College Hoops Contender Series: Might Kansas actually be the nation’s best team?

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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.

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LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 27: Bill Self head coach of the Kansas Jayhawks claps for his team as they celebrate winning the Big 12 Conference Championship after they defeated Texas Tech Red Raiders 67-58 at Allen Fieldhouse on February 27, 2016 in Lawrence, Kansas. With the win, Kansas clinched its 12th straight conference championship. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Bill Self (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

KANSAS JAYHAWKS

WHY THEY CAN WIN: Because Josh Jackson will be everything that Andrew Wiggins was without the unrealistic expectations or the pressure of having to carry a team as a freshman.

A quick refresher before we move forward: In a vacuum, Andrew Wiggins was awesome in college. He averaged 17.7 points as the leading scorer and the best perimeter defender on a top five team that probably would have gotten to the Final Four if Joel Embiid’s two-and-a-half year run of injuries hadn’t started that February. The problem for Wiggins was the expectations. He wasn’t the second-coming of Kevin Durant. He didn’t have the same impact as LeBron James would have. In hindsight, it was totally unfair to expect him to be either of those guys, and just because he wasn’t a legend as a freshman there was almost a sense of failure regarding his one year in Lawrence.

The other part of it was that Wiggins wasn’t ready to takeover games or handle the pressure that comes with being the go-to star on one of the most high-profile teams in the country. That’s just not who he was at that point in his basketball development.

Jackson, on the other hand, has that mentality. Think about all the clichés we, the media, love to label the best hoopers in the world with: he’s a killer, he’s a closer, he wants the big shot, he lives to the big moments, he’s clutch. Jackson’s reputation in the high school ranks would fill all of those narratives. He’s got that competitive streak, that alpha-dog mentality that Wiggins needed to develop.

And perhaps the most promising part is that Jackson isn’t going to have to be the leader on this team. Senior point guard Frank Mason is. Junior guard Devonte’ Graham could be as well. Landen Lucas, this team’s front court anchor, is a senior as well. The veterans on Wiggins’ Kansas team? Naadir Tharpe, who was more or less forced out of the program after the season, and … a sophomore year version of Perry Ellis?

In other words, Jackson can be a leader at this level and at this age, but he won’t have to be. Wiggins wasn’t ready for the role but was forced into it.

Jackson also doesn’t have the pressure that comes with the being labeled as the as a prospect on the same level as Durant or LeBron, like Wiggins was. Every time Wiggins stepped on the floor was a referendum on whether or not he was actually a star. That can weigh on a kid, particularly a kid that isn’t exactly predisposed to loving the limelight. And while being the No. 1 player in a class as good as the 2016 recruiting class comes with a significant element of pressure, there is nowhere near the hype for this crop of kids as there was in 2013.

That’s all a long way of saying that I love the makeup of this team on paper.

Josh Jackson, from Napa, Calif.,, dunks over Nancy Mulkey, from Cypress, Texas, as he competes in the slam dunk contest during the McDonald's All-American Jam Fest, Monday, March 28, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Matt Marton)
Josh Jackson (AP Photo/Matt Marton)

I also love the way that they’re going to come together on the floor.

Let’s start on the defensive end of the floor. Mason and Graham will be one of the best defensive back courts in the country, and Jackson will be an elite wing defender. Throw in Landen Lucas, who was a dominant rebounder and a capable shot-blocker in the minutes he played last year, and the Jayhawks have the pieces to be the nation’s best defensive team. Think about it like this: Kansas was the third-best defensive team in the country last season, according to KenPom, and they get a significant upgrade in Jackson over Wayne Selden at the three.

The offensive end is going to be a bit more of a concern – more on that in a second – but Carlton Bragg should be able to step into that role. He is a decent bet to lead the Jayhawks in scoring, and there are other reasons to be hopeful of the Jayhawks offensively:

  • Mason proved as a sophomore that he can be effective as a focal point offensively.
  • I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Graham just yet.
  • Jackson is a guy I think has the talent to average 16 points.
  • Lineup versatility. Kansas has the size to play big, but it’s their small-ball lineup – with two point guards on the floor with Jackson and, say, Svi Mykhailiuk – that is the most intriguing.

The Jayhawks are not going to be the Golden State Warriors offensively, but given how tough they will be on the defensive end of the floor, they won’t need to be.

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WHY THEY WON’T WIN: The concerns about what Kansas will do offensively are probably legitimate.

By the time he graduated from the Jayhawks, Perry Ellis had turned into a running joke. His hairline combined with the fact that he was a relevant player on Kansas for all four years that he was in college made him one of the most recognizable – and notorious – college basketball players in the country.

But he was also may be the most under-appreciated player in the history of Kansas basketball. The guy was terrific. He averaged 16.9 points as the focal point offensively for Kansas, and his ability to space the floor as a shooter combined with his efficiency on the perimeter and in the post made him so valuable.

Replacing that is not going to be easy.

Carlton Bragg should be able to do a decent job. A former five-star recruit, Bragg was targeted by the Jayhawks because of his ability to operate as a face-up four, because he had a skill-set that would, in theory, allow him to play that role one day. He had flashes as a freshman, but he never did enough to force his way into the Kansas rotation.

So just how much did he develop this offseason?

Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (15) celebrates a teammate's three-point basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kansas State in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 conference tournament in Kansas City, Mo., Thursday, March 10, 2016. Kansas defeated Kansas State 85-63. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Kansas forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

Early reviews out of Lawrence were positive, but early reviews from every college campus are generally positive. The only coaches that tell the press their team is going to be bad are coaches that are looking to limit expectations because their job is on the line or they’re in a new town and are looking to get credit for a big year. So only time will tell.

I don’t think that Bragg, as a sophomore, is going to be what Ellis was as a senior. That’s a big ask, and a nod to just how good Ellis was. He doesn’t have to be either. He just has to be good enough to give the Jayhawk offense some balance and provide the perimeter with a pressure release, because if he’s not, I don’t know if the Kansas guards are good enough to survive playing a four-out offense with Landen Lucas as the big man.

There is one other minor issue I wanted to touch on: Depth. The Jayhawks don’t have a ton of it in their back court. Mason and Graham are the only two point guards on the roster, and both of them are going to be starting. Jackson isn’t quite ready to be a pure two-guard just yet, while Svi and LaGerald Vick are yet unproven.

Mason and Graham averaged 34 minutes apiece in league play last season, and Kansas should be able to survive the 10-12 minutes that Bill Self tries to steal with one or both of them on the bench. My concern is what happens if, say, Mason sprains and ankle or if Graham takes a knee to the thigh. The margin for error there is limited.

PREDICTION: I’m all in on the Jayhawks this season, probably more than any other member of the media.

I think they’re closer to being the best team in the country than they are to being the No. 3 team in the country.

I think the trio of Frank Mason, Devonte’ Graham and Josh Jackson will give Kansas the best perimeter defense in college basketball.

As long as Landen Lucas and whoever is slotted in at the four – be it Carlton Bragg, Svi Mykhailiuk, whoever – can provide enough of a scoring bump to mitigate their defensive question marks, the Jayhawks are primed to storm through the Big 12 and earn Bill Self his second national title.

Kansas guard Devonte' Graham (4) celebrates a 3-point basket during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa State in Lawrence, Kan., Saturday, March 5, 2016. Kansas defeated Iowa State 85-78. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Kansas guard Devonte’ Graham (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

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.