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College Hoops Contender Series: Does Kansas have the talent to overcome awkward roster construction?

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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 and talked about six different Final Four contenders – Louisville, West Virginia, Villanova, Wichita State, USC and Miami – that are just flawed enough that we can’t call them contenders.

There is a pretty clear-cut delineation between the four or five best teams, the clear national title challengers, and the rest of the country this season.

This week, we will be taking a deeper dive into five of those teams.

What makes them good enough to win a national title?

But why won’t they win a national title?

We took a look at Kentucky yesterday. Now let’s break down Kansas and what makes them a title contender.

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Devonte’ Graham (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WILL WIN

They’re Kansas, and Kansas does not lose Big 12 races.

I don’t expect that that will change this year, and there are four reasons why:

  1. Phog Allen Fieldhouse: Kansas does not lose there. It just doesn’t happen, which means that you can pencil in nine Big 12 wins for them off the bat. Then, consider that …
  2. … the rest of the Big 12 is down: Outside of West Virginia, is there anyone in the league that should scare Kansas? Baylor could be a top 25 team, but losing Jonathan Motley will keep them out of the Big 12 title discussion. Texas should be relevant again, but even with the addition of Mo Bamba and the return of Andrew Jones, I think they’re more ‘top 25 good’ than ‘challenge Kansas’ good. Oklahoma is still rebuilding. Texas Tech and TCU look like they could be NCAA tournament teams, but not much more. Iowa State lost what feels like everyone. Oklahoma State and Kansas State are … whatever.
  3. And Bill Self is still Bill Self: There’s a reason that he is already a Hall of Famer despite being just 54 years old. He’s one of the best in this business, and if the 13 straight regular season titles didn’t convince you yet, I’m not sure that anything will. At this point there is no reason to assume anything other than Self trotting out a team that is going to be in and around the top ten, in the mix for a No. 1 seed and, as such, a Final Four and title contender. It’s just what Kansas does.
  4. Most importantly, Kansas is still super-talented: It starts with Devonte’ Graham, who I think has a real shot at being an all-american this season. He’ll be playing his more natural point guard position, and he may actually be a better pure point guard than National Player of the Year Frank Mason was last season. Malik Newman, a former top ten recruit that redshirted last season, will be joining Graham in the back court. Svi Mykhailiuk is back, as is LaGerald Vick, while another transfer — Sam Cunliffe — will be eligible come December. Throw in Udoka Azubuike and Billy Preston up front, and the Jayhawks have a nice blend of talent, youth and experience.

All that said, I don’t think this will be the best Kansas team we’ve seen in recent years.

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Lagerald Vick (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN

Everything about this Kansas team just feels kind of … weird.

Let’s start with the transfers. They have five of them on the roster this year. Three will be redshirting this season. One, Sam Cunliffe, won’t be eligible until December after transferring out of Arizona State just one semester into his Sun Devil career. Another, Malik Newman, will be eligible to play this season after redshirting last year, teaming up in the back court with Devonte’ Graham, who is in a weird position in his own right.

Graham was a point guard in high school. He was a point guard when he signed with Appalachian State and he was a point guard when he was forced to go to prep school for a year because the Mountaineers wouldn’t let him out of his Letter Of Intent. He was also a point guard when he arrived at Kansas, and he proceeded to spend the next three years playing off the ball as point guard Frank Mason went from being the other guy in a recruiting class that included Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid to the National Player of the Year as a senior.

For the first time in his college career, Graham will be taking over the primary point guard duties in a back court that includes a player in Newman that wants the ball in his hands and likes to shoot as much as anyone in college hoops.

How that back court pairing gels will likely end up being the most influential part of the Jayhawk season.

But there’s more.

Let’s talk small-ball for a second.

Bill Self, for years, was a coach that wanted to do nothing more than he wanted to play two bigs. Sometimes, those bigs were the Perry Ellis-type, face-up fours whose ability to score in the mid-range was elite. Sometimes, like when he made it to the national title game in 2012, he had Thomas Robinson lining up next to Jeff Withey.

