a team that ranks 280th in non-conference strength of schedule that played a game tonight against Stetson, who ranks 295th in the RPI. They’re not dead yet, but they’re getting close.
  • Virginia Tech (12-9, KenPom: 105, RPI: 103): With just one bad loss (horrific loss, to sub-300 Alabama State), the Hokies still had a fighting chance after starting ACC play 4-1 with a win over Virginia. But after losing to Louisville, they now have six straight games against teams ranked 51st or higher in KenPom, with four of them away.

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.