Big Ten Conference Preview: Michigan State and Wisconsin fight for the top spot

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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 Big Ten conference.

The Big Ten will look much different this season but it will still have many of the same teams near the top of the standings. Wisconsin returns pretty much their whole Sweet 16 team while Michigan State will try to counter with a lot of talented freshmen. Purdue and Indiana will also be firmly in the Big Ten picture and Maryland gets Melo Trimble back.

It should be an interesting year of turnover in the league that could leave it wide open.

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

Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)
Maryland guard Melo Trimble (AP Photo/Matt Hazlett)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW:

1. The league lost a ton of talent and experience: A lot of familiar players left the Big Ten from last year including Denzel Valentine, Caris LeVert, A.J. Hammons, Yogi Ferrell, four starters at Maryland and Jarrod Uthoff. So the conference will have a lot of new faces leading the charge this year and it could be a rare season in the Big Ten in which it’s the underclassmen that shine the brightest.

2. Wisconsin returns an entire team that went to the Sweet 16: The Badgers shook off a rough start and then-interim coach Greg Gard rallied a tough and experienced roster to the Sweet 16. The entire roster is back as seniors Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are joined by redshirt sophomore Ethan Happ and a slew of quality role players. Now with Gard as a stable coach and a confident, experienced roster, the Badgers are hoping for a Big Ten title and tourney run.

3. Michigan State will rely on potential one-and-done freshmen: Many of Tom Izzo’s best teams at Michigan State have relied on experienced upperclassmen leading the way. That likely won’t be the case in 2016-17. Although the Spartans are still a major contender for the Big Ten title, they’ll rely a lot on five-star freshmen like Miles Bridges and Josh Langford. Four-star point guard Cassius Winston and four-star forward Nick Ward could be key pieces as well.

4. Melo Trimble has a new lineup to work with at Maryland: Junior point guard Melo Trimble will be dealing with an entirely new lineup again this season as Maryland will have four new starters with the amount of talent that departed last spring. Senior center Damonte Dodd is a former starter, so he should fit right in, but the Terps need more from juniors Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens. A talented freshmen class could be a key difference.

5. Indiana’s roster will have a lot of changes, namely no Yogi: Things are going to look a little different in Bloomington next season now that senior point guard Yogi Ferrell has exhausted his eligibility. Troy Williams is also gone, along with valuable reserves Max Bielfeldt and Nick Zeisloft. It leaves Indiana with a number of question marks. At point guard, Pitt transfer Josh Newkirk will get minutes, but he wasn’t a spotlight player for the Panthers and is coming off of a knee surgery. James Blackmon Jr. also has to improve defensively and dealt with his own knee issues last season.

PRESEASON BIG TEN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Thomas Bryant, Indiana

The sophomore big man could have easily been a first-round pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, but he’s back to work on his shooting, defense and consistency. Leading the Big Ten in field goal percentage at 68 percent last season, Bryant is a load to handle on the interior. He can also knock down threes and he plays as hard as anyone in the country, but Bryant needs to be more impactful on the defensive end. If he figures out how to help defend high ball screens, Indiana could ride him a long way.

THE REST OF THE BIG TEN FIRST TEAM:

  • Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble’s play dipped as a sophomore, but he’s still a potential All-American who isn’t afraid to take and make the big shot.
  • Peter Jok, Iowa: The senior guard should take a ton of shots and put up crazy numbers this season after averaging 16.1 points and 3.5 rebounds as a junior.
  • Malcolm Hill, Illinois: Hill put up numbers all over the board as a junior as he averaged 18.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. He’s one of the most under-appreciated players nationally.
  • Ethan Happ, Wisconsin: Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes have a higher profile, but Happ is a potential double-double machine and very good defender. Wisconsin always had good bigs.

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW:

  • Miles Bridges, Michigan State
  • Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin
  • James Blackmon Jr., Indiana
  • Vince Edwards, Purdue
  • Derrick Walton, Michigan

BREAKOUT STAR: Indiana wing O.G. Anunoby has a chance to be a major contributor this season and he might be one of the best pro prospects in the Big Ten. The 6-foot-8 sophomore will see a lot of minutes in replacing Troy Williams as he can defend multiple spots on the floor.  If Anunoby shoots it anywhere near 44 percent from three-point range like he did as a freshman, he could be a major contributor on both ends.