However it played out, the constant was two big men … until last season, when Josh Jackson showed up and suddenly Self had the ideal small-ball lineup: Two point guards, two tough and athletic wings that could make threes and a big body in the post that can block shots and get rebounds. With Jackson now gone, Kansas and Self now have something of a problem on their hands. As it stands, there are just nine eligible scholarship players on the Jayhawks roster. Only three of them can be considered big men — Udoka Azubuike, Billy Preston and Mitch Lightfoot.

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Udoka Azubuike (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

In an ideal world, one where Self has a back court that includes a pair of ball-handlers that will be in his starting lineup and a shortage of big bodies, the Jayhawks would once again play small-ball.

The problem?

Jackson was the glue that held that lineup together. He was the prototype college four. He was tough as nails defensively, he could rebound like a power forward and he defended the rim when needed. He was also a matchup nightmare on the offensive end, a natural wing and skilled playmaker with three-point range and the ability to grab a rebound and immediately spark transition.

Kansas does not have that guy anymore. LaGerald Vick is an excellent spot-up three-point shooter and the kind of athlete that will be a plus-wing defender, but he’s all of 6-foot-4 and he’s nowhere near the playmaker that Jackson was. Cunliffe, when he finally gets eligible, is a little bit bigger than Vick but not all that different of a player. Svi Mykhailiuk is a skilled player on the offensive end of the floor that has, shall we say, question marks defensively.

In theory, the answer to this problem would be for the Jayhawks to play Azubuike, a former five-star recruit, and Preston, a five-star prospect in the Class of 2017, together. Frankly, they actually fit fairly well together. The problem is that this would mean that the only front court depth that Self would have is Lightfoot, who looked out of his element in the 102 minutes he played as a freshman.

There isn’t an easy answer to this issue.

It’s one of the pitfalls of taking three sit-out transfers the same year.

Which is why this Kansas team has such a weird feel to it.


Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

PREDICTION

Overall, Kansas is going to be fine.

Outside of West Virginia, the rest of the Big 12 is not all that intimidating. The Jayhawks should win their 14th straight Big 12 title.

But there is valid reason to be concerned about what this team is going to be able to accomplish against the best teams in the country. Last year, they were the team that created the mismatches, that forced teams to play their way or take the loss.

I just don’t see how that happens this season. I’m not sure Kansas going small would force the best teams to match them because I don’t think it’s all that worrisome having a college four guard the likes of Vick, Cunliffe or Svi. I also don’t think their two-big lineup will be all that effective unless Preston has a bigger impact — i.e. all-Big 12ish — than I expect and Lightfoot proves to be a better bench presence than I realized.

The combination of Bill Self, the amount of talent on the roster and Phog Allen Fieldhouse will keep the Jayhawks in and around the top five throughout the year.

But I think they will be more matchup-dependent in the NCAA tournament than you would think a potential No. 1 seed would be.

Swider scores 26, No. 17 Villanova routs MTSU 98-69

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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. — Cole Swider scored a career-high 26 points with six 3-pointers, and No. 17 Villanova routed Middle Tennessee 98-69 on Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Myrtle Beach Invitational.

Collin Gillespie added 16 points and hit four 3s, Justin Moore finished with 15 points and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl had 11 rebounds to help the Wildcats (3-1) win their second straight following a 25-point loss at No. 10 Ohio State.

Villanova never trailed, led by 35, shot 57% and finished with a season-best 18 3-pointers. Eleven of them came during a first-half barrage that pushed its lead well into the 20s. Swider hit his fifth 3 from the corner shortly before the buzzer to put the Wildcats up 53-28 at halftime.

Saddiq Bey then took the lead to 30 with a 3-pointer two minutes into the second half.

Donovan Sims scored 18 points and C.J. Jones had 16 for the Blue Raiders (3-2). Leading scorer Antonio Green, averaging 23.5 points going into the game, finished with four points on 1-of-7 shooting while dealing with foul trouble.

BIG PICTURE

Villanova: The Wildcats are tough to beat during in-season holiday tournaments, winning six of them in a row, and that 3-point touch got them off to a strong start toward No. 7. Gillespie, in his second game without the mask that protected his broken nose, got plenty of clear looks at the basket.

Middle Tennessee: The Blue Raiders had no answer for Villanova’s long-range shooting and couldn’t really get their 1-2 punch of Green and Jones started. Jones averages 20 points, but by the time he reached double figures, Middle Tennessee was already trailing by 30.

