Kentucky-Louisville Preview: Four things to watch for in Wednesday’s showdown

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The 50th installation of the rivalry that doubles as a blood feud in the commonwealth will take place on Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. ET, as No. 6 Kentucky makes the 80-mile trek west on I-64 to take on No. 10 Louisville in the KFC Yum! Center.

Kentucky has won the last four meetings and eight of the last nine, and while they’ll enter Wednesday night’s showdown as two point underdogs, the line Vegas sets and the general perception of what this matchup will be differs. After that thrilling, 103-100 win over North Carolina on Saturday, the Louisville Courier-Journal polled 82 media members on who they think will win; 64 of them picked the Wildcats

Why does Vegas differ so much from the people paid to talk about this sport? And what are the three things that will determine the outcome of this game? Let’s get into it:

1. Will Louisville be able to score enough points to win?: Kentucky can put up points as well as anyone in college basketball. We all know that. They reached the century mark four times in 11 games this season, including on Saturday against North Carolina, who has the 14th-best defense in the country, according to KenPom. Only once this year have they failed to crack 87 points.

Louisville? According to Synergy’s logs, they ranked in the 44th percentile in offensive efficiency at 0.897 points-per-possession. They’re 227th nationally in effective field goal percentage and 244th in three-point percentage. Their three best perimeter players – Donovan Mitchell, Quentin Snider and Deng Adel – all shoot under 37.5 percent from the floor and below 33.3 percent from three; Adel and Mitchell both check in at 29 percent from beyond the arc.

The key to slowing this Kentucky team down is limiting their transition opportunities. Avoiding live-ball turnovers and bad shots that lead to run-outs is one way to do that, but the best way to slow a team down is, simply, to score. Make them take the ball out of the net while you get back on defense.

Which leads me to the biggest question of the day: How is Louisville going to score against a team whose defense can be as suffocating as Kentucky’s?

To me, there are two ways to do to this:

  1. Capitalize on your own transition chances. Louisville has, according to KenPom, the best defense in college basketball. Part of the reason for that is that they force turnovers on 23 percent of their defensive possessions. Turning those into easy buckets before the Kentucky defense can get set will be critical, as will Louisville’s awareness when it comes to what is and what isn’t a good transition opportunity.
  2. Get to the offensive glass. Kentucky is 238th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage. Louisville is eighth nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. There are going to be times where Louisville’s best offense will be a missed shot that turns into a tip-in.

Kentucky is going to get their’s, and I think it’s safe to say that Louisville is going to have to score more than 75 points if they want to win this game. If Rick Pitino can find a way to generate points – or if Mitchell and Adel finally find a way to play the way we all thought they would play this season – the Cardinals will have a shot.

LOUISVILLE, KY - DECEMBER 10:  Rick Pitino the head coach of the Louisville Cardinals watches the action during the game against the Texas Southern Tigers at KFC YUM! Center on December 10, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Rick Pitino (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

2. Louisville has to find a way to slow-down Malik Monk: Monk is the most dangerous scorer in college basketball. Louisville has the nation’s best defense. Strength on strength is always fun.

What made Monk’s performance against North Carolina wasn’t so much that he was able to pop off for 47 points and carry his team – if you paid any attention in the preseason, you would have known that it was going to happen at some point – it was that he provided a way for Kentucky to score in half court settings. That’s the biggest concern with the Wildcats. Given their lack of perimeter shooting and some of the offensive question marks that they have in key positions on the offensive end of the floor, what happens when De’Aaron Fox, Isaiah Briscoe and Monk aren’t able to get layups and dunks on the break?

The answer, on Saturday at least, was Monk. John Calipari spoke after the game about how he put in plays similar to what he ran for Jamal Murray last season, plays designed specifically to get Monk an open shot or an opportunity to go one-on-one against a defender. I would be shocked if we didn’t see that out of Kentucky again, and I think that Louisville is better equipped to handle it than North Carolina was.

For starters, the Cards have so much length. Mitchell, who I expect will get plenty of chances to go up against Monk, is long and athletic. Adel and V.J. King are 6-foot-7 athletes with plus-wingspans. Those three are also athletic enough that they should be able to at least make things difficult for Monk, which is about all you can ask against a guy who is unguardable when he’s running hot.

But the more interesting part of this is that Pitino has developed one of the more complicated defenses to play against. They have so many different looks they can give. Sometimes they press full-court in man-to-man. Sometimes it’s a 2-2-1 press. Sometimes they drop back into a man-to-man. Sometimes it’s a 2-3 zone. Many times, that half court defense is some combination of the two, where they’re playing man on half of the court and zone on the other half or changing defenses midway through a possession.

One former Louisville player described it to me as a gameplan of “organized chaos”, and it can be a nightmare to breakdown.

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3. Who steps up for Kentucky?: As good as the Wildcats were on Saturday, it was somewhat concerning that so much of their offense came from Fox and Monk. Those two finished with 71 points and 12 assists, combining to contribute 87 of Kentucky’s 103 points.

That’s not something that is sustainable, meaning that Kentucky will need to find another source of scoring. I don’t think it will be Isaiah Briscoe, who has turned into one of the best glue-guys in college basketball. Derek Willis was a difference-maker last season, but his issues defensively mean that he splits time with Wenyen Gabriel, who is very much a work in progress on the offensive end.

To me, the answer is Bam Adebayo, who has been good in stretches this season but has struggled to stay on the floor. He battled foul trouble throughout against North Carolina and still managed to finish with 13 points and seven boards. Louisville’s front line is as deep as they are long and athletic, and Adebayo’s ability to deal with the likes of Jaylen Johnson, Ray Spalding, Anas Mahmoud and Mangok Mathiang without picking up fouls is going to be critical.

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 11:  (L-R) Isaiah Briscoe #13, Edrice Adebayo #3 and De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrate on the bench against the Hofstra Pride in the second half of the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival at Barclays Center on December 11, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

4. This is Kentucky’s first true road test: Here’s a stat for you, courtesy of ESPN’s John Gasaway: In the Calipari-era, Kentucky is just 2-5 in their first true road games of the season. In 2008, they won at Indiana in Tom Crean’s second season with the Hoosiers, a year where Indiana finished 194th in KenPom’s rankings. In 2014, they won at Louisville the season that they started 38-0. The other five years? They’ve lost at North Carolina twice, they lost at Indiana thanks to Christian Watford, they lost at Notre Dame in Nerlens Noel’s one season on campus and they lost at UCLA last season.

Home court advantage in college basketball is massive. It’s worth anywhere between five and ten points, depending on the teams involved and the pace of play. Just one example, from the projections on KenPom: Louisville is picked to win by one point against Virginia at home. They’re projected to lost by five to the Cavaliers on the road.

And that’s before you factor in that so many of Kentucky’s most important players will be playing their first true road game in a rivalry as heated as Kentucky-Louisville in an environment that can be as hostile as the Yum! Center.

That’s a massive advantage to have in a game like this and has as much to do with where Vegas set their opening line than anything else happening in this game.

 

 

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.