Pac-12 Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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The expectation entering the season was that there were at least five teams capable of winning the Pac-12. Sure enough many of the expected contenders remained a factor for a significant portion of the season, with Oregon eventually rising as the class of the conference. Dana Altman’s Ducks went undefeated at home in Pac-12 play and finished above .500 on the road, which is generally a good formula to at the very least contend for a conference title. The play of Dillon Brooks, Elgin Cook and company may make Oregon the favorites in Las Vegas, but they’ll have plenty of challengers as well.

Utah has the conference’s Player of the Year in sophomore center Jakob Poeltl, Arizona and California both have talented rotations and teams such as Colorado, Oregon State, USC and Washington are all capable of making a run as well. As of right now the Pac-12 could be a seven-bid league depending upon not only what happens in Las Vegas but also in other conference tournaments across the country. This much is certain: given how balanced and talented the league is, whoever cuts down the nets Saturday night will have been pushed to their limit.

The Bracket

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When: March 9-12

Where: MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas

Final: March 12, 10:00 p.m. (FS1)

Favorite: Oregon

The Ducks may have just a seven-man rotation, but it’s the versatility within that group that makes them so difficult to deal with. Dillon Brooks, Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin are three forwards who can play just about anywhere on the floor. Freshman Tyler Dorsey can play either guard spot, and big man Chris Boucher is a 6-foot-10 senior who can score in the paint and also on the perimeter.

Both Boucher and Jordan Bell run the floor like gazelles and are incredibly active defensively, and point guard Casey Benson’s improved throughout the course of the season. They’ll score points thanks to the talent and Dana Altman’s offensive schemes. But if Oregon can make things happen defensively and get out in transition, they’re an incredibly tough team to beat.

And if they lose?: Utah

Utah’s rise from team that appeared to be headed towards the NCAA tournament bubble to second place in the Pac-12 is due in large part to the development of their perimeter rotation. Brandon Taylor’s embraced the facilitator role down the stretch, and Lorenzo Bonam’s made strides as well. The Runnin’ Utes can surround elite big man Jakob Poeltl with shooters, thus keeping the spacing that ultimately produces quality shots on a regular basis. Utah ranked second in the conference in field goal percentage defense and fourth in three-point percentage defense, and even with the occasional offensive issues they’ve been solid defensively.

Other Contenders:

  • Arizona: The Wildcats are still formidable, even with the end of their streak of two straight Pac-12 regular season titles. Gabe York’s been on fire of late, and with Ryan Anderson and Allonzo Trier leading the way Sean Miller’s team doesn’t lack for talent either.
  • California: The Golden Bears were the team many were waiting for to get going, and down the stretch they did. The return of Tyrone Wallace helped, and they’ve got two of the nation’s top freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb. But they’ve had their issues away from Berkeley, so we’ll see what they can do in Las Vegas.

Sleeper: USC

The Trojans have struggled a bit down the stretch, losing six of their final eight games of the regular season. That being said, USC’s offensive balance and tempo could lend itself to a run in Las Vegas. Jordan McLaughlin and Julian Jacobs make up a very good point guard duo, and the Trojans have capable scoring options both in the front court and on the perimeter (six players averaging double figures). They’ll need to keep the turnovers to a minimum, but Andy Enfield’s team is one to keep an eye on.

The Bubble Dwellers:

  • Colorado: The Buffs are in the field. But a loss to a bad Washington State team could make the wait more nerve-wracking than it should be.
  • Oregon State: The Beavers may have been overlooked by some when it comes to their NCAA tournament hopes. Beat Arizona State, and that should be enough.
  • USC: The Trojans arrive in Las Vegas in solid shape to land a bid. Avoiding a bad loss against UCLA in their tournament opener should be enough to make them feel comfortable.

Pac-12 Player of the Year: Jakob Poeltl, Utah

Poeltl was the preseason pick for the award, and despite Utah’s occasional issues on the perimeter he’s been very consistent for Larry Krystkowiak’s team. In conference play Poeltl averaged 17.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, shooting a Pac-12 best 62.4 percent from the field.

Pac-12 Coach of the Year: Dana Altman, Oregon

Three times in the last four seasons Altman’s won this honor, with this most recent award being for leading the Ducks to a regular season Pac-12 title. Oregon navigated injuries early in the season, most notably the loss of the player expected to run the point in Dylan Ennis, and found their groove in conference play when all healthy pieces were back in the fold. And in a season in which road teams had an incredibly hard time picking up wins on a consistent basis, Oregon was one of two teams to sweep two Pac-12 road trips this season (Utah being the other).

First-Team All Pac-12:

  • Jakob Poeltl, Utah(POY)
  • Andrew Andrews, Washington: Andrews has been the unquestioned leader for a very young squad, and in conference games he averaged 22.3 points (first in Pac-12) and 5.1 assists (third) per game.
  • Gary Payton II, Oregon State: Payton’s was named the league’s best defender for a second straight year, and there’s also his versatility. The senior ranked in the top ten in the league in rebounding (ninth), assists (first), steals (first) and assist-to-turnover ratio (third), and 11th in scoring.
  • Dillon Brooks, Oregon: As good as Brooks was as a freshman, he was even better this season. Averaging 17.1 points per game in Pac-12 play, Brooks was a serious contender for Pac-12 Player of the Year.
  • Ryan Anderson, Arizona: In his lone season on the court for Arizona, the Boston College transfer averaged 16.0 points and 10.2 rebounds per contest. He was one of two Pac-12 players to average a double-double in conference play (Washington State’s Josh Hawkinson).

Second Team All Pac-12:

  • Jaylen Brown, California
  • Rosco Allen, Stanford
  • Dejounte Murray, Washington
  • Elgin Cook, Oregon
  • Josh Scott, Colorado

Defining moment of the season: Oregon ends Arizona’s 49-game home win streak

CBT Prediction: Oregon’s the pick here, but it would not be a surprise if any of the top four teams left Vegas with the crown.

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.