College Hoops Contender Series: Here are seven Final Four Sleepers

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Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.

First up: Final Four Sleepers

It takes a certain amount of talent to be able to win a national title in college basketball, even if that talent doesn’t always show up every night. Winning four games in two weeks to get to the season’s final weekend can be done by a team with a handful of future pros and 10 losses on the season. We see it all the time.

Here are seven teams that have the tools to make a run to the Final Four even if they don’t have a real shot at winning their conference and will likely enter the NCAA tournament outside the top four seeds.

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Steve and Bryce Alford (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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UCLA Bruins: Do you know what to make of this UCLA team?

Seriously.

I’m asking for your help.

Because I have no idea what to expect.

On the one hand, the Bruins have as much talent as on their roster any just about anyone in the country, save for Duke. Lonzo Ball is an intriguing talent that some believe will be the most exciting Pac-12 freshman since Jason Kidd, and he may not even be the best point guard on the roster with Aaron Holiday by his side. Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton are both all-Pac-12 talents, while T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu join G.G. Goloman and Thomas Welsh to give Steve Alford some lineup versatility up front.

There are the pieces on that roster to be a Pac-12 champ and a Final Four team.

But …

What has Alford done at UCLA to make us believe that he can make all those pieces fit together? He reached two Sweet 16s in his first two years after relatively disappointing regular seasons and followed that up by going 15-17 in 2015-16. There are some new and talented pieces on the roster, but there are just as many question marks. Will Bryce be able to cede some control of the lead guard duties to more talented, younger teammates? Will the Bruins staff find a way to utilize Ball, who has never played for a team that wasn’t built entirely around him? Will egos be pushed aside for the betterment of the team?

Talent usually wins out in college basketball.

Usually.

Syracuse Orange: I initially thought the people ranking Syracuse after their run to the Final Four were crazy. They lost two fifth-year guards in Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije, who was criminally underrated last season, and watched the guy that sparked their Final Four run, Malachi Richardson, bolt for the NBA. They had two guards slated to be on their roster once Kaleb Joseph transferred.

But then Tyler Lydon decided to come back to school while the Orange dabbled in the transfer market, adding a pair of fifth-year grad transfers in John Gillon and Andrew White. Throw in a talented freshman like Tyus Battle and all 7-foot-2 of Providence transfer Paschal Chukwu, and suddenly things don’t look quite as bleak.

I’m still not convinced that the Orange actually have a point guard on this roster, but this may be the longest team that Jim Boeheim has ever had at his disposal. If Lydon takes a step forward, if Battle can be a significant contributor off the bat, if White can embrace playing a role, if this team can find a way to get a defensive rebound …

That’s a lot of ‘ifs’. I know. But Jim Boeheim is a Hall of Famer, and on paper, this group looks the kind of team he has success with.

Creighton Bluejays: The value of a talented, veteran back court during the month of March cannot be overrated, and there may not be a team in the country that has a better back court this season than the Bluejays. I don’t say that lightly, either, but I certainly mean it. It starts with fifth-year senior point guard Mo Watson, a dynamic-albeit-diminutive lead guard that averaged 14.4 points and 6.5 assists last season, his first playing at the high-major level. He has to get his turnovers down and his three-point shooting up, but he the talent is there.

Marcus Foster (Creighton Athletics)
Marcus Foster (Creighton Athletics)

And he may not even be the best guard on the Creighton roster. That title likely goes to Marcus Foster, the former Kansas State scoring guard that left the program after his sophomore season. You should remember Foster. He burst on the scene as a freshman, averaging 15.5 points, before a falling out with his coaching staff resulted in a transfer out of Manhattan. He’ll have something to prove.

There’s more to this roster as well. Justin Patton is a former top 50 recruit that redshirted last season and will join a veteran front line. Isaiah Zierden is a dangerous shooter. And then there is Cole Huff, a talented but inconsistent forward that will be the difference-maker for this team. He had a couple huge nights last season — 35 points against Seton Hall, 28 points against DePaul, 26 points against Rutgers — and also had stretches where he seemed out of favor. If he can pick up where he left off last year, reaching double-figures in eight-of-nine games before the start of the NIT, Creighton has the pieces to be quite potent.

Florida State Seminoles: How many teams are going to have more talent on the floor on a nightly basis than Florida State will? Dwayne Bacon has the physical tools of a first round pick, averaged 15.8 points as a freshman and is a consistent jumper away from being a nightmare to deal with. Xavier Rathan-Mayes probably doesn’t have the same upside as Bacon, but he’s a talented lead guard that is in his fourth year on campus and once scored 30 points in less than five minutes. Then there’s Terrence Mann, a sophomore that was productive and efficient in limited minutes playing behind first round Malik Beasley as a freshman.

