College Basketball Conference Reset: The SEC’s best players and biggest story lines

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College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Today, we’re taking a look at the SEC.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky

Malik Monk is the guy that everyone loves on Kentucky. He’s the high-volume scorer, the shooter that can hit eight threes in a game and pop off for 47 points on national television against North Carolina. That performance was unbelievable. But Monk hasn’t played like that every game, while Fox has been terrific basically every night that he’s step foot on the court for the Wildcats. His numbers are terrific – 16.3 points, 6.8 assists, 5.0 boards, 1.8 steals – but it’s the totality of what he provides Kentucky that gets him the nod over Monk. He’s Kentucky’s engine offensively, particularly in their lethal transition game, and he’s arguably the best perimeter defender in the country. As good as Lonzo Ball and Frank Mason II have been, there’s an argument to be made that Fox has been the best point guard in college basketball.

ALL-BIG TEN FIRST TEAM

  • De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
  • Malik Monk, Kentucky
  • P.J. Dozier, South Carolina
  • Sebastian Saiz, Ole Miss
  • Yante Maten, Georgia

RESETS: ACC | Big Ten | Big EastPac-12 | SEC | Big 12

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  1. Kentucky is going to steam-roll through the league: This has more to do with Kentucky than it does the SEC, although the fact that the SEC is the weakest of the power conferences is a good thing for the Wildcats. But regardless of the reason, the Wildcats are the safest bet of any team in any league to win their conference. And that is a good thing for John Calipari, because it should afford him plenty of chances to try and cure what ails his team. Their biggest issue at this point is perimeter shooting because Cal is still figuring out how to effectively work Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis into the rotation. The other issue is Bam Adebayo, who has shown flashes of dominance but has been more or less anonymous for the first six weeks of the season. The Wildcats already are Final Four good, and they can still get better.
  2. A full strength South Carolina is the second-best team in the conference: The Gamecocks were terrific through the first month of the season, posting a perfect record and dominating the likes of Michigan and Syracuse. They are tough, they are athletic, they defend and they have a pair of really talented guards in Sindarius Thornwell and P.J. Dozier. All in all, Frank Martin’s club is just a misery to play against, as Frank Martin clubs tend to be.
  3. The young talent in the conference needs more time to mature: Entering the season, there were three teams that were really intriguing given the amount of talent that had joined the program: Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn. The Aggies should be good enough to earn themselves an NCAA tournament bid despite the fact that they are playing without a point guard, but both the Bulldogs and the Tigers look like they’re a year away from getting Bruce Pearl and Ben Howland back into the NCAA tournament.
NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 13: Yante Maten #1 of the Georgia Bulldogs shoots the ball against the South Carolina Gamecocks during the quarterfinals of the SEC Basketball Tournament at Bridgestone Arena on March 13, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Yante Maten (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  1. So how many SEC teams are going to get bids to the NCAA tournament?: Kentucky’s going dancing, that’s for sure. Beyond that? Nothing is a given. Part of the reason is that the league, has a whole, did not land many great non-conference wins. Kentucky picked off North Carolina. Beyond that? South Carolina has wins over Syracuse and Michigan, Florida beat Seton Hall and Miami, Arkansas beat Texas, Georgia beat Georgia Tech, Ole Miss beat Memphis, Texas A&M beat … Denver. What that means is that, as of today, not only are these SEC teams in a bad spot today, there are only so many quality wins available in conference play. Just how much can you improve your résumé if you don’t land a win over the Wildcats? The league sent three teams to the tournament last season. Can they better that number this year?
  2. When will Sindarius Thornwell return?: Thornwell was deservedly in the conversation for all-americans seven games into the season, averaging 18.7 points, 6.1 boards and 4.3 assists. But then he got suspended for an offseason arrest, and the Gamecocks have gone just 2-2 in his absence. Yes, it’s given a chance for P.J. Dozier to shine, but if Thornwell is out for any significant amount of time, South Carolina is going to have a significantly lower ceiling than they would otherwise.
  3. Is there a challenger to Kentucky in the conference?: If there is going to be one, it’s going to be South Carolina. But we won’t have an answer to that until we know when the Gamecocks will be back to 100 percent. Even then, in order for Kentucky to blow the league title, something weird is going to have to happen.

