Big Ten Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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The Big Ten enters conference tournament week with some intriguing storylines after an unbalanced league schedule and a lot of competitive teams towards the top of the standings. Indiana took home the conference’s regular-season title by two full games, but the Hoosiers played a much weaker schedule than many of their top Big Ten counterparts as this conference tournament should truly tell us where Indiana is at heading into the Big Dance.

Michigan State is also peaking at the right time as Denzel Valentine looks like a potential National Player of the Year and the Spartans look like a major national-title contender. Besides the top two seeds, Maryland, Purdue, Iowa and Wisconsin will all try to improve their NCAA tournament seeding with strong showings in Indianapolis while Michigan and Ohio State try to do everything they can to claw their way into the at-large discussion.

The Bracket 

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When: March 9-13

Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Indiana

Final: Sunday, March 13, 3:00 p.m. (CBS)

Favorite: Michigan State

Would you want to bet against Michigan State in March? Yeah, me neither. The Spartans have won six consecutive games entering the Big Ten Tournament (by an average of 21.1 points per game) as they’re playing perhaps their best ball of the season. Denzel Valentine is one of the best players in the country, Bryn Forbes is a great second option and one of the nation’s best shooters and the Spartans might have more talent on this roster than last year’s Final Four team.

And if they lose?: Indiana

The No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, the Hoosiers played an easier schedule than some in the conference this season, but they still deserve plenty of credit for winning the league by two full games. Winners of five consecutive games, Indiana has improved immensely on the defensive end since the start of the season and they feature one of the most potent offenses in the country. Although Indiana is the No. 1 seed, they’re 0-1 against No. 2 seed Michigan State this season, suffering an 88-69 loss in East Lansing on Feb. 14.

Other Contenders:

  • Maryland: The Terps are 2-4 in their last six games, but they have enough talent to compete with any team in the league if they come together.
  • Purdue: Purdue’s front-court depth makes them a tough out in a tournament setting, but the Boilers have to hit perimeter shots to beat the Big Ten’s elite teams.

Sleeper: Wisconsin

Entering as the No. 6 seed, it’s hard to call the Badgers a “sleeper” in this since they’re safely in the NCAA tournament field, but they do have the kind of team that can make a run in Indianapolis. If the Badgers get Maryland in the quarterfinals, they gave the Terps everything they could handle in splitting during the regular season. Wisconsin also owns a win over the conference’s top two seeds, Indiana and Michigan State, this season.

The Bubble Dwellers:

  • Michigan: The Wolverines have dropped four of their last five entering the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan has to beat Northwestern in its opener on Thursday and then follow that up by beating No. 1 seed Indiana on Friday. Even if Michigan wins those first two games, they probably wouldn’t truly feel safe unless they win another game to make the tournament title game.
  • Ohio State: Ohio State is doing everything they can to stay relevant on Selection Sunday, but they’re going to have to win multiple games to get in as an at-large team. The Buckeyes have to beat Penn State on Thursday and probably need another win against Michigan State after that to even be considered. Much like rival Michigan, Ohio State is going to need as many wins as possible next week to feel comfortable as a credible at-large threat.

Big Ten Player of the Year: Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

The runaway winner of this award is Valentine, who is also a strong contender for National Player of the Year. The 6-foot-5 senior was simply dominant whenever he took the floor this season, as Valentine averaged 19.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game. While filling up the box score every night, Valentine was also ruthlessly efficient, as he improved all of his shooting splits from his junior season (47% FG, 84% FT, 45% 3PT). Besides putting up big numbers, Valentine is perhaps the country’s most important emotional leader, as he gives the Spartans the kind of attitude that makes them legitimate national title contenders when he’s on the floor.

Big Ten Coach of the Year: Greg Gard, Wisconsin

You could just as easily give this award to Indiana’s Tom Crean for the tremendous job he’s done this season, but Indiana was supposed to be good. Wisconsin was in shambles when Greg Gard took over for Bo Ryan on Dec. 15. It took awhile for the Badgers to adjust to the veteran assistant — and overcome the emotional departure of Ryan — but Gard has coached Wisconsin to the point of making a NCAA tournament at-large bid when they were only 9-9 on Jan. 12. That’s a remarkable turnaround, and now, the Badgers are a team that nobody wants to play in March again.

First-Team All-Big Ten:

  • Denzel Valentine, Michigan State (POY)
  • Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa: One of the nation’s most versatile forwards, the senior was top 15 in the Big Ten in scoring (second), rebounding (11th), free-throw percentage (ninth), 3-pointers made (13th) and blocked shots (first). Uthoff’s improvement made Iowa a legitimate threat in the Big Ten and he gave the Hawkeyes a rim protector that they needed.
  • A.J. Hammons, Purdue: Among Purdue’s loaded frontcourt, the senior was the toughest cover, as he averaged 15.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game in Big Ten play while shooting 57 percent from the floor. Hammons’ numbers are even more impressive when you consider the limited minutes that he played compared to many starting-caliber players in the Big Ten.
  • Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: Another senior to make the All-Big Ten first team, Ferrell was sensational as Indiana’s team leader and point guard. Ferrell continued to improve his all-around numbers while also stepping up as a better defender and team leader. During a season in which the pressure was on Ferrell to win, he guided Indiana to a Big Ten title.
  • Melo Trimble, Maryland: Although some of his numbers went down after a breakout freshman season, Trimble became more of a point guard in his second season in College Park. Trimble averaged 5.2 assists per game after only 3.0 per game as a freshman, as he had more weapons around him this season. Still one of the game’s great clutch players, Trimble has ice in his veins with the game on the line.

Second Team All-Big Ten:

  • Peter Jok, Iowa
  • Bryn Forbes, Michigan State
  • Malcolm Hill, Illinois
  • Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
  • Matt Costello, Michigan State

Defining moment of the season: Indiana clinched the outright Big Ten title on Iowa’s home floor. It’s the second time in four years that Tom Crean has won an outright Big Ten regular season title.

CBT Prediction: Michigan State beats Indiana

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.