Indiana's OG Anunoby (3) dunks in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against the Michigan in the quarterfinals at the Big Ten Conference tournament, Friday, March 11, 2016, in Indianapolis. Michigan won 72-69. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Indiana’s OG Anunoby (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Things haven’t gone very well for Richard Pitino at Minnesota since a promising first season. Transfers, off-the-court issues and a 2-16 record last season has the Golden Gophers fanbase getting restless. If things don’t turn around this season, Pitino could be searching for a new job.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : The Big Ten wasn’t deep with NCAA tournament teams and doesn’t have the firepower to produce a serious title contender.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT: Seeing how good Wisconsin can be with a full Sweet 16 roster returning and their coach in place for the entire season.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:

  • Nov. 14, Purdue vs. Villanova
  • Nov. 15, Michigan State vs. Kentucky
  • Nov. 29, Wisconsin vs. Syracuse
  • Nov. 29, Michigan State at Duke
  • Nov. 30, North Carolina vs. Indiana

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @B1GMBBall

PREDICTED FINISH

1. Michigan State: This isn’t the typical senior-laden Tom Izzo team but he has perhaps the most talented freshman class he’s ever had. Eron Harris returns and could be a big scorer while five-star freshmen like Miles Bridges and Josh Langford take over.
2. Wisconsin: The Badgers return everyone from a Sweet 16 as they’re loaded with toughness and experience. Considering Nigel Hayes was very inefficient last season, Wisconsin could have room to grow as they add some redshirts like guard Brevin Pritzl and stretch forward Andy Van Vliet.
3. Purdue: Losing A.J. Hammons in the middle is going to be hard to replace, but the Boilers still have a loaded frontcourt that returns Isaac Haas, Caleb Swanigan, Vince Edwards and Basil Smotherman. Point guard play and perimeter shooting will once again be a huge key. Is Spike Albrecht healthy enough to provide anything in either category?
4. Indiana: Replacing Yogi Ferrell, Troy Williams and some key rotation players will be tough, but the Hoosiers bring back Thomas Bryant and O.G. Anunoby and have a lot of firepower on the perimeter with James Blackmon Jr. and Robert Johnson. The key will be point guard play.
5. Michigan: Battling injuries the past few seasons, Michigan is relying on seniors Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin to lead again. The development of junior forward Duncan Robinson and the team’s role players is key to another NCAA tournament run.
6. Maryland: Things will look very different from last season but point guard Melo Trimble does have talent around him. Big men Damonte Dodd and Michal Cekovsky are experienced and Jared Nickens and Dion Wiley should help. The talented freshmen class could be the difference.
7. Ohio State: Transfers dominated the headlines for the Buckeyes in the offseason headlines by lots of talent is back. Marc Loving, Jae’Sean Tate, JaQuan Lyle and Keita Bates-Diop are all capable of breakout seasons.
8. Illinois: Illinois is hoping to stay healthy and make a run that could save head coach John Groce’s job. Point guard Tracy Abrams gives leadership while Malcolm Hill gets help from guard Jalen Coleman-Lands and center Mike Thorne Jr.
9. Northwestern: The Wildcats continue trying to build towards the NCAA tournament as point guard Bryant McIntosh has some talent around him. Sophomore Vic Law returns from injury along with forwards Aaron Falzon and Derek Pardon.
10. Penn State: Exciting times could be ahead for the Nittany Lions as they return the talented backcourt of juniors Shep Garner and Payton Banks and get a great recruiting class. Watch out for UConn transfer guard Terrence Samuel.
11. Iowa: The Hawkeyes will mostly be rebuilding and ride senior Peter Jok as far as they can. Nobody else returning to the team averaged more than six points per game as Iowa needs to find new impact players.
12. Minnesota: Transfers and freshmen are the key to a Golden Gophers team that needs to show progress. Center Reggie Lynch, forward Davonte Fitzgerald and guard Akeem Springs will all help, as will in-state wing Amir Coffey.
13. Nebraska: Losing Andrew White hurt as the Huskers need to find a new go-to scorer. Tim Miles could be on the hot seat with another bad season as senior guard Tai Webster needs help.
14. Rutgers: New coach Steve Pikiell has some talented guards in sophomore Corey Sanders and junior Mike Williams. If junior forward Deshawn Freeman returns well from injury, this team might be way better.

Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes (10) drives on Ohio State's Jae'Sean Tate (1) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, in Madison, Wis. Hayes had a team-high 21 points in Wisconsin's 79-68 win. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)
Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes drives on Ohio State’s Jae’Sean Tate (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

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.