Both Bacon and Rathan-Mayes have some efficiency issues to work through — they shot under 29 percent from three combined — but if that perimeter attack can somehow put all the pieces together, they will be a problem.

And that’s before you factor in Jonathan Isaac. Isaac is a bit of a unknown commodity at this point. He’s a 6-foot-11 combo-forward with a combination of skill and fluidity that has him projected as a lottery pick. But he also weighs a Chipotle burrito over 200 pounds and is still figuring out how to use his length to be effective. There are going to be growing pains, especially if the Seminoles cannot find anyone to make a jumper, but if we’re picking teams that can win four straight games in March, the ‘Noles have the talent to be on that list.

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Rhode Island Rams: Last year was supposed to be the year for the Rams, as they had as much talent on their roster as we’ve seen in an Atlantic 10 program in a long time, but injuries just obliterated what should have been a wildly successful season.

URI should be back at full strength this season, which means that they’ll have one of the best perimeter attacks in all of college basketball. Jarvis Garrett and Jared Terrell are both back, Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson is eligible and E.C. Matthews, a potential NBA Draft pick that averaged 16.9 points as a sophomore, will be back after tearing his ACL.

Power forward Hassan Martin, who may be the best pound-for-pound defender in the sport, should be back and healthy as well, as he missed the last month of the season with a knee injury. Front court depth is going to be an issue, as the Rams have a lot of bodies but not much experience, meaning the x-factor is likely going to end up being Kuran Iverson. A 6-foot-9 small forward, Iverson was at one point considered to be a top five prospect in his recruiting class. But after a disappointing conclusion to his high school career and an unimpressive layover at Memphis, Iverson churned out a modest 9.8 points, 7.1 boards and 1.2 blocks as a junior, shooting 39.0 percent from three.

If Iverson can play the four defensively, if he can be a guy that rebounds and blocks shots while creating a mismatch on the offensive end of the floor, URI will a nightmare to stop and a pleasure to watch on the offensive end of the floor.

Virginia Tech Hokies: I’m all in on Buzz Williams’ boys this season. There isn’t a coach in the country that is better at slapping together a group of players that were overlooked, under-recruited and are hungry-to-prove-themselves and winning with them. He did it at Marquette for years, and the result was a whole lot of wins and guys like Jae Crowder, Jimmy Butler and Wesley Matthews in the NBA.

That’s precisely who he has on his roster this year. I’d be willing to bet even die-hard ACC fans can’t name more than one player on Virginia Tech’s roster right now, but Buzz has some guys that can play. Zach LeDay and Seth Allen are probably the two best players he has at his disposal, but Buzz has talent, depth and grit up and down his roster.

Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams celebrates a play in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Virginia, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, in Blacksburg, Va. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP) LOCAL STATIONS OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT; LOCAL PRINT OUT (SALEM TIMES REGISTER; FINCASTLE HERALD; CHRISTIANSBURG NEWS MESSENGER; RADFORD NEWS JOURNAL; ROANOKE STAR SENTINEL; MANDATORY CREDIT
Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)

The Hokies got off to a rough start last season — they lost to Alabama State at home, which is … yuck — but they finished with 19 wins and a 10-8 record in the ACC. That includes wins at home over Virginia and Miami, who was a top ten team at the time.

And they bring everyone back from last season while adding a healthy Ahmed Hill and Ty Outlaw to the mix.

The Hokies aren’t “win the ACC” good, not with how loaded the ACC is this season, but they are “win four games in March” good.

St. Mary’s Gaels: There is going to be a lot of hype surrounding Gonzaga as we head into the college basketball season, but the WCC is going to be more than just the Zags this season. BYU will be dangerous in their own right, but I’m going to talk about the Gaels in this space.

St. Mary’s went 29-6 last season, sweeping Sweet 16-bound Gonzaga during the regular season and picking off Stanford at home. They missed out on the NCAA tournament because they didn’t leave the state of California until the end of January and lost to the Zags in the WCC tournament final, but this was a good basketball team that returns everyone from last season.

They’re old — they start a redshirt senior, regular senior, two redshirt juniors and a redshirt sophomore — and they’re deliberate, but they play a super-efficient brand of basketball on the offensive end of the floor and shoot the hell out of the ball from three. They’ll need the right matchups to make a run, but teams that don’t make mistakes and do make threes are always a tough out.

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.