ACC Season Preview: Can anyone snatch the title from Duke’s hands?

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the ACC.

There will be no shortage of attention given to the ACC this season, and it’s not only because the consensus No. 1 team in the country and a total of four top ten teams reside here. In September, the state of North Carolina, where the ACC is headquartered, became a national talking point as the NCAA, and, subsequently, the ACC itself, decided to pull all of their postseason games out of the state for the 2016-17 calendar year.

That means that the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels will not be getting home games in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament this season, and that may be what it takes to get the controversial HB2 law overturned.

But we’ve talked enough about that law and the impact this decision will have on it already. So lets get to the hoops.

Virginia's London Perrantes (32) shoots against Iowa State's Monte Morris (11) during the first half of a college basketball game in the regional semifinals of the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 25, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Virginia’s London Perrantes (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE ACC:

1. Duke is going to be awesome, but they are not without flaw: This will be the most talented team that Mike Krzyzewski has had in Durham since Jay Williams was on the roster. There could be three top ten picks on the roster (Harry Giles III, Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden) and that doesn’t factor in the NBCSports.com Preseason National Player of the Year, Grayson Allen, or Amile Jefferson, a fifth-year senior that was averaging a double-double last season when he broke his foot.

They’re loaded. No one is denying that.

But the roster construction isn’t perfect. (Is it ever?) There’s no real point guard on the Blue Devils next season. Frank Jackson is more of a scorer that can handle the ball than a point guard, the proof being the amount of time Allen will have the ball in the lead guard role this year. Moreover, Duke’s four best perimeter players — Allen, Tatum, Jackson and Luke Kennard — are all at their best with the ball in their hands, creating shots for themselves. That’s not ideal.

No one in the world is better suited to finding a way to make all of this talent work together than Coach K is, and it will be fascinating to see how he decides to put this puzzle together.

2. Virginia loses Brogdon, but still will contend: I’m not sure that it is possible to be more underrated than Malcolm Brogdon was last season, and I understand the irony in me saying that while also saying that the Cavaliers can still contend without him. The reason? For starters, I don’t think we’ve seen the best of London Perrantes yet. As a senior, don’t be surprised when he embraces playing a bigger role offensively. And then there is Austin Nichols, the Memphis transfer who couldn’t be a more perfect fit for what Tony Bennett wants to do on both ends of the floor.

But the biggest reason I think UVA will remain in the mix for the ACC crown? Bennett’s program is good enough at this point that we can pencil them into the top four before actually looking at the roster.

3. You may not recognize the names at Louisville, but they can make a Final Four: Last season, Louisville showed flashes of being a top 15 team while using a pair of mid-major grad transfers to bridge the gap between the Terry Rozier and Montrezl Harrell years and a promising 2015 recruiting class that wasn’t quite ready last season.

Now? They should be ready. Sophomores Donovan Mitchell — who spent much of last season playing behind Damion Lee — and Deng Adel — who battled knee issues last year — are on track to make Cardinal fans realize why people have been raving about the potential those two have. Yes, I wonder about a team where Quentin Snider is the lone point guard on the roster, and no, I have no idea who out of that motley crew of bigs will take a step forward, but if both Mitchell and Adel develop into all-ACC caliber players like I think they will, Rick Pitino should be able to once again field a winner.

Louisville's Donovan Mitchell (45) reaches in against North Carolina State's Anthony Barber (12) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

4. UNC has talent, but they also have question marks: The knock on North Carolina last season was that, while they had a roster full of highly-rated recruits, they didn’t necessarily have much future NBA talent in their ranks. That was before Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige graduated. Now, it seems like every player on this Tar Heel roster has either a major red flag in their game or a major question mark in their outlook this season. Will the Joel Berry II from last March show up, or will it be the Joel Berry II that struggled to beat out Nate Britt for the starting point guard spot? Has Justin Jackson found a way to be a consistent three-point shooter? Has Theo Pinson? Can Isaiah Hicks handle the pressure that comes with being a star player? Just how good is a front court if the best player is Kennedy Meeks?

The Tar Heels are a top ten team on paper. But just how sure are you that what we’ll see on the court on a night-to-night basis will be a top ten team?

5. It’s Virginia Tech, not Syracuse, that you need to be all-in on: Syracuse, a Final Four team last season, got Tyler Lydon back for his sophomore season, brought in Tyus Battle and Paschal Chukwu, and added a pair of fifth-year seniors in the back court in John Gillon and Andrew White. But they lost their three best players from last season, including Michael Gbinije, from a 9-9 ACC team and they don’t really have a point guard.

The Hokies? They return everyone from a team that went 10-8 in the ACC last year, including wins over Miami (who was top ten at the time) and UVA, and have a head coach in Buzz Williams who is as good as anyone in the country and getting a group of under-recruited players to have a chip the size of Blacksburg on their shoulder. Syracuse could be good this season. Tech will be better.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Grayson Allen, Duke

Allen is our Preseason National Player of the Year, so why wouldn’t he be our Preseason ACC Player of the Year? It’s far from a shoe-in, however, as there are a couple of factors working against the junior. For starters, he’ll be playing a different role this season, operating as more of a lead guard than someone whose job was to put his head down and get to the rim. And with the amount of talent on the roster around him — Duke could potentially start five first round picks — it will be hard for him to replicate the production he had last season.

