Weekend Preview: Breaking down Saturday’s loaded slate

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SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 7 Duke at No. 14 Louisville, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPN)

The most interesting matchup of the day might not end up being all that exciting of a game. Louisville is a smothering defensive team, one not so much built on forcing turnovers like past teams were, but a team built on making it tough to run offense and forcing you to take bad shots. This is a problem for the Blue Devils, because they are a team without a point guard at the moment. Grayson Allen is doing the job pretty well, but he’s a playmaker built to attack, not a guy that is a natural facilitator.

And then there is the issue of Duke’s defense. It’s not very good. At all. That’s good news for a Louisville team that struggles to score at times. Then consider that Duke’s best interior defender and defensive rebounder, Amile Jefferson, is not expected to play, and the No. 13 team in offensive rebounding percentage should have a field day pushing around Harry Giles III and Marques Bolden.

But here’s the most important thing to remember: In 2015, Duke was in the midst of a similar crisis of identity. They had just lost at N.C. State and been blown out at home by Miami. They were 2-2 in the ACC and everyone in the world was questioning whether a team with Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow actually deserved the hype they had entering the season and whether they were actually tough enough to defend at the ACC level. Their next game was at Louisville, a top ten team that looked the part of an ACC title contender, and Duke smoked them. They were up 32-20 at the half. They pushed that lead to 20 in the second half.

The Blue Devils, if you recall, won the national title that year.

  • PREDICTION: The biggest difference between 2015 and 2017? Coach K is not on the bench this year. I’ll take Louisville (-4).
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 25: Dwayne Bacon #4 of the Florida State Seminoles drives to the basket against the Illinois Fighting Illiniin the second half during the consolation game of the NIT Season Tip-Off at Barclays Center on November 25, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Dwayne Bacon (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

No. 9 Florida State at No. 11 North Carolina, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN)

The Seminoles are one of just two undefeated teams in the ACC as of today, and their schedule has been anything but fluff. They won at Virginia, which is not an easy thing to do or as impressive as their 16 point win over Duke on Tuesday night. This is probably the best team that Leonard Hamilton has ever had in Tallahassee, and if they can somehow manage to land a win at North Carolina on Saturday, it will be time to call them the favorite to win the league.

But the Tar Heels are not going to roll over easy. This is a team that has been as impressive as anyone in the country when they’re playing at full health against teams not named Georgia Tech. Justin Jackson vs. Dwayne Bacon may be the best individual matchup that we get on Saturday.

  • PREDICTION: I do think that UNC wins this game, but I don’t think that Florida State gets run out of the gym. Seminoles (+7.5) is pretty tasty.

No. 15 Xavier at No. 12 Butler, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (FS1)

It’s hard to know which of these two teams need this win more. Xavier hasn’t done anything yet this season to warrant their rankings – we’ll get into that later on in this column, I promise – while Butler has one of the weirder résumés in the sport. The Bulldogs have beaten Villanova, Arizona, Cincinnati, Indiana and won at Utah. They’ve also lost to Indiana State and St. John’s and got obliterated by Creighton on Wednesday night. Both of these teams really, really need a win to get things headed in the right direction.

  • PREDICTION: Butler’s three losses all have something in common: they came on the road. Xavier? They lost by 15 at Baylor, at Colorado and by 25 at Villanova. Butler (-4.5).

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No. 21 Saint Mary’s at No. 5 Gonzaga, Sat. 10:00 p.m. (ESPN2)

You’re going to have to stay up late to watch this one, but who are we kidding. It’s a Saturday night. You’re going to be up late anyway, so it will be worth your time to check out one of the most underappreciated rivalries in the country getting played in one of the best atmospheres you’ll find in sports anywhere. And should I mention that both of these teams are pretty freakin’ good this season? I know we say this every year, but I think this is finally the team that gets Mark Few to the Final Four, while Randy Bennett has a talented, veteran group built around point guard Emmett Naar and potential all-american big man Jock Landale.

  • PREDICTION: You don’t win at Gonzaga, and you don’t hang with Gonzaga in the Kennel. Zags (-6).

FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • No. 19 Virginia at Clemson, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ACC Network): After losing to Georgia Tech during the week, Clemson is digging themselves a hole they may not be able to get out of. The good news? The ACC is strong enough they’ll have plenty of chances. Prediction: Clemson (+2.5)
  • No. 20 Notre Dame at Virginia Tech, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ACC Network): The Fighting Irish have developed quite a reputation winning close games this season. They’re 4-0 in the ACC and all four wins are by single-digits. Prediction: Notre Dame (+2.5)
  • No. 1 Baylor at No. 25 Kansas State, Sat. 4:30 p.m. (ESPNU): No team in college basketball has had worse luck in conference play. They lost at Kansas because Svi Mykhailiuk cannot travel and they lost at Texas Tech when the referees swallowed their whistles. Prediction: I liked Kansas State (+1), and I think KSU wins, but I don’t love the Wildcats (-2)
  • No. 4 UCLA at Utah, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (Pac-12): Utah is coming off of a 20-point win over No. 25 USC on Thursday night. UCLA will play their second game at elevation in three days. Prediction: (UCLA (-5)
  • Wichita State at Illinois State, Sat. 8:00 p.m. (ESPN2): Two 5-0 teams in the Missouri Valley square off on Saturday night. Prediction: Wichita State (-2.5)
CHAPEL HILL, NC - DECEMBER 11: Justin Jackson #44 of the North Carolina Tar Heels reacts after a play during their game against the Tennessee Volunteers at Dean Smith Center on December 11, 2016 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Justin Jackson (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

