College Hoops Contender Series: Three (flawed?) Final Four favorites

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Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.

Last week, we gave you our Final Four sleepers. Today, we talk Final Four contenders.

To me, there is a clear-cut line between the teams ranked in the top four or five and the rest of the top 25. Duke probably should be ranked No. 1 in your preseason poll, but their question marks at the point guard spot and the youth on the roster are enough that I can see two teams arguably being ranked above them.

I also think there is another clear-cut tier of teams, through the top 12, that are good enough that they are a decent bet to get to the Final Four in San Antonio while being flawed enough that we cannot consider them a true title contender, at least not in October.

Two of those teams won a national title in recent years: Villanova and Louisville. Another, West Virginia, has yet to make it out of the Sweet 16 as Press Virginia. Let’s take a dive into those three teams, shall we?

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Jalen Brunson (Eric Francis/Getty Images)

VILLANOVA

Over the course of the last four years, Villanova has done the following:

  • Won four outright Big East regular season titles, with each title coming by at least two full games.
  • In those four seasons, they’ve gone 63-9 in Big East play and 129-17 overall.
  • The next-best record in the Big East over those four years is Xavier’s 42-30 mark.
  • The combined-record of the conference runner-up during this Villanova dynasty is 52-20, 11 games worse than the Wildcats. Including Big East tournament games, Villanova has lost just 11 times to Big East teams during those four years.
  • They’ve won two Big East tournament titles.
  • They won the 2016 national title.

There has not been a more successful team in college basketball over the course of that four-year period, so why in the world would it make sense to assume that trend would change heading into the 2017-18 season?

Well, the Wildcats lost Josh Hart, a first-team all-american last season and a first round draft pick last June, as well as Kris Jenkins, the man who gave Villanova their first national title since 1985.

Those are big, big losses, and it would be silly to argue otherwise, but losing stars has not slowed Villanova down during this run. They lost James Bell and Jayvaughn Pinkston after the first league title. They lost Darrun Hilliard the year after. Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu graduated after the Wildcats won the title. Jay Wright has built a program that is as adept as any at handling turnover within a roster, and this season should be no exception.

It starts with Jalen Brunson, the former McDonald’s All-American point guard who was arguably Villanova’s best player for a stretch at the end of his sophomore season. I’m not sure there is a higher IQ player in the country than Brunson, who has done nothing but win throughout the entirety of basketball career, whether it was at the high school or college level.

He’ll be an all-american this season, the biggest reason that Villanova remains at the top of the Big East standings.

Even with the loss of Hart, Villanova will have some of the best wings in the sport. Phil Booth is back after missing last season through injury, and Mikal Bridges should take another step forward this year. The guy to watch here is Donte DiVincenzo, who had a terrific redshirt freshman season and will be atop every list of breakout players this year. Eric Paschall is back, former five-star center Omari Spellman will be eligible and Jermaine Samuels has all the makings of the next great Villanova wing.

Change doesn’t hurt this program.

I’m not sure what would actually hurt this program.

But I do know this: Villanova has one of the nation’s best coaches. They have one of the nation’s best point guards. They have three redshirt juniors and a redshirt sophomore that will rotate through on the wings. And they have a pair of freshmen that picked the Wildcats over the nation’s bluebloods.

The only thing that makes me hesitant to put Villanova on this list is the narrative. They won the 2016 national title. They didn’t get out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament in 2014, 2015 or 2017.

Can we really call them a Final Four favorite if all they do is win national titles or get upset?

MORE2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

V.J. King (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

LOUISVILLE

Back in May, back before Donovan Mitchell had climbed his way into the lottery of NBA Draft boards and when it looked like there was at least a shot that he would be returning to school, Louisville was very much in the conversation to be the preseason No. 1 overall team in the country.

That, however, has changed just a bit.

Not only did Mitchell leave, and not only did Louisville find out that the banners that they hung in 2012 (Final Four) and 2013 (National Title) may end up coming down, but the Cardinals were implicated in last month’s FBI complaints that resulted in the arrest of ten people. Rick Pitino was fired. Star freshman Brian Bowen will probably never play college basketball.

And here we are.

The Cardinals still have a bevy of talent on their roster this season, enough that, in a vacuum, they would be able to make a return to the Final Four, a nice consolation prize should all of the 2012 and 2013 seasons get wiped off the books. But that is assuming that this group is able to band together playing for interim head coach David Padgett. That’s not out of the question. The Louisville players have been through more than any college team ever should have to go through. They lived through the escort scandal, the banners coming down and now the end of the Pitino era.