UP NEXT

Villanova: Plays the Tulane-Mississippi State winner on Friday in one semifinal.

Middle Tennessee: Faces the Tulane-Mississippi State loser on Friday in a consolation game.

Bacot, Anthony lead No. 5 UNC past Elon 75-61

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Those newcomers at No. 5 North Carolina were playing like freshmen — and, really, the upperclassmen were too — during yet another sluggish start.

The big men took it upon themselves to demand the ball — and dominate down low.

Armando Bacot had season highs of 22 points and 14 rebounds, Garrison Brooks added 14 points and the slow-starting Tar Heels beat Elon 75-61 on Wednesday night.

Bacot said coach Roy Williams “talked to me and Garrison and was like, `We need to dominate in the paint.”

“So we just told all the guards to get the ball and feed us,” Bacot added.

As a result, fellow freshman Cole Anthony flirted with North Carolina’s first triple-double in 19 years. He finished with nine points, 10 rebounds and a season-high eight assists for North Carolina (4-0), which hasn’t had a player with a triple-double since Brendan Haywood and Jason Capel each did it 10 days apart in December 2000.

And yet, in a sign of how high Anthony’s ceiling is, Williams called it a bad night for his star guard, who was 4 of 14 from the field with four turnovers.

“I’ve seen some really good players, and he’s got a chance to be one of the best I’ve ever seen,” Williams said. “But I also know when good players stink and that was him about half the game.”

The Tar Heels were 30 1/2-point favorites who a year ago beat Elon on the road by 49 points. They trailed at halftime for the second time this season before opening the second half with a Bacot-led 21-5 run that pushed the lead into double figures, and wound up outrebounding Elon 56-25.

Marcus Sheffield scored 19 points for the Phoenix (2-3), who lost their third straight — all to power-conference schools — while shooting 28% in the second half. Hunter Woods added 18 and his 3-pointer with 2 1/2 minutes left pulled Elon to 68-61. Bacot — who had 18 points in the second half — followed with two buckets to re-establish the Tar Heels’ double-figure lead.

BIG PICTURE

Elon: The Phoenix looked nothing like a team still chasing its first Division I victory of the season. Elon led 33-32 at halftime despite missing 13 of its final 15 shots of the first half — many of them wide-open looks — and the signature highlight might have been Sheffield’s posterizing, one-handed dunk on Justin Pierce midway through the half. Plenty of encouraging things in this one for first-year coach Mike Schrage — a former member of Mike Krzyzewski’s staff at Duke who was quite comfortable in the Smith Center’s visitors’ locker room.

“The first 20 minutes, we’ll take, but I thought the start of the second half, they really imposed their will,” Schrage said. “I thought we got worn down trying to fight them.”

North Carolina: The Tar Heels’ youth and inexperience was evident early in this one — Williams, a noted time-out hoarder, burned one 2 minutes, 9 seconds in after a particularly sloppy turnover. (“Earliest one in my history, I’m sure,” he quipped. “Doesn’t have a lot of competition.”) But they flipped the switch at halftime and took over early in the second half with their freshman big man leading the way, then made enough plays to ride out the victory.

BACOT BITS

This was by far Bacot’s best night of his young career. He set scoring and rebounding highs for the second straight game after finishing with 12 points and 11 rebounds against Gardner-Webb last Friday night. He also had three blocks, his first game with more than one.

KEY STATS

With Bacot and Brooks underneath, North Carolina scored 46 points in the paint to just 16 for Elon. That helped the Tar Heels overcome 16% shooting from 3-point range — their worst at the Smith Center since Louisville held them to 14% in January.

UP NEXT

Elon: Plays host to Manhattan on Saturday.

North Carolina: Faces Alabama on Nov. 27 in its Battle 4 Atlantis opener in Paradise Island, Bahamas.

No. 2 Louisville rallies past USC Upstate 76-50

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville’s latest rout was anything but routine.

The No. 2 Cardinals trailed in the second half for the first time this season against a determined USC Upstate squad that challenged them longer than expected. That scare got Louisville’s attention, and its response was fast and furious.

