College Hoops Contender Series: Three more (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 (more) 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 are known as football schools and currently find themselves stuck in the middle of one of the biggest scandals in college sports history: Miami and USC. A third, Wichita State, has yet to play a game as a member of a high-major conference. Let’s take a dive into those three teams, shall we?

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WICHITA STATE

This year will be a first for Wichita State.

Five years after Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet led the Shockers to the 2013 Final Four, five years after Gregg Marshall’s club became a stalwart in the top 25 and a nationally-recognized program, Wichita State is now officially a high-major basketball team.

The Shockers officially left the Missouri Valley this summer, becoming a member of the American and, instantly, the favorite to win the league this year. Because after a season where Wichita State finished 31-5 and ranked 8th nationally, according to KenPom, the Shockers brought back everyone.

Landry Shamet, who is a darkhorse all-american pick, is back for his sophomore year. Markis McDuffie, who is probably the best all-around player on the roster, is back for his junior year. Fifth-year senior Connor Frankamp rounds out the back court while Darral Willis, Zach Brown, Shaq Morris and Rashard Kelly are all back along the front line.

The Shockers are loaded with precisely the kind of players you would expect a Gregg Marshall-coached team to be loaded with: Underrated back court talent, big and old and physical posts, and a roster full of players that are going to grind you down defensively.

More importantly, they’re already proven to be successful. We know they’re good. They won 31 games a season ago! They finished the year ranked 8th in KenPom! Everyone is back!

The difference is that this season, instead of playing in the Missouri Valley, where computer numbers get pulled down and the Shockers end up as a No. 10 seed — one of the worst mis-seedings in NCAA history — they will be playing American competition. Games against the likes of Cincinnati, SMU, UConn, UCF and Houston will do a lot more for their tournament profile than Indiana State and Missouri State did.

Assuming the Shockers are as good as they should be, they’ll be seeded fairly this year, meaning that they won’t be playing a team as talented as last year’s Kentucky team was until at least the Sweet 16.

And that is what makes them such an intriguing Final Four pick.

The issue, however, is health, and it’s no small problem. Shamet had surgery in early August to repair a stress fracture in his right foot. A similar injury kept him on the shelf for much of the 2015-16 season. Shamet is expected to return to the floor by the start of the season, which is good news, but there’s no guarantee that, coming off of a surgery and an injury that kept him out for three months, that he’ll be in shape and on form immediately.

Shamet is also not the only player that is injured. McDuffie, who led the team in scoring and rebounding a year ago, has a stress fracture in the navicular bone in his left foot. That’s the same bone that derailed careers of many an NBA player, including Joel Embiid. He’s expected to be out until December, meaning there is a possibility that Wichita State begins the season without their top two players.

If those two are both back and healthy come March, it’ll be something of a moot point.

But there’s no guarantee that will happen.

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MIAMI

Everyone say it with me now: The second-best team in the ACC this season will be Miami.

Not Louisville. Not North Carolina. Not Notre Dame or Virginia or Syracuse.

Miami.

And the biggest reason why is a young man that you’ve probably never heard of. Bruce Brown, a former safety and wide receiver at the high school level, still plays like a football player now that he’s fully committed to the hardwood. He’s an aggressive slasher, an athletic finisher and one of the best perimeter defenders in the country. He’s also now a guy that can operate in pick-and-rolls and knock down a spot-up jumper, and playing for a coach in Jim Larrañaga that has thrived with talented lead guards and athletic wings, he’s the perfect combination of both.

He’ll also be flanked by a couple more players of that ilk in senior JaQuan Newtown and freshman Lonnie Walker. Newton had a good, not great, junior season for the Hurricanes, but part of the reason for that was due to Brown’s emergence down the stretch. Walker is a top-15 prospect that picked Miami over the likes of Arizona and Villanova. He’ll be an instant impact guy assuming his knee is healthy.

Throw in sophomore center Dewan Huell, a former five-star recruit in his own right, four-star freshmen Chris Lykes, a 5-foot-7 point guard, and Deng Gak, a 7-foot four-man, and there is a lot to like about the pieces Larrañaga has at his disposal.