There is a chance the ends up being a story with a happy ending.

Strictly in terms of basketball, the way I see it there are three specific issues that are going to have to be addressed in one way or another for Louisville this year:

  1. Who get better? After a freshman season that went to ruin because of injury, Deng Adel quietly had a good sophomore year that was particularly impressive down the stretch of the season. Will he take another step forward this year? Will V.J. King, a former five-star prospect that Rick Pitino has said is in line for a Mitchell-esque jump as a sophomore this season? What about Ray Spalding and Anas Mahmoud? Both front court players have NBA measureables and unique skillsets, but neither have been able to put together consistent performances.
  2. Just how good are the freshmen? The star of this class was Brian Bowen, a five-star recruit that fell into Pitino’s lap after stars at Arizona and Michigan State opted not to enter the NBA Draft. But he will likely end up ineligible as fallout from the FBI complaints last month. The next name to know, then, is Malik Williams, who was something of a late-bloomer and, like Spalding and Mahmoud, has some intriguing longterm potential. Jordan Nwora is a floor-spacing forward and Lance Thomas is another big body up front, but the most interesting guy here may be Darius Perry because …
  3. … point guard is still a problem position. Quentin Snider has had moments of brilliance for the Cardinals. He was sensational in last year’s win over Kentucky and, after returning from injury, was really good for U of L down the stretch of last season. But he also put together a disastrous performance in the upset loss against Michigan in the second round of the Big Dance and, frankly, he’s not exactly what you think of when you think of a Rick Pitino point guard. Perry, however, is. He’s quick, he’s athletic, he’s a pest defensively and he’s aggressive going towards the rim. It will be good for Louisville if Perry pushes Snider for playing time, even if Snider remains the starter.

It’s impossible to know what to expect from David Padgett in his first season as a head coach, but the good news is that he’ll have the pieces to put together a good team. I still expect the Cardinals to be pretty typical Louisville — a nightmare for opponents on the defensive end, at times unwatchable offensively, potentially in the mix for an ACC title come February.

And if you’re in the mix for an ACC title, you have the kind of talent that could can together and make a deep run in March.

MOREThe Enigma of Miles Bridges | NBC Sports Preseason All-American Team

Jevon Carter (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

WEST VIRGINIA

I have a theory, and it dates back years and years and is the biggest reason that VCU fans generally despise my being.

In reality, it’s pretty simple, and to date I’ve been proven nothing but right: Teams that survive on a full court press inevitably have a ceiling.

Why?

Because the way that those teams play is built around the idea that they are going to out-effort, out-athlete and out-tough their opponent for 40 minutes. They win by wearing opponent’s out and by forcing ball-handlers into bad decisions. They need their opponent to make mistakes, and, generally speaking, the better a college basketball team is, the better their guards are. Better guards are less prone to making mistakes or getting flustered by a trapping press.

Put another way, why do you think that there are no full court pressing teams in the NBA?

Over the course of the last three seasons, West Virginia has redefined themselves as Press Virginia, playing as aggressive and as intense of a full court press as you’ll find anywhere in the country. The results have been impressive: at least 25 wins in three straight years, a 36-12 record in the Big 12 and back-to-back-to-back top-five seeds in the NCAA tournament.

But despite all that, West Virginia has yet to make it past the Sweet 16 despite ranking as a top-eight team on KenPom in each of the last two seasons.

Will this year be the year that the narrative changes?

It may be. Jevon Carter is back and may end up being the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year. With Esa Ahmad and Daxter Miles Jr. alongside, him, the Mountaineers have experience and leadership to lean on. That said, the key to the success that Bob Huggins’ has had playing this style hasn’t been his stars, it’s the depth and the myriad bodies that he has at his disposal. That depth is going to be young this year, but Huggins does add a couple of JuCo wings while bringing along redshirt sophomore James Bolden, who showed flashes of potential last year. Throw in a half-dozen front court pieces, and the Mountaineers have the bodies.

They’ll miss Nathan Adrian’s shooting and his effort at the top of their zone. They’ll miss Teyvon Myers and Tarik Phillip torturing opposing ball-handlers. But we also thought they’d miss Devin Williams and Jonathan Holton and Jaysean Paige.

The program just keeps humming along.

This year should be no different. The question is whether or not it will end in the Sweet 16 once again.

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.