Ryan McMahon made consecutive 3-pointers and Dwayne Sutton and Darius Perry had one each during a second-half surge that rallied Louisville past USC Upstate 76-50 Wednesday night.

Trailing the determined Spartans 43-40 with 14:07 remaining, Sutton’s 3 tied it before McMahon added one after a huge block of Josh Aldrich’s layup attempt. McMahon and Perry followed again from long range, and the Cardinals (5-0) turned up the intensity on both ends for a 24-5 burst.

They outscored Upstate 36-7 to close the game, capped by the second of two dunks from freshman guard David Johnson in his collegiate debut following a summer shoulder injury.

“They are going to go up against a team that isn’t in awe and play as well as they can for periods of 10 minutes,” Louisville coach Chris Mack said. “Tonight was not as tough as a moment we will find ourselves in the next month or two, but it is good for a team to figure it out.”

Jordan Nwora had two 3s among his season-high 28 points on 11-of-19 shooting. The Cardinals finished 51% from the field and have shot above 50% in each game this season.

McMahon scored 15 points on five 3-pointers, his last ones helping Louisville avoid a huge upset. The Cardinals were 9 of 21 from behind the arc, including 5 of 9 after halftime. Sutton grabbed a career-high 15 rebounds and scored nine points.

“It shows the power of the 3-point shot in college basketball,” added Mack, whose team tied a season high with 22 assists. “It can keep you in any game.”

The Cardinals owned the smaller Spartans in just about every statistic as expected: They held Upstate to 33% shooting with a 40-22 gap in rebounding with a 36-10 scoring advantage in the paint.

Blowouts have been the norm for the Spartans, who entered losing by an average margin of nearly 21 points. That included Monday’s 31-point loss at Akron, which seemed forgotten as they stayed within reach and even led.

“We played 30 minutes of the best basketball we’ve played all year,” second-year coach Dave Dickerson said. “But their size and athleticism and the fact they have one of the best players in the country as well, it’s hard for us to contend with that. They wore us down.”

Bryson Mozone’s 14 points on four 3s led Upstate (1-5), which was 9 of 24 from long range.

FULL STRENGTH

Johnson and 6-foot-11 junior forward Malik Williams finally got on the court for Louisville after missing time with injuries. They combined for seven points and four rebounds, all big in helping the Cardinals pull away.

“It felt great, been itching to get out there and finally got to do it,” Johnson said. “I just wanted to get the win.”

There was one scary moment as Williams, who returned from September foot surgery, landed hard and awkwardly following a flagrant-1 foul by Mozone. He got up gingerly but shook it off and made 1 of 2 free throws.

“I wasn’t really scared,” Williams said. “I just put my foot back in place and get right back to it. I’m good. I’m here to stay.”

BIG PICTURE

USC Upstate: The Spartans stayed close thanks to perimeter shooting and defense that forced the Cardinals into off-balance attempts. They just didn’t have enough height to battle on the glass and were no match once the Cardinals found their shot and intensity.

Louisville: The Cardinals led for much of the game despite appearing out of sync when Upstate kept making baskets. Their failure to contain Mozone could have cost them, but they also started making 3s to thwart the upset. The returns of Williams and Johnson from injuries helped in a comeback they didn’t expect and should help team depth.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

The near-upset shouldn’t cost Louisville much in the rankings.

UP NEXT

USC Upstate returns home Saturday to host Youngstown State, which Louisville beat 78-55 on Nov. 10.

Louisville hosts Akron on Sunday in the last of its five-game homestand.

No. 16 Memphis beats Little Rock 68-58 as Wiseman watches

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis players said they were unaware before Wednesday night’s game that star freshman James Wiseman had been suspended 12 games by the NCAA.

There was another culprit for the No. 16 Tigers’ poor early play — a lack of respect for Arkansas-Little Rock — before Memphis escaped with a 68-58 win.

Precious Achiuwa had 16 points and 12 rebounds, and DJ Jeffries added 15 points — all in the first half — providing a spark for the lackadaisical Tigers (4-1).

The game was played only hours after the NCAA ruled Wiseman, the Tigers 7-foot-1 freshman and last season’s top recruit, ineligible for the next 11 games — he’d already sat out one — for receiving impermissible benefits from Memphis coach Penny Hardaway. Hardaway provide the family with $11,500 to help with moving expenses from Nashville to Memphis two years ago, before Hardaway became the Tigers’ coach. After moving to Memphis, Wiseman played for East High, where Hardaway coached.

