Five takeaways from Kentucky’s 103-100 win over North Carolina

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No. 6 Kentucky beat No. 7 North Carolina 103-100 in what was one of the best college basketball games that you’ll see.

Malik Monk went bananas. Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II had (almost) enough answers. And the result was a thriller that came down to the final seconds. 

Here are the five things we learned from that game:

1. So that Malik Monk guy is pretty good: Can you think of a more impressive performance than the one that Malik Monk had on Saturday afternoon in Las Vegas?

Buddy Hield’s 46 points in Oklahoma’s loss at Kansas, the No. 1 vs. No. 1 game from last January, comes to mind, but Buddy did that in three overtimes. Denzel Valentine’s 29-12-12 game in last year’s Champions Classic. Jeremy Morgan had 38 points in one half for Northern Iowa last weekend. All terrific, but I’m not sure any of them are in the same class as what Monk did on Saturday.

Forgetting, for a second, that Monk scored 47 points on 28 shots – the majority of which were jumpers, he only got to the foul line five times – in a 40-minute game against the No. 7 team in the country, Monk buried contested threes twice in the last two minutes to answer a North Carolina baskets. The first came after Justin Jackson gave the Tar Heels their first lead of the game at 98-95. The second came with 15 seconds left with Kentucky down 100-98.

He carried the Wildcat’s offense for 38 minutes.

Then he made the two shots he had to make to ensure that this team wouldn’t lose.

Unreal.

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2. Should we be concerned about Kentucky’s supporting cast?: While he wasn’t quite as good as Monk was, De’Aaron Fox probably would have been considered the Player of the Day on any other day, finishing with 23 points and 10 assists. Combined, Fox and Monk took 49 of Kentucky’s 74 shots and 12 of their 21 free throws. They scored 70 of Kentucky’s 103 points.

It was dominant.

But what happens when Monk isn’t incapable of missing, or if Fox goes up against a defender that’s able to keep him out of the paint? In other words, when the Wildcats are playing against competition like this, are they going to have to rely on those two playing like this to win?

There are two reasons I bring this up:

  1. Kentucky didn’t really have a third option avail himself. Bam Adebayo played much better in the second half than he did in the first, but outside of about a five-minute stretch in the second half, he was mostly anonymous. Bam finished with 13 points and seven boards before fouling out. Briscoe added 10 points, seven boards and four assists, but his best role on this team is as a glue-guy largely due to the fact that he’s always going to struggle to score against this level of competition. Does Kentucky have a third option they can count on? Do they even need one?
  2. Suddenly that vaunted Kentucky defense doesn’t seem so scary. The Wildcats gave up 97 points on 83 possessions to UCLA in Rupp Arena. They gave up 100 points on 79 possessions against UNC. Their perimeter is supposed to be the strength of the defense, but they let Justin Jackson go for 34 points and were torched by Joel Berry II, who had 23 points and seven assists, in ball-screen actions. Put another way, it looks like they’re going to have to be able to score in the 90s if they want to beat elite teams. Can they do that if either Monk or Fox has an off-night or gets into foul trouble?

3. What a difference a Berry makes: Without Joel Berry II on the floor, North Carolina struggled to put away Davidson and then nearly got upset by Tennessee, both games that happened in the Dean Dome. Against Tennessee, Justin Jackson finished shooting 3-for-15 from the floor and 0-for-6 from three.

Fast forward six days and the Tar Heels traveled across the country and not only survived the raining hellfire that was Malik Monk’s shooting but came back on them and took the lead in the final minute. Jackson? He finished with 34 points in what was without a doubt the best performance of his career as Berry went for 23 points and seven assists, carving up Kentucky’s ball-screen defense.

Berry is not only UNC’s second-leading scorer, but he is the guy who creates better looks for everyone else on the floor. If the last two games wasn’t enough to prove it to you, Saturday was. And if you still don’t believe it, you cannot be helped.

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17: Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels drives to the basket against De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Kentucky won 103-100. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Justin Jackson (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

4. Just how good are North Carolina’s big men?: First things first: North Carolina is really, really good. I’m not sure they’re ‘Steal The ACC Title From Duke’ good, but they’re definitely good enough that a Final Four isn’t unlikely; if they finish second in the ACC I think they’re probably looking at a No. 2 seed at worst. Berry and Jackson can quite clearly hold their own with any 1-2 punch in college hoops, and the Heels are still waiting to get Theo Pinson back.

But there is a concern with this team: Their front court. Do they have a shot-blocker? Do they have a low-post scoring threat that is, truly, a threat? Kennedy Meeks is a land-warrior that always seems to be in foul trouble. Isaiah Hicks is a freak athlete that has never capitalized on his gifts. Tony Bradley is a freshman that is still learning just how good he can be.

The million-dollar question is if it will matter. Think about it like this: Of the top six teams in the country – Duke, Villanova, Kansas, North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA – no one has a front line that is overpowering. Gonzaga and Baylor do, but I’m not convinced they’re on the same level. In fact, there aren’t many teams anywhere in the country that have a front line that will strike fear in UNC’s hearts.

5. This win was enormous for Kentucky’s chances at a No. 1 seed: Kentucky has as many marquee non-conference games as anyone. They got Michigan State in the Champions Classic. They played Arizona State and Hofstra in nationally-televised neutral site games. They beat UNC today and still have Louisville in the Yum! Center next week and Kansas in Rupp Arena next month.

But they lost to UCLA. Beating the trio of Michigan State, Arizona State and Hofstra isn’t all that notable. The SEC doesn’t have another elite team in the league. If Kentucky had lost this game, they probably would have had to beat both Louisville and Kansas for any shot at getting a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday. They probably still need to win both of those games to feel comfortable, but at least with this win they know they have one elite win in the bank.

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.