That said, this was Allen’s stat-line last season: 21.6 points, 4.6 boards and 3.5 assists with a true shooting percentage of 61.6%. I know people are required to hate him because he’s white and a star at Duke, but no high major player since 1993-94 (which is as far back as the database at CBB Reference goes) has ever posted that stat-line.

THE REST OF THE ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM:

  • Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State: I’m not sure how good the Wolfpack will be, but assuming his ACL is back to 100%, Smith may be the single-most talented player in the conference.
  • Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson: Blossomgame is an under-the-radar name because he plays for Clemson, but he’s a future top 40 draft pick that can defend multiple positions and averaged 18.7 points last season.
  • Jayson Tatum, Duke: We initially had Harry Giles III here, but Tatum gets the bump after this week’s news that Giles underwent another knee surgery.
  • Austin Nichols, Virginia: Nichols averaged 13.4 points, 6.7 boards and 3.4 blocks before leaving Memphis. He’s a perfect fit for the five-spot in Virginia’s system and he’s had a year to learn what Tony Bennett will want from him.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Joel Berry II, North Carolina
  • Donovan Mitchell, Louisville
  • Deng Adel, Louisville
  • London Perrantes, Virginia
  • Tyler Lydon, Syracuse

BREAKOUT STAR: Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel, Louisville

Mitchell is going to be the trendy pick on this Louisville team to be a breakout star, not only because he’ll have a chance to step into a starting role in the back court, but because he had a handful of impressive performances in league play last season. But I think there’s a chance that Adel ends up being the best player on the Cards this year. All I heard over the summer were good things about his development, and he was really impressive in practices before hurting his knee as a freshman.

Just so I’m on the record with this, in just about any other year, both Tyler Lydon of Syracuse and JaQuan Newton of Miami would be an easy pick here.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Brad Brownell, Clemson

The obvious pick here is Boston College’s Jim Christian — if you can’t win a league game, you’re automatically on the hot seat — but Brownell is a more interesting case. This will be his seventh season with the Tigers. He hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament in five years and is six games under .500 in ACC play in those five seasons. But, with Blossomgame returning to school, Brownell has a chance to get back to the tournament with this group. If he does, that may save his job.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : Grayson Allen, Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones will be the first Duke players to win two rings since Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley were playing.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Seeing how the other powerhouse programs at the top of the conference — Virginia, UNC, Louisville — try and defend a super-talented, but somewhat-flawed, Duke roster.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Nov. 15, Duke vs. Kansas
  • Nov. 29, Michigan State at Duke
  • Dec. 17, North Carolina vs. Kentucky
  • Dec. 21, Kentucky at Louisville
  • Jan. 29, Virginia at Villanova

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @accsports

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Duke: Shocker.
2. Virginia: We cannot overlook the loss of Malcolm Brogdon or underrate just how good Anthony Gill was. That said, Nichols will be a borderline all-american this season and we haven’t seen the best of London Perrantes yet.
3. North Carolina: Losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson hurts a lot, but there are quality pieces left on this roster. The problem? They’re all question marks. Which Joel Berry II shows up? Will Justin Jackson reach his potential? Can Isaiah Hicks or Kennedy Meeks really anchor the front line of a top ten team?
4. Louisville: The sophomore class for the Cardinals is going to shine this season. Donovan Mitchell and Deng Adel could end up being first round picks one day. The major issue for Louisville will be their front court. They have a lot of bodies and not a lot of proven pieces.
5. Virginia Tech: My sleeper pick. They return everyone — and add two injured pieces — from a team that won 19 games, went 10-8 in the ACC and beat Miami and UVA.
6. Syracuse: Getting Tyler Lydon back to school was key. Adding Andrew White was big as well. The Orange are going to have an absurd amount of length and athleticism in that zone. Will their point guard play and rebounding hold up?
7. Miami: There will be some turnover for the Hurricanes, but with JaQuan Newton running the show and Jim Larrañaga in charge, rebuilding years in Miami won’t be as bad as they’ve been in the past.
8. Notre Dame: Gone are Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste, both of which are major blows. Mike Brey has proven he can weather a storm like this, however. V.J. Beachem’s time to shine?
9. N.C. State: The Wolfpack have a ton of talent, namely freshmen Dennis Smith Jr. and Omer Yurtseven. Will all the pieces come together?
10. Florida State: Like N.C. State, the Seminoles have plenty of pieces, but they’ve struggled to look like a cohesive unit in recent years.
11. Pitt: Jamel Artis and Michael Young might be the best forward tandem in the conference, but this is a team dealing with coaching turnover that lost their point guard, James Robinson.
12. Clemson: I love Jaron Blossomgame’s … well, game. I don’t love much else on this roster.
13. Wake Forest: Danny Manning’s team was a total disaster last season even though they had the talent to be much better than they were. They lost Codi Miller-McIntyre and Devin Thomas. Was that addition by subtraction?
14. Georgia Tech: They hired Josh Pastner this offseason. I’ll let you decide if that’s a good or bad thing.
15. Boston College: BC lost Eli Carter from a team that didn’t win an ACC game last season. Woof.

North Carolina guard Joel Berry II (2) moves the ball against Providence during the first half of a second-round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Saturday, March 19, 2016, in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
North Carolina guard Joel Berry II (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

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.