College Hoops Contender Series: Should Oregon be worried about Dillon Brooks’ foot?

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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.

Last week, we gave you our Final Four sleepers talked about six different Final Four contenders that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.

There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the five best teams, the five clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.

This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into all five of those teams, breaking down why they can win a national title and why they won’t win a national title.

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

OREGON DUCKS

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 24: Dillon Brooks #24 of the Oregon Ducks dunks the ball in the first half while taking on the Duke Blue Devils in the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament West Regional at the Honda Center on March 24, 2016 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Dillon Brooks (Harry How/Getty Images)

WHY THEY CAN WIN: The Ducks were a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament last season. They won the Pac-12 regular season title. They won the Pac-12 tournament title. They reached the Elite 8 and were a 37-point Buddy Hield outburst away from getting to the Final Four.

You may not have noticed because they play on the west coast, they’re not named UCLA or Arizona and the program is overshadowed at a football school, but Oregon was damn good last season.

And they bring back just about everyone, most notably Dillon Brooks, who is expected to be back to full strength – more on that later – by the time league plays rolls around. Brooks, a 6-foot-6 small forward, averaged 16.7 points, 5.4 boards and 3.1 assists as a sophomore last season. He declared for the NBA Draft and might have been picked had he not shot 33.8 percent from three last year. He would have been a first-team preseason all-american if it wasn’t for a foot surgery that may keep him out until December.

The Ducks also return Tyler Dorsey, a former top 50 recruit that is a perfect fit in the back court for the offense that head coach Dana Altman runs. As a freshman, Dorsey averaged 13.4 points, 4.3 boards and 2.0 assists while shooting 40.6 percent from three, playing some of his best basketball down the stretch. Those numbers will go up this year, especially with Brooks out.

Dorsey is at his best when he’s allowed to play off the ball, and that’s exactly what is going to happen this season. Former Villanova guard Dylan Ennis was granted a sixth-year of eligibility by the NCAA while the Ducks also return Casey Benson, who had one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the country. Throw in freshmen Payton Pritchard and Keith Smith, and Altman has plenty of options on his perimeter.

He also has some quality front court pieces at his disposal as well. Chris Boucher is back for another season. Boucher is one of the nation’s most unique players, as he averaged 2.9 blocks and made 39 threes. He ability to protect the rim defensively and pull bigs away from the rim offensively is an incredibly valuable weapon for Oregon.

Jordan Bell is back and healthy as well. Bell is a freak-of-nature athlete that took some time recovering from a broken foot he suffered prior to last season. He doesn’t do much damage away from the paint, but he’s so strong and athletic that it doesn’t matter. With JuCo Player of the Year Kavell Bigby-Williams and four-star freshman M.J. Cage joining the fray, Altman will not suffer for front court depth, either.

There are talented pieces on this roster and players that fill valuable roles for Altman, who is one of the best coaches in America at finding a way to win games with the players that he has. This isn’t a perfect roster construction – again, more on that in a bit – but there’s enough here to assume that the Ducks won’t fall off that much from a season ago.

MORE: All-Americans | Impact Transfers | Expert Picks | Trending Programs

SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 20: Tyler Dorsey #5 of the Oregon Ducks shoots a jump shot against the Saint Joseph's Hawks in the second half during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 20, 2016 in Spokane, Washington. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Tyler Dorsey (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN: The biggest problem that Oregon has facing them as of today is the injury that their all-american wing Dillon Brooks is currently dealing with.

Here’s what we know: Brooks had surgery on his foot. What did he have the surgery on and why did he have it in that particular spot? Oregon has not made that information available in any official capacity, although Altman did say over the summer that Brooks did not have a broken foot.

We also don’t know how long Brooks is going to be out for. He had the surgery in late July, he spent more than a month using a scooter to get around, then was forced to use a walking boot before, finally, being allowed to shed the boot two days before the Ducks started practicing. Brooks told reporters last week that there is no timetable for his return, but it’s clear he’s progressing. A best-case scenario likely gets him back on the floor sometime in mid-to-late November, late enough that he’ll miss all of Oregon’s key non-conference games – at Baylor, Valparaiso, the Maui Invitational – but early enough that Brooks would get six or seven under his belt before Pac-12 play kicks off.