FIVE STORY LINES TO KEEP AN EYE ON

1. We’re going to have a much clearer picture of the ACC hierarchy after Saturday: The way I see it, there are five teams that can legitimately win the ACC regular season title right now: No. 7 Duke, No. 9 Florida State, No. 11 North Carolina, No. 14 Louisville and No. 20 Notre Dame. On Saturday, Duke plays at Louisville and Florida State plays at North Carolina.

If Florida State wins at UNC, it may be time to pencil the Seminoles in as the outright ACC title favorites. They would have wins at Virginia and at North Carolina under their belt with a 16-point home win over Duke as well. The loser of the Duke-Louisville game, then, would likely be out of the running for a regular season title already. That would be loss No. 3 for either team.

2. Just how long will Gonzaga remain undefeated?: There is just one undefeated team left in college basketball today, and that is Gonzaga. And like the run Wichita State made during the 2013-14 season (and, frankly, like Kentucky the following season) the Bulldogs play in a conference where running the table is very possible. It’s not going to be easy, as every gym Gonzaga will walk into will be rocking as they play in their opponent’s Super Bowl, but the Bulldogs will be the heavy favorite in essentially every game they play the rest of the season.

Except for when they square off with Saint Mary’s, a top 20 team in their own right. The Bulldogs host the Gaels on Saturday night. They visit Moraga on Feb. 11th. If the Zags are going to have their undefeated run ended before March, it will probably happen in one of those two games.

3. Does Baylor avoid losing two in a row as the No. 1 team in the country?: The feel-good story of the season came crashing back to earth on Tuesday, as Baylor, then-undefeated and No. 1 for the first time in program history, went into Morgantown and got absolutely mollywhopped by No. 10 West Virginia. The Bears turned the ball over 29 times and, frankly, we made to look like an overmatched buy-game opponent instead of a legitimate contender to the Big 12 title. That came after Baylor struggled to dispatch Iowa State and Oklahoma State at home.

This weekend, the Bears head right back out on the road, playing at a Kansas State team that is better than you probably realize. The Wildcats would’ve had a chance to beat Kansas in Phog Allen Fieldhouse had someone called Svi Mykhailiuk for a travel on the final play. They also would’ve beaten Texas Tech on the road if the referees in Lubbock hadn’t swallowed their whistles. Bruce Weber has himself a squad, and going into the Octagon of Doom is not an easy task for anyone.

Here’s the catch – if Baylor really is going to be a Big 12 title contender, if they are going to push a Kansas team that hasn’t been anywhere other than the top of the conference standings for the last dozen years, they have to do things like bounce-back from getting whooped to beat a good team on the road. That’s what conference champions do.

Can Baylor do it?

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins brings the ball up the court against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the CBS Sports Classic at T-Mobile Arena on December 17, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. UCLA won 86-73. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Lonzo Ball (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

4. UCLA is going to be tested by Utah: The nicest thing that Colorado ever did for UCLA was to let them get a relatively easy win on Thursday night, because that means that the Bruins didn’t have to burn through their legs playing at altitude when they have to make the trip to Salt Lake City to face off with the Utes 48 hours later.

And, it should be noted, that Utah is much better now than they were a month ago. On Thursday night, they smoked No. 25 USC, a win that propelled them to 3-1 in the league. Their only loss came at Arizona, who is a game ahead of the pace. The difference came when Sedrick Barefield and David Collette were able to get eligible in December, meaning that the Utes now have depth and balance and a response when teams are able to slow down Kyle Kuzma and Lorenzo Bonam. This game will be the chance Utah needs to prove themselves a threat in the league race.

5. What has Xavier done to make us believe they should be ranked where they are?: The Musketeers entered the season as a top 10-15 team, depending on where it is you go to get your college basketball team rankings. They’re currently ranked 15th, but what have they done this season to justify that ranking? A neutral court win over Clemson back in November? Because since then, they’ve lost at Baylor, they’ve lost at Colorado and they got smoked at Villanova. None of the wins they’ve landed since then are worth much of anything. On Saturday, they play at Butler. We’re halfway through the season, and there’s nothing on the Musketeers résumé to prove to us that this is a team that’s good.

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 20: Edmond Sumner #4 of the Xavier Musketeers reacts after a play in the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 20, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Edmond Sumner (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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.