For North Carolina, ‘Redemption’ has never been so sweet

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — Joel Berry II’s parents didn’t like the tattoo, not at first.

On Monday night — a night they spent watching their son score 22 points and dish out six assists, a night where Berry’s steadfast belief in himself, in his teammates, paid off with a national title win over Gonzaga — they both had that same tattoo in the same spot on their arm.

The Berry family motto is ‘Believe’. Has been as long as Joel II can remember. “Believe in what you want,” Kathie, Joel’s mother, said. “Believe you can win. That’s just what we live.” It’s what Joel II has lived, too, never more so than in the 364 days since his dream was snatched from his fingers in the 4.7 seconds it took Ryan Arcidiacono to find Kris Jenkins for that game-winning, title-snatching three.

It would have been easy for Joel II to give up, to assume that his one shot at hanging a banner in the Dean Dome was gone. That’s why he got the word tattooed on the inside of his left bicep right before the start of this season.

“It’s something that I want to be able to down and see, no matter what,” Joel II said. “Look, I’m not a big fan of tattoos. If I get a tattoo, I want it to mean something to me. This right here has got me throughout this whole season. To be here right now, it’s just all because of believing in myself and believing in my teammates, believing in what the coaches want us to do.”

“That word. It just means so much.”

His parents knew that, which is why they, along with Berry’s four brothers and sisters, inked up the inside of their left bicep with an identical, removable tattoo for Monday’s game. They just had to find a way to show it to him.

Joel II can hear that whistle anywhere, man. Even in domed football stadium packed to the gills with more than 77,000 buzzed, sunburnt fans that spent a little too much time tailgating outside on a beautiful, 85 degree day in the desert, Berry can hear that whistle.

“My mom has been doing that whistle since I was five years old,” Berry said. “Sometimes that whistle is because I’m in trouble, and sometimes it’s because she’s trying to get our attention. I can hear it from anywhere.”

On Monday night, he heard it right before the start of the game. When he turned around, the entire Berry clan was flexing their arm, pointing to their left bicep.

“It almost made me cry right then.”



That wasn’t the only time that Berry cried on the University of Phoenix Stadium floor.

After he gobbled up a loose ball with 15 seconds left, after he found Justin Jackson for a dunk that put the Tar Heels ahead 70-65 with 12 seconds left, after Kennedy Meeks picked off a Gonzaga pass with nine seconds left, Berry headed to the free throw line, game in hand, redemption complete.

And emotionally, he couldn’t handle it.

“I was about to cry at the free throw line,” Berry said. “It was just a relief. I couldn’t believe it. I told the ref, ‘sir, i need a timeout,’ and I went to the sideline. ‘Look, I needed that, I’m about to lose it.’ Coach was like, ‘don’t lose it yet. Just knock these free throws in, then we can celebrate.’ And I went up there and I missed the first one.”

“I knocked in the second one and I was running down the court and I was crying.”

He wasn’t alone. Theo Pinson was crying before the final buzzer sounded. Isaiah Hicks copped to having to struggle to hold back tears. Justin Jackson didn’t bother holding them back. “Tears of joy started falling and I couldn’t control it,” he said.

This moment was cathartic for the Tar Heels. A year ago, at this same time, they were the ones left in tears following one of the most memorable plays in basketball history, a title-winning, buzzer-beating three from Kris Jenkins. After that shot went down, Williams said, “the feeling of inadequacy in the locker room last year is the worst feeling I’ve ever had.”

That is what North Carolina has been carrying with them all season long. It’s part of the reason Berry got that tattoo on his arm. It’s why the team’s group text has been named ‘Redemption’. It’s why the screen-saver on Pinson’s phone is a picture of him immediately after last year’s title game loss. It’s all hokey and cliché and narrative-driven, and it’s all too painfully accurate. Williams told his team that they had a chance to do this at the team’s first meeting back in August, that this was a group that had the pieces on their roster to avenge last year’s loss, to allow them to experience what it was like to be in a title-winning locker room.

But that didn’t always help.

“Every time I tried to think about us winning it I thought about the outcome of last year,” Nate Britt II said.

(Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

The other subplot of the Tar Heel season is the looming investigation that is being held over the head of the university. We’re approaching a two years since North Carolina first received a Notice of Allegations for violations committed in a wide-reaching academic scandal that has forever tarnished the sterling reputation of North Carolina. Not the basketball program, the school.

I understand why it would be hard for a neutral to be happy for North Carolina. Not only is there the skepticism that the NCAA would ever actually hammer one of their flagship programs, but UNC also has the money to fund an elite legal defense team that will make every effort to ensure that this is the most difficult investigation the NCAA will ever do.

I can’t blame anyone for that.

But understand, the scandal at North Carolina, the one that has muddied Williams’ name and could eventually result in a national title banner coming down, had nothing to do with any of the players on the floor tonight. They didn’t reap the benefits of any fake classes. Most of them came to North Carolina despite the fact that this investigation is ongoing.

“I wish it got no attention here, because this should be about the kids,” Williams said. “I wish it got no attention. But I know it’s out there. But the last three or four years have been very hard. I told you, people have questioned my integrity, and that means more to me than anything.”

“I know that we did nothing wrong. I know that I did nothing wrong. I’ve been investigated 77 times, it seems like. And everybody came to that conclusion. But there were some mistakes made at my university that I’m not happy about, either.”

It’s debatable — and probably inaccurate — to say that Williams did nothing wrong, but it’s 100 percent correct to say as much about the players. Their life in the public eye has been made that much more annoying by the fact that they have to answer questions about it. More importantly, they’re the ones that took last year’s loss, and the ones that will celebrate this year’s win, the hardest.

“After the Oregon game,” Berry recalled of a conversation he had with home roommate on the road, Pinson, “we had just talked about we get another shot at this, and we’re not going to let it get away from us.”

“Even if i have to steal that trophy from Gonzaga,” Pinson said back, “I’m not leaving that gym without the trophy.”

“We made that dream come true. I can forget about that shot from last year,” Berry said. “When we wake up in the morning it’s going to be us on the front of the newspaper.”

All it took was a title to get over last year’s heart break.


(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Things are going to be different in the Britt household from now on.

Nate II took last year’s loss particularly hard. Kris Jenkins, the man responsible for all of that heartbreak, is his brother. Jenkins lived with the Britts in the Washington D.C. area, moving in with the family in 2007 when they became his legal guardians, which seemed like a great idea until big brother hit the shot that gave him a ring and left little brother in tears. Imagine being reminded of that moment every time you walk by your brother’s room. Imagine being reminded of that moment every time he wears his national title hat or his national title t-shirt. Hell, imagine being reminded of that moment every time you see your brother.

“I’ve got balance in my house now,” Nate Sr. said.

And this time, it was Nate II that made Jenkins’ eyes water.

“I didn’t cry last year,” Jenkins said, moments after getting a bear hug from Ramses, the North Carolina mascot, while wearing a Nate Britt t-shirt jersey.

“I cried a little bit tonight.”

(Photo by Christian Petersen/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.