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BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: Georgia is checking in at 8-4 on the season, which is the kind of non-conference record that is usually reserved for teams that are going to be mired somewhere near the bottom of a power conference. The Bulldogs are better than that – J.J. Frazier is one of the better point guards in the conference and Yante Maten is one of the best big men in the country – but just how much “better than that” they are depends on just how good their supporting cast ends up being.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: Four games into the season, Arkansas went to Minnesota and lost by 14 points. At that point, it looked like the Razorbacks were destined for another .500 season, but fast forward a month and that is still the only loss Arkansas has suffered while Minnesota is sitting at 12-1. Moses Kingsley hasn’t been as good as he was as a junior, but that may be a good thing for Mike Anderson’s club as they look to be more balanced.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Kim Anderson climbed out of a coffin at Missouri’s Midnight Madness, which is not the imagery that a coach who won 19 games in his first two seasons and went 6-30 in the SEC in that span wants to invoke. The Tigers have already lost to NC Central and Eastern Illinois this season. Yikes.

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17: Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats drives against Kenny Williams #24 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Malik Monk (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1. Kentucky: What else is their left to say about the Wildcats? They are a second consistent three-point shooter away from being an absolute terror. The good thing about playing in the SEC is that they shouldn’t have their chances of a No. 1 seed hurt if they focus on developing the likes of Bam Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel, Mychal Mulder and Derek Willis.
  • 2. South Carolina: The Gamecocks are a misery to play against. They’re as tough and physical defensively as every Frank Martin team has been, but this group actually has some skill of the offensive end of the floor. P.J. Dozier has been fantastic this month, but the Gamecocks have a ceiling if they don’t get Thornwell back.
  • 3. Florida: I’m still trying to figure out this Florida team. They have the pieces that would allow them to thrive in Mike White’s system and they have some impressive computer numbers, but this was the case last season as well. The on-court product has yet to match the on-paper potential.
  • 4. Texas A&M: The Aggies are a point guard short of being really good. They have a really good front line – namely Tyler Davis and Robert Williams – and some solid shooters around them, but they don’t have a playmaker to set the table. The Aggies are in a tough spot in terms of getting a tournament bid after a non-conference season where they lost close games to Arizona, UCLA and USC.

NIT teams

  • 5. Georgia: The Bulldogs have the best one-two punch in the league this side of Kentucky in J.J. Frazier and Yante Maten,
  • 6. Arkansas: The Razorbacks are the great unknown in the SEC. They have a gaudy 11-1 record but they haven’t really beaten anyone that would make you believe that record is real. They could finish under-.500 in the league and they also could finish second in the league.
  • 7. Ole Miss: I like this Rebel team. Sebastian Saiz might be the best big man in the conference, but as long as Deandre Burnett has these bouts of inconsistency, Ole Miss has a ceiling.
  • 8. Auburn: The loss to Boston College is worrying, but with wins over Oklahoma and at UConn – and the recent addition of Austin Wiley – there’s reason to be bullish on the Tigers as we head into conference play.

Autobid or bust

  • 9. Tennessee: The Vols actually looked pretty good at North Carolina, when they had a chance to knock off the Tar Heels on the final possession. Four of their five losses this season have come to Wisconsin, Oregon, North Carolina and Gonzaga.
  • 10. Alabama: The Crimson Tide have played a pretty difficult schedule, but the only win of note that they have to date came against Arkansas State. It seems fitting that a team coached by Avery Johnson doesn’t have anyone averaging double-figures.
  • 11. Vanderbilt: The Commodores are sitting at 6-6 on the season, but they’ve had some promising performances of late, beating Chattanooga and losing by five at Dayton.
  • 12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs got a boost last month when it turned out that Quinndary Weatherspoon didn’t actually need season-ending wrist surgery. That doesn’t, however, change the fact that this is a very young roster that Ben Howland is working with.
  • 13. LSU: The Tigers have a 35-point loss to Wichita State and a 36-point home loss to Wake Forest on their résumé.
  • 14. Missouri: During Missouri’s midnight madness festivities, Missouri head coach Kim Anderson made the decision to climb out of a coffin to introduce the crowd. I wonder at what point he’ll realize the symbolism.

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.