North Carolina beats Virginia to win the ACC tournament, clinch a No. 1 seed?

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — The story on this North Carolina team all season long — since they were jettisoned from the NCAA tournament in the second round back in 2014, really — was that they lacked a certain ‘toughness’, that their inability to handle the pressure that comes with the biggest moments in the biggest games was eventually going to be their downfall.

Their big men were soft physically, their guards fragile mentally. That’s why they did things like give away a 15-point lead to Notre Dame when the Irish grabbed 13 second half offensive rebounds, or let a Duke team with five healthy bodies land a come-from-behind win in the Dean Dome.

And everyone on that North Carolina roster knew about every word that was said about them.

“We have a group chat and whenever someone on the team sees somebody say something negative about us, we put it in the group chat,” Nate Britt told NBCSports.com after the game. “Sometimes we’ll screen shot [a tweet]. Sometimes we’ll just quote them. It’s anything that we see, we see it on twitter, live on TV, whatever.”

“We’re young people. We see twitter. We see TV. We pay attention to it,” Berry said. “We try to feed off that. People are going to say what they have to say about us. They’re challenging us.”

On Saturday, North Carolina responded to that challenge.

Again.

For the second straight night, the Tar Heels completely shut down an opponent with an offense that ranked in the top ten in offensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, using a 15-2 “run” over an eight minute stretch late in the second half to open up a 55-46 lead. Virginia never truly threatened UNC in the final six minutes as the Tar Heels left the nation’s Capitol with a 61-57 win, a dual-ACC title and, in all likelihood, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

“I think we are the most criticized really good basketball game I’ve ever coached,” head coach Roy Williams said. “And least appreciated. That’s a pretty doggone good basketball team I’ve got out there.”

Joel Berry led the way with 19 points for North Carolina, hitting a three with six minutes left that pushed North Carolina’s lead to five. On the ensuing possession, Justin Jackson jumped a passing lane and went in for an uncontested dunk, leading the blue half of a bi-partisan Verizon Center crowd to go bonkers. Virginia wouldn’t score again for another five minutes, as UNC’s defense totally clamped down.

Virginia would make a flurry of threes in the final two minutes to make the final score closer than it was. If you factor out those final two minutes, the Tar Heels allowed Notre Dame and Virginia to score just 0.762 points-per-possession. For comparison’s sake, the best defense the Tar Heels played this season was in a 33 point win over Davidson when they allowed 0.793 PPP.

“I’ve been harping on, pushing them, cursing them, kicking them, pleading with them, begging with them all year long to understand how important the defensive end the floor is,” Williams said.

Williams told the team a couple of weeks ago that he’s never had a championship level team that wasn’t great defensively, and this team, a couple of weeks ago, wasn’t great defensively.

“That kind of resonated with us,” Paige said. “We want to win a championship. So we gotta start guarding somebody.”

Paige chipped in with 13 points. He scored nine straight early in the second half, all of which came when he was putting the ball on the floor and attacking the rim. His jumper wasn’t falling — he said after the game that his shot felt good, but half of his seven missed threes rattled out — but Paige may still have been UNC’s most important player. He did the heavy lifting in holding Virginia’s first-team all-american Malcolm Brogdon to 6-for-22 shooting from the floor.

 (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

“Marcus Paige is one of the five best defensive players in the league. Everybody wants to talk about him missing threes,” Williams said. Brogdon had scored at least 20 points in 10 of his last 15 games and more than 26 points in half of those ten. “He took Malcolm today and did a nice job. Malcolm is exceptionally hard to cover.”

“I knew he was going to get his, but I just wanted to make it tough on him,” Paige said. “You cut the head off the snake then it’s harder for them to get it going. I didn’t want him to get any rhythm baskets.”

“The key is to have a next-play mentality. He’s going to score. He’s going to hit a shot. My goals were to be there on every catch for him and contest every shot. Every time he’s reading one of those off-ball screens, which he’s so good at, was to have him feel my presence.”

The question now becomes whether or not this is a new North Carolina.

In these last two weeks, the Tar Heels have already done three things the seniors on this team have never done before: They won at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and that, in turn, won the program their first outright ACC regular season title since 2012. On Saturday, they won their first ACC tournament title since 2008.

That’s a helluva season, one that was special enough for Joel James to commemorate by getting every one of his teammates to sign a six-foot banner he had snagged from the net-cutting ceremony.

“That’s going in the house,” James said.

But that banner isn’t the last one James wants hanging on a wall. As successful as this season has been, it’s one that won’t feel complete without a trip to a Final Four, where they can take a shot at winning Williams his third national title. For that to happen, this surge on the defensive end of the floor, this new-found pride in their mental and physical toughness cannot be something left on the floor of the Verizon Center alongside piles of streamers and confetti.

Because when UNC plays like this, they can beat anyone in the country. They have the horses to win a national title. When pundits said that this was a team whose ceiling was higher than any team in college basketball, they weren’t wrong.

That’s still very much accurate.

We saw that in D.C.

And if we see it in Houston, Joel James is going to have to clear himself. a little extra wall space.

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.