And, assuming Brooks is able to get back to 100 percent by the turn of the calendar, Oregon should be fine. The Ducks should be the favorite to win the conference and the committee will factor in his absence when determining Oregon’s seed for the NCAA tournament.

But are we sure Brooks will be back to 100 percent?

Unfortunately, Oregon fans know all too well about the problems with foot injuries after the 2015-16 season. It took Jordan Bell eight months to recover breaking his foot in April of 2015 and even longer to look like the player he was before the injury. Dylan Ennis returned from his foot injury for two games and 21 minutes of basketball before he aggravated the injury and missed the rest of the season. Anything less than a return to the player he was before the injury would be a massive problem for the Ducks because Brooks is not only an all-american caliber player, but he’s the kind of “positionless” player that made the Ducks so dangerous last season.

Altman runs the “Spread Offense” – if you’re into the x’s-and-o’s, there’s a terrific breakdown of it here – but the tl;dr version is that it’s a system that prioritizes skilled players that can play on the perimeter or in the post.

Brooks isn’t the same kind of player as Draymond Green, but he plays a similar role for Oregon because of his versatility. Last year, if Oregon wanted to put a big lineup on the floor, Brooks was able to slide down to the two and play as a guard. When the Ducks wanted to go small, Altman was able to to slot him at the four without sacrificing too much defensively.

That positionlessness is a huge part of what made Oregon so tough to defend last season.

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 24: Jordan Bell #1 of the Oregon Ducks dunks the ball against Chase Jeter #2 and Grayson Allen #3 of the Duke Blue Devils in the first half in the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament West Regional at the Honda Center on March 24, 2016 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Jordan Bell (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

But it is going to be difficult for the Ducks to repeat that this season, as Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin both graduated. Like Brooks, Cook and Benjamin were both athletic, 6-foot-7 wings that could play and guard multiple positions. Other than Brooks, the only guy on the Oregon roster that can even be considered for a role like that is a freshman named Keith Smith who has battled knee injuries the last two years.

Altman is a terrific coach and I do believe that he’ll be able to find a way to get this group to win games regardless of who is on their roster, but there’s a lower ceiling and less margin for error for this team than others in the top five because of their lack of surefire NBA talent. Coach K can change what he does on a yearly – or monthly, or nightly – basis because it doesn’t really matter what offense you’re running when you have the three best players on the floor.

That’s not the case with Oregon.

For the Ducks, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and that’s because each piece on that roster fits in the equation created by Altman. Will that still be the case this season, when the Ducks are missing so many pieces that make Altman’s offense awesome?

PREDICTION: Oregon took a trip to Spain in August, where they played four games against professional teams in exhibitions. Brooks couldn’t even walk at that point, let alone play basketball at that level.

Generally speaking, teams that take preseason trips abroad are in a better spot early in the season because they get those extra practices, and they get that game time earlier in the calendar, and they’re able to spend more time together with their teammates. For the Ducks, it meant that they were able to do all of those things without having Brooks available.

Does that solve any of the problems we listed earlier regarding Brooks’ absence and what it does to Oregon’s offense?

Not really.

But Altman is a terrific coach, one that always seems to be able to out-perform expectations regardless of what he has on his roster, and giving him an extra three weeks in August to come up with those answers will only help.

Given the question marks surrounding the other teams at the top of the Pac-12 totem pole, Oregon will probably compete for a Pac-12 title regardless of how healthy Brooks is. But competing for a Pac-12 title and being a national title contender in a year where Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Villanova are loaded are two totally different things, especially when there are so many question marks surrounding an all-american.

SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 18: Chris Boucher #25 of the Oregon Ducks shoots against Cullen Hamilton #5 of the Holy Cross Crusaders in the first half during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 18, 2016 in Spokane, Washington. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Chris Boucher (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

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.