WEEKEND PREVIEW: The ACC’s first place battle and a renewed Big Ten rivalry

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GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 11 Miami at No. 5 North Carolina, Sat. 1:00 p.m.

Believe it or not, but when North Carolina hosts Miami on Saturday afternoon, the winner will be walking out of the Dean Dome sitting all alone in first place in the ACC standings.

And that’s probably not even the most important thing about this game for either team.

Hear me out.

The Tar Heels are coming off of one of their most disappointing losses since this group kids has been together. They blew a lead at home to a Duke team that was down to essentially five guys thanks to an ankle injury to Matt Jones, combatting UNC’s overwhelming front court with Marshall Plumlee — who had four fouls for the final 14 minutes — and Brandon Ingram — who looks like he could struggle to curl a pipe cleaner. It was their third loss in last five games, and with road trips left against Virginia and Duke, this may be their last chance at landing an elite win this season.

Miami, on the other hand, has been playing some great basketball. They’ve won eight of their last nine games, with wins over Duke and Notre Dame in the process, but the rest of their league schedule is brutal. At UNC, home for Virginia and Louisville before a road trip to South Bend. Getting their momentum heading in the right direction for this one is big, but it’s also worth mentioning that few outside of the college hoops media and the good folks of Coral Gables probably realize just how good this Miami team is. They’re good enough to win the league title, they matchup well with a UNC team that struggles to guard ball-screens and they’ll have a chance to prove it in a game that will be featured nationally on CBS.

This is a bit of a statement game for Miami.

And I think they’ll get it done.

THE OTHER GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 3 Oklahoma at No. 10 West Virginia, Sat. 4:00 p.m.

Hopefully, the rematch will be as entertaining as the original. When these two teams last squared off, West Virginia was just five days removed from picking off then-No. 1 Kansas in Morgantown, and they followed that up by going into Norman and losing to the then-No. 2 Sooners on a last-second tip-in from Khadeem Lattin. Oklahoma is reeling. They’ve lost three of their last four games and have fallen two games off Kansas’ pace atop the Big 12. WVU sits a game behind the Jayhawks, meaning that a win will at least give them hope that they can earn a share of the league title. The good news for Oklahoma? Jaysean Paige and Jevon Carter, West Virginia’s two most dangerous perimeter scorers, are both banged up.

FIVE MORE GAMES TO KEEP AN EYE ON

  1. I can’t be the only one that’s fired up that the Purdue-Indiana rivalry is relevant again. On Saturday night at 8:30 p.m., the No. 17 Boilermakers will make the trip to Bloomington to take on the No. 22 Hoosiers in a game with more significance than you probably realize in the Big Ten race. Indiana is currently tied with Iowa — who may or may not be on the precipice of their typical late-season swan dive — for first place in the conference, sitting a game in front of Maryland — who lost their second straight game last night to … Minnesota (gross). The idea of Indiana winning a Big Ten regular season title isn’t as insane as we thought it was as recently as a month ago, and I’m sure there’s nothing that would make Purdue happier than doing everything in their power to make sure that doesn’t happen. Let’s get it!
  2. A month ago, we probably would have written a blurb about No. 14 Kentucky’s trip to Texas A&M with the spin that it was a chance for Kentucky to prove they’re still relevant to the SEC race. Fast forward to today and Jamal Murray looks like Steph Curry while Tyler Ulis is playing like the best point guard in the country, meaning Kentucky’s Final Four dreams are very much alive. The Aggies? They snapped a four-game losing streak with a win over Ole Miss during the week, meaning the 6:30 p.m. Saturday tip is their last opportunity to keep their SEC regular season title dreams alive.
  3. What Duke has done the last ten days should not be overlooked by anyone. Playing with a six-man rotation — that may be five again on Saturday, depending on Matt Jones’ ankle — the Blue Devils have reeled off three straight wins over ACC contender, beating Virginia and Louisville at home before Wednesday’s win in the Dean Dome. On Saturday at noon, No. 20 Duke will look to make it four straight over ranked teams at No. 18 Louisville. Can they win another when they’re so short-handed? I think the obvious answer is no, just like the obvious answer was that they couldn’t win in the Dean Dome on Wednesday.
  4. The last time that No. 8 Xavier and Georgetown got together, the Hoyas managed to find a way to dissect the Musketeer 1-3-1 zone while picking up a win over a then-top five team on the road. That win also happened to be the last time that Georgetown was seriously discussed as a bubble team. So while there is a revenge factor in Xavier’s return trip to D.C., it’s going to be more interesting to see if head coach Chris Mack has found a way to solve his issues with stopping the Hoya attack that day.
  5. I honestly have no idea what to make of either No. 25 Baylor or No. 24 Texas. I think Texas is good — they’ve won eight of their last 11 with the only three losses coming at Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa State — but then I remember they’re the one team that loss to TCU. I don’t think Baylor’s really all that good but am I just going to ignore the sweep of Iowa State? In other words, this is life in the Big 12.

WHO’S GETTING UPSET?: No. 2 Kansas at Kansas State, Sat. 6:00 p.m.

This is as heated of a rivalry as you’re going to find in the Big 12, and while Kansas State has not exactly been great this season, they have been a thorn in the side for some of the nation’s better teams. They beat Oklahoma. They’ve taken both West Virginia and Baylor to double-overtime. They’re better and tougher than their record would indicate, and nothing would take the sting off of an ugly season quite like a win over their in-state rivals.

WHAT WE’LL BE TALKING ABOUT ON MONDAY: For all the talk about how crazy and unpredictable this season as been, when you look around some of the biggest leagues in the country, the usual suspects seem to be populating the top of the standings.

Villanova has a two-game stranglehold on the Big East. Kansas and Kentucky are all alone in first place in the Big 12 and SEC, respectively. Arizona has climbed back into sole possession of first place in the Pac-12. North Carolina owns a share of the ACC lead and, with a win on Saturday, will have the top spot all to themselves. Saint Joseph’s, VCU and Dayton are all tied atop the Atlantic 10. Gonzaga, Wichita State and San Diego State are all leading their respective conferences.

The Big Ten standings look the weirdest, but Indiana is still sitting tied for first place while Michigan State appears to be the best team in the league; they might be up there with Indiana if Denzel Valentine’s surgery didn’t throw them for a three-week loop at the start of league play. I’d argue that the American is the only conference that looks out of whack, but that probably has quite a bit to do with the fact that SMU has fallen off a cliff since their run at an undefeated season went ‘poof’.

The upsets have been fun to follow, but the cream is still rising to the top.

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.