College Basketball Conference Reset: The Pac-12’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 Pac 12.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Lonzo Ball, UCLA

This really shouldn’t be much of a discussion. He’s done so much to revamp who this UCLA program is, and it goes beyond the simple fact that he’s averaging 8.3 assists per game. There’s an unselfishness that has permeated this roster. Players are more likely to give the ball up because they know they’re going to get it back again. He’s the engine that makes their fast break offense work and he’s the reason why they are so difficult to defend in the half court. Throw in the fact that the Bruins are one of the five or six teams everyone has listed as a national title favorite, and he’s a shoe-in for this award.

ALL-PAC 12 FIRST TEAM

  • Markelle Fultz, Washington
  • Lonzo Ball, UCLA
  • Jordan McLaughlin, USC
  • Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
  • T.J. Leaf, UCLA

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

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  1. UCLA is awesome: Entering the season, the Bruins were one of the toughest teams to peg. It wasn’t hard to see them putting together this kind of a season, but it also wasn’t hard to see Lonzo Ball failing to acclimate to the college level while the Bruins continued to struggle defensively. A Final Four was always in their range of outcomes. So was a sub-.500 season, and if we’ve learned anything in the first six weeks of the season, it’s that the Bruins are decidedly the former. The biggest reason? Their ability to score. Not only do they play as fast as anyone, but they are one of the most efficient offensive teams in the sport, which is what tends to happen when you surround Ball with four guys shooting better than 39.3 percent from three.
  2. Oregon lost more than we realized they did: The Ducks are going to return to relevancy as Dillon Brooks returns to 100 percent, but there is no question that we underestimated just how valuable Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin were to Dana Altman’s program. While the Ducks still have the talented weapons offensively, losing the kind of versatility and athleticism those two brought was not easy to replace.
  3. USC may not own LA, but Andy Enfield has another good team: Last year, the Trojans were the best program – and maybe the best basketball team – in LA. This year, with the way that the Bruins and the Lakers have played, they certainly are not, but that hasn’t slowed down Andy Enfield’s program. Despite losing Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic, and with Bennie Boatwright dealing with injury for much of the early part of the season, USC will enter league play without a loss to their name. Jordan McLaughlin has been terrific, but it’s been the emergence of players like Elijah Stewart and De’Anthony Melton that have really made the difference.
TUCSON, AZ - DECEMBER 20: Lauri Markkanen #10 of the Arizona Wildcats reacts after hitting a three point shot against the New Mexico Lobos during the second half of the college basketball game at McKale Center on December 20, 2016 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Lauri Markkanen (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  1. Arizona is getting better even if they don’t get Allonzo Trier back: What Arizona has done given the amount of turmoil surrounding that program has been impressive. They lost Ray Smith for the year to year another torn ACL. They never got Terrence Ferguson on campus. Parker Jackson-Cartwright will be out for a while with an ankle injury. And yet, the Wildcats are 11-2 on the year and trending in the right direction. The big question now is whether or not Allonzo Trier will figure out his issues and be cleared to play at any point this season.
  2. Who’s the second-best team in the Pac-12?: UCLA is the best team in the league. We all know that. I think everyone in the Pac-12 would agree. Who is the second-best? Entering the season, Oregon was thought to be the best team in the league. Arizona was up there as well, but that was before the injuries and suspensions. USC wasn’t in the conversation but it’s impossible to ignore their start to the year. It’s certainly one of those three teams. But which one?
  3. Does Washington have any chance of turning this thing around?: Markelle Fultz is a ridiculous talent having a ridiculous individual season. But he’s stuck on a roster that doesn’t have enough talent, experience, defensive effort or coaching to beat Yale, Nevada or TCU (twice). Those aren’t bad basketball teams or programs, but they’re not the kind of teams that Washington and Fultz should be losing to.

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BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: I still think that Oregon has a chance to be a Final Four team. Dana Altman is as good as any coach in the country at finding a way to get the most out of his roster, and by the time the Ducks are playing their first league game on Wednesday, Dillon Brooks should be back to 100 percent.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: USC is one of just six undefeated teams left in college basketball, and as impressive as that is to say in the days after Christmas, I’m still not sure just how good the Trojans are. Is this a team that can actually compete for the Pac-12 title, or have they gotten the job done against a schedule that probably isn’t as good as it looks on paper? I’d lean towards the former, but we’ll know for sure on Friday, when USC pays a visit to Eugene to take on the Ducks.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament in the last five seasons, and during those five seasons, he has sent five players to the first round of the NBA Draft. This year he has the potential No. 1 pick on his roster in Markelle Fultz and he appears destined for the NIT, at best. It’s impressive for a head coach at a high major program to be able to last five years without a trip to the NCAA tournament. It’s almost unheard of to go six years, especially when that includes six first round picks and the No. 1 overall pick.

EUGENE, OR - DECEMBER 11: Dillon Brooks #24 of the Oregon Ducks drives to the basket on Riley Norris #1 of the Alabama Crimson Tide during the first half of the game at Matthew Knight Arena on December 11, 2016 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Dillon Brooks #24 (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1. UCLA: What else is there to say about the Bruins that hasn’t been said yet? How about this: Aaron Holiday, their sixth-man, is the third-best player on the Bruin roster.
  • 2. Arizona: Playing without Allonzo Trier and Ray Smith, the Wildcats have been pretty impressive this season Lauri Markkanen lived up to the hype while Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins have developed into quality pieces. Sean Miller is getting a lot out of the limited pieces he has available. If they get Trier back, the Wildcats might actually be something.
  • 3. Oregon: The Ducks had a slow start to the year as they tried to work Dillon Brooks back from an injury. They’ve won nine in a row since a rough trip to Maui and will have a real test in their Pac-12 opener against UCLA.
  • 4. USC: The Trojans lost their only two seniors, both starters, this offseason, but that hasn’t mattered, as they are currently sitting at 13-0 this season. The most impressive part? Bennie Boatwright has basically been a non-factor this season, meaning the Trojans have done all this with just three players that played a second for USC in a game before this season.
  • 5. Colorado: The difference between the Buffaloes and some of the other teams that look destined for the NIT is that Colorado landed a win over Xavier during non-conference play. Combine that with the fact that the trip to the Mountain time zone is the most difficult in the league, and the Buffs are in a good spot to get back to the dance.

NIT teams

  • 6. Utah: Kyle Kuzma has been awesome all season long while Lorenzo Bonam has looked solid, but the difference for this team has been the addition of David Collette and Sedrick Barefield, who are both averaging better than 15 points since getting eligible four games ago.
  • 7. Cal: The Bears had a chance to poach an elite win at home against Virginia and let it slip away. Ivan Rabb hasn’t taken the step forward that many expected of him.
  • 8. Stanford: Reid Travis has been arguably the best big man in the conference this season, but this year looks like it going to be something of a work in progress for the Cardinal in Jerod Haase’s first season.

Autobid or bust

  • 9. Washington: The Huskies have the most talented player in college basketball on their roster and look like they’re destined for the NIT at best. It will be a shame if Markelle Fultz never plays a meaningful college basketball game on national television, because he is so talented.
  • 10. Arizona State: The Sun Devils were obliterated by Kentucky and Purdue on neutral courts, and then were called out by their head coach for not being tough enough. That probably won’t be the last time Bobby Hurley isn’t happy with his team’s play.
  • 11. Oregon State: The Beavers could end up being in last place in the league this season depending on when they get Tres Tinkle back from his wrist injury.
  • 12. Washington State: The Cougars are going to enter league play above .500 on the season, which is a positive and wasn’t a guarantee entering the year.

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.