Looking Forward: Defense will help Arizona sort out loaded rotation

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The NBA Draft’s Early Entry Deadline has come and gone. Just about every elite recruit has decided where they will be playing their college ball next season. The coaching carousel, which ended up spinning a bit faster than initially expected, has come to a close for all of the major programs. 

In other words, by now, we have a pretty good feel for what college basketball is going to look like during the 2016-17 season. With that in mind let’s take a look at Arizona, an elite program that reloads with designs on erasing the bad memories of last year’s first round NCAA tournament exit. 

After going on a two-year run in which they went 67-9, won two Pac-12 regular season titles and made two Elite Eight appearances, Arizona took a step back in 2015-16. Sean Miller’s Wildcats saw their grip on the Pac-12 loosen, with Oregon taking advantage, and their NCAA tournament stay was a short one thanks to a tough Wichita State team. Many programs would sign up for a season that included 25 wins despite injuries to freshmen Ray Smith (torn ACL) and Allonzo Trier (broken hand).

But Arizona isn’t your “run of the mill” program, which is a testament not only to what the retired Lute Olson accomplished during his time in Tucson but to what Sean Miller’s managed to do as well. Since his arrival Miller’s pumped new life into the program, with Arizona racking up highly regarded recruiting classes and the wins to match.

All that’s missing from his time at Arizona is a trip to the Final Four, an accomplishment Arizona hasn’t been able to boast since 2001. And after last year’s disappointing finish, Arizona’s work on the recruiting trail in the spring has them in a position where they can get that done. There’s talent, depth and versatility on the roster heading into the 2016-17 season, with some key returnees being joined by one of the nation’s best recruiting classes.

And with that will come an important question for the Wildcats: how will they sort everything out from a rotation standpoint?

Competition within the ranks is hardly a bad thing; “as iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” The same can be said for versatility, which will be another positive trait for Arizona in 2016-17. At first glance the roster has just two players seemingly locked into one specific position: Parker Jackson-Cartwright at point guard and Dusan Ristic at center. Outside of that, Arizona boasts a host of players capable of filling multiple spots based upon the desires of their head coach and the flow of the game.

The front court includes a mobile 7-footer in sophomore Chance Comanche, who managed to earn more consistent appearances down the stretch thanks to his activity on the defensive end of the floor. Newcomers in Lauri Markkanen and Keanu Pinder who can fill multiple roles in the front court, with Markannen’s ability to step out and hit perimeter shots being especially key, and the same can be said of the talented Smith provided there are no lingering effects from his second ACL tear in as many years.

With the injury and the time away from live action Smith will likely have some rust to shake off, but this is something Arizona can work through given their depth. There’s role versatility and this sets up to be a more mobile group defensively as well, which can only help the Wildcats moving forward.

The bigger area for Arizona from an options standpoint is on the perimeter, as they’re loaded with established returnees and high-caliber newcomers. And with the players available, how everything shakes out with regards to roles and minutes that come with them will be very interesting to watch. Trier’s back after a successful freshman season in which he averaged 14.6 points per game and shot 46.6 percent from the field, and with his ability to attack defenses off the dribble he’ll figure prominently in the Arizona rotation again in 2016-17.

Also returning are Kadeem Allen and Parker Jackson-Cartwright, who shared the point guard duties with Allen getting the starting nod thanks in large part to his ability on the defensive end of the floor. Losing Gabe York, who was second on the team in scoring and Arizona’s best three-point shooter a season ago, can’t be overlooked. But with the additions to the program, Arizona can more than account for the production lost there.

Last year Trier was the Wildcat best capable of attacking defenses off the bounce, but even with the relative “lack” of such options Arizona still managed to average 80 points per game and shoot 48 percent from the field. Things will be a bit different in 2016-17, thanks to factors such as the loss of York and Ryan Anderson and the fact that they’ll have more players capable of breaking down opponents off the dribble. Freshmen Kobi Simmons, Rawle Alkins and Terrance Ferguson can all create shots via dribble penetration, with Ferguson also being one of the top shooters in the class of 2016.

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 30: Terrance Ferguson #6 of the East  team goes up for a dunk against the West team during the 2016 McDonalds's All American Game on March 30, 2016 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
Terrance Ferguson (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)

But could this turn out to be a case of having too much of a good thing? While considered a point guard, Simmons proved to be better at getting himself looks than doing so for others, and Alkins was also considered to be a “ball dominant” guard at the high school level. How will that change at the college level, and how will the pieces fit together within Arizona’s rotation?

These are important questions to address, and how Arizona can do that is on the defensive end of the floor.

After two straight seasons of producing defenses that ranked in the top three in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers (first in 2014, third in 2015), Arizona was ranked 41st in that category last season. After two consecutive seasons of limiting teams to less than 40 percent shooting from the field, Arizona allowed teams to shoot 41.3 percent in 2015-16. Also of concern was the turnover department, with teams committing an average of just 11.4 per game against the Wildcats last season.

By comparison, those two Elite Eight teams managed to force an average of 13.8 turnovers per game in 2013-14 and 12.4 per contest in 2014-15. The pack line defense isn’t one that people would necessarily categorize as a “pressure” system, but one of the strengths for Arizona during those two Elite Eight runs was having athletic options on the wings who can make life difficult for passers and the players looking to receive those passes. That wasn’t the case last season, but it may not be a problem in 2016-17 thanks to the roster additions.

Ferguson’s athleticism is noted above, and he’s also a long-armed player who more than holds his own defensively. Alkins also has the physical tools needed to cause trouble on the wing, which will give Arizona a good shot at playing defense at the level we grew accustomed to seeing them reach.

Physical tools aside, there’s always the “carrot” of playing time to dangle in front of the players. When discussing the adjustment process for freshmen many rush to the offensive end, and that’s understandable to a certain extent. But the biggest adjustment comes on the other end of the floor, and being able to prove that you can defend your position and carry out the team’s defensive game plan.

Arizona will certainly have offensive talent across the board next season. But the reason why they can rebound from last season and possibly reach the Final Four is the fact that some of that talent will make a difference defensively as well.

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.