There is also a lot missing with one piece they lost from last season: Davon Reed. A physical, athletic, 6-foot-6 wing, Reed was one of the most underrated players in the ACC a season ago. An elite defender with three-point stroke that went down at a 40 percent clip, Reed was everything a team needs in the day and age of positionless basketball. He could guard three or four positions, he could space the floor and, if need be, he could pop off for 2o points on any given night. There’s a reason he was the No. 32 pick in the NBA Draft.

That’s going to be a massive hole to fill, and the Hurricanes are going to hope junior Anthony Lawrence can replace him.

I’m not sure that he will be able — Reed was a helluva player — but it may not matter.

Larrañaga is at his best when he has talented, dynamic lead guards paired athletics bigs, and there is no questioning that this year’s roster construction fits that mold.

Every few years, Larrañaga pops up with an ACC title contender. It happened when Shane Larkin and Durand Scott manned his back court. It happened with Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan. And it will happen with this group as well.

What we will need to track, however, is the status of the FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball. A Miami assistant coach was referenced in the FBI complaints on a phone call involving two of the men that were arrested. The assistant, according to an Adidas executive, was hoping to get the shoe company to fund a $150,000 payment to the family of a prospect that appears to be Nassir Little.

None of the Hurricane coaches were arrested on September 26th, but that doesn’t mean their out of the woods, in the eyes of the FBI or in the eyes of the NCAA.

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USC

The season has been three years in the making for the Trojans has a black cloud the size of California hanging over it.

Andy Enfield’s tenure with Dunk City West started out dreadfully, amassing a grand total of five Pac-12 wins in his first two seasons at the helm. Things started to turn around during his third season, when the Trojans, without a senior on their roster, climbed their way into the NCAA tournament. Last season was supposed to be their year, but the combination of injuries and a pair unexpected defections to the professional ranks meant that Enfield, again, would be without a senior.

And again, USC made a run to the NCAA tournament, getting out of the play-in game and pulling off an upset of No. 6 seed SMU.

Now, finally, is the year for USC.

The Trojans are loaded. They have experience — their starting back court of Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart are both seniors and both potential all-Pac-12 guards. They have size — Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu, both juniors, are NBA prospects while Nik Rakocevic, Harrison Henderson and Shaqquan Aaron give Enfield the kind of depth and positional versatility his style of play calls for. De’anthony Melton, Jonah Mathews and Charles O’Bannon provide the young, dynamic talent in the back court, and that’s before you factor in Derryck Thornton, the former Duke point guard that was once thought to be among the best high school point guards in the country.

The last time there was this much reason to be excited about USC basketball, O.J. Mayo landed on Tim Floyd’s doorstep.

On the court, the question mark with this group is two-fold:

  1. Can they defend? In each of the last two seasons, USC has ranked outside the top 80 on KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric. That, quite simply, is not going to be good enough for a team that is planning on competing for a Pac-12 title, let alone a national title.
  2. Is everyone going to buy-in? This may be a bigger concern than the defensive side of the ball. The Trojans don’t have the kind of star power on their roster that you’ll see at UCLA or Arizona, but the depth of their talent is impressive. There are seven or eight players on the roster that have a shot of playing in the NBA. At least five of them flirted with the idea of leaving school early to enter last year’s NBA Draft, meaning that there are going to be quite a few guys on this roster looking to impress NBA scouts. Not all of them are going to be able to get as many shots as they might like. Convincing players that want the be a star to embrace playing a role is the hardest thing to do at this level, and Enfield is going to have his work cut out for him.

Off the court, however, is a bigger problem.

Tony Bland, an assistant coach for USC, was arrested during the FBI’s sting operation investigating corruption in college basketball. He was alleged to have been paid $13,000 in bribe money to get two players currently on the USC team to work with a specific financial advisor when they get to the NBA. He also helped facilitate $9,000 that was supposed to go to the families of an unnamed freshman on the team and an unnamed sophomore.

Those players have not yet been positively identified, but there should be some concern as to whether or not those kids will actually be eligible to play this season.

I’m not sure there are five teams in the country that are going to be more talented than USC this season if they have all their pieces available. But until we get answers on how they are going to defend, who is going to be asked to play what role and who is going to be able to play, it’s going to be hard to know if they actually are Arizona’s biggest challenger in the Pac-12.

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.