The NCAA considered Hardaway a university booster because he donated $1 million to the university in 2008.

Wiseman watched the game from the bench.

“We were definitely glad to find out a number. We had been waiting on that,” Hardaway said.

Jeffries and Achiuwa both said they were unaware of the NCAA ruling.

“I haven’t actually looked at my phone in like four hours,” Achiuwa said, Jeffries nodding in agreement.

Hardaway said he didn’t talk about the situation with his team.

“It is what it is right now,” he said. “It has taken on a life of its own. I’m sure they will see it later.”

Hardaway attributed the slow start to the team’s disregard for the Trojans.

“I kind of got the feeling of how the locker room was before the game that these kids were taking Little Rock for granted,” Hardaway said. “There wasn’t the same energy.”

Markquis Nowell led the Trojans (3-2) with 16 points, while Ben Coupet Jr. added 12 points. Ruot Monyyong had 12 points and nine rebounds and Kamani Johnson finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds. Nowell also had 10 turnovers, representative of the sloppy play throughout the game.

“We had our chances,” Little Rock coach Darrell Walker said. “You think about it, Kamani at the rim 13 times and he misses 10 layups and doesn’t get fouled. There’s nothing the coach can do about that. Markquis turns the ball over 10 times. I told him they weren’t going to let him score all those points tonight. I told him he had to be a facilitator and a decoy.”

Memphis missed its first eight shots and by the midway point of the first half, the Tigers (4-1) were 3 of 13 from the field and had missed all five of its 3-pointers while committing eight turnovers.

The Tigers were unable to overcome the anemic start until less than five minutes left in the half, with Jeffries providing the spark with 15 points helping Memphis take a 28-23 lead at the break.

Little Rock was within 55-53 with about five minutes left, but Memphis outscored the Trojans 13-5 the rest of the way as the Trojans gave way to the Tigers depth.

“I don’t have all the weapons that Penny has,” Walker said. “He has a bunch of weapons, even coming off the bench. … Right now, I don’t. I got a couple of freshmen and some guys hurt. My deck is not full, but I’m not making excuses.

“Penny’s deck is not full either.”

BIG PICTURE

Little Rock: After jumping to an early 9-0 lead, the Trojans defense played well enough to cause problems for Memphis. Little Rock stayed close, but the visitors struggled from the foul line, going 13 of 24.

Memphis: Memphis was a mess to start the game, missing its first eight shots, some of them way off the mark. Four turnovers added to the early misery. After taking the lead late in the first half, the Tigers never relinquished the advantage in the second half, although Little Rock kept the game close.

UP NEXT

Little Rock: Travels to North Carolina State on Saturday

Memphis: Hosts Ole Miss on Saturday.

Memphis could not have handled the James Wiseman situation more poorly

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As much as I want to wave my fists in the air, pound on my keyboard and scream about how unfair it is that James Wiseman is the person in this scenario that has to serve a 12-game suspension, the unfortunate truth here is that Memphis played this out about as poorly as humanly possible.

Memphis probably never should have played James Wiseman in the first place. And as much as bleeding hearts like myself enjoyed watching the Tigers relentlessly troll the NCAA, they certainly should not have antagonized an organization that has proven that they are vindictive and unafraid of levying heavy-handed punishments. They definitely should not have messed with the bull if they weren’t ready for the horns.

But let’s back this up for a second.

Best that I can tell, there are only two reasons that the NCAA exists:

1. To oversee the tournaments that determine the national champion in every sport at every level. This, they are really good at, even if it took them four decades to realize the RPI was a joke.

2. To enforce amateurism and ensure that no one is breaking their bylaws. This, they are not so good at because, unlike law enforcement, the NCAA does not actually have any subpoena power. They can’t force anyone to talk, and as long as the paper trail is hidden well and no one is caught on an FBI wiretap talking about paying for players with strong-ass offers, it’s hard for NCAA investigators to do their job well.

The way the NCAA gets schools to comply and the people involved in these investigations to cooperate and tell the truth is to threaten them with the fire of 1,000 suