WEEKEND PREVIEW: UNC-Duke, the SEC and Pac-12 titles, and thoughts on Wichita State

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GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 8 North Carolina at No. 17 Duke, Sat. 6:30 p.m.

Do I really need to explain this one?

I shouldn’t have to. But I will. Because I’m a nice guy and all.

For starters, it’s Duke-Carolina, which is never not must-see TV. It’s the best rivalry in college basketball. When it’s on, you watch it. Especially when there is an ACC title on the line, which is the case for UNC on Saturday. The Heels are currently tied for first in the conference with Miami, who also happens to be playing on the road on Saturday.

But all that is before you consider what happened last month in Chapel Hill. Duke, playing without Amile Jefferson and, for the most part, Matt Jones, went into the Dean Dome and beat the Tar Heels, erasing a late deficit as the defense-deficient Blue Devils held UNC’s guards to 1-for-14 shooting in the final 11 minutes. They also managed to keep Brice Johnson, who had 27 points and 17 boards in the first 29 minutes, to just two points and two rebounds down the stretch.

It was those 11 minutes that made the media at-large hop off of the North Carolina bandwagon. Words like “physically soft” and “no mental toughness” were mentioned and questions were being asked about whether or not this was truly a team that could be considered the most talented in the country. So in addition to the incentive of trying to win a title, the Tar Heels will be looking to get revenge by making a statement on Duke’s home court.

And doing that to a team with Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram in Cameron Indoor is not going to be an easy thing to do.

THE OTHER GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 11 Louisville at No. 4 Virginia, Sat. 8:30 p.m.

The two best teams in the ACC squaring off isn’t normally must-see TV, but considering that A) Louisville was utterly humiliated by Virginia earlier this season, B) it’s the last game of Louisville’s season thanks to that postseason ban and C) that the winner of this game can win a share of the ACC regular season title if Miami and UNC lose on the road, and what you’re going to see is a battle between two veteran, well-coached teams.

THE OTHER, OTHER GAME OF THE WEEKEND: No. 21 Iowa State at No. 1 Kansas, Sat. 4:00 p.m.

In October, we circled this game on the calendar as one that could potentially have decided whether or not the Jayhawks would win their 12th straight regular season title. Obviously, that is no longer the case, but it will be the last time that we see this Cyclone team play a Big 12 regular season game. It’s something of the end of an era, as Georges Niang will be facing off with Perry Ellis for the last time in their illustrious, 17-year careers.

FOUR MORE THINGS TO WATCH

  1. The SEC regular season title is going to come down to the final day of the regular season, and depending on how it shakes out, there could very easily be a four-way tie atop the conference. No. 22 Kentucky and No. 20 Texas A&M are tied for first place in the league with Vandy and LSU sitting one game behind them. Vanderbilt plays at Texas A&M at noon on Saturday while LSU plays at Kentucky at 2:00 p.m.
  2. The Pac-12 regular season title is going to come down to the final day of the regular season as well. No. 9 Oregon, who is currently sitting all alone in first place, plays at USC on Saturday at 4:00 p.m. while Colorado will pay a visit to No. 13 Utah, who is one game out of first place, at 9:30 p.m. Oh, and should I mention Josh Scott vs. Jakob Poeltl will be awesome for anyone that loves a good throwback battle of the big men?
  3. Indiana has already clinched the outright Big Ten regular season title, but what will be interesting on Sunday is whether or not No. 12 Indiana will cut down the nets if they lost to No. 14 Maryland. That tip is at 4:30 p.m., while Wisconsin will play at No. 15 Purdue at 7:30 p.m. with the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament on the line.
  4. No. 10 West Virginia will pay a visit to No. 19 Baylor on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. which should be an entertaining game to watch as the Mountaineers look to maintain their grip on the No. 2 spot in the Big 12.

WHO’S GETTING UPSET?: No. 7 Miami at Virginia Tech, Sat. 4:00 p.m.

I know I’ve said a lot about how good Miami has been and how good Larrañaga is and how special it would be for the Hurricanes, twice in the span of four seasons, to win an outright ACC regular season title. But that doesn’t change the fact that Miami will be playing on the road tonight, and they’ll be playing against a Virginia Tech team that Buzz Williams has turned into a real threat in Blacksburg. The Hokies haven’t finished above .500 in the ACC since 2011, and they can do that with a win on Saturday. In fact, Va. Tech has already won more games in ACC play this season (nine) than they did in the previous three seasons combined (eight). The ‘Canes better come ready to play.

WHAT WE’LL BE TALKING ABOUT ON MONDAY: Wichita State.

The Shockers will have their chance to lock up their NCAA tournament bid this weekend as the No. 1 seed in Arch Madness. The event kicks off on Friday night, and by Sunday, we’ll know whether or not Gregg Marshall’s club is going to be sweating out Selection Sunday.

If they do win the tournament — Which they should. Are you betting against Fred VanVleet when he’s backed into a corner? I’m not. — they’re going to be a trendy pick to make it out of the first weekend, and perhaps further. This is a team with a back court that has been through some wars, has a veteran front line and a talented group of youngsters on the perimeter. This team has been to a Final Four, went 35-0 and then beat Kansas the last three years. Wichita State wins big games, flat out.

But what happens if they don’t?

Meaning, what happens if they have to wait out Selection Sunday, hoping to land an at-large bid like every other mediocre team in the country?

Simply put, they’re probably going to be on the outside looking in. They do not have a tournament résumé. They have one top 85 win — over Utah, but still, one — and, after losing to someone in the MVC, four losses to teams between 63 and 105 in the RPI. If this was any team other than Wichita State, we wouldn’t even be discussing them as an at-large candidate.

But this is Wichita State.

And they were without Fred VanVleet for three of their seven losses, but that fact matters less than this: The Shockers are currently eighth in KenPom. Eighth. EIGHTH!!!!

So while the Shockers unequivocally have a résumé worthy of a trip to the NIT, the data says that this team is about as good as any Wichita State team that Gregg Marshall has had. The committee has slowly begun to use other metrics beyond just the RPI, but that doesn’t change the fact that their seeding system relies on what you’ve accomplished during the season, not what a predictive metric says about how good you are.

But I can’t help but wonder if this team in this situation with that high of a rank on KenPom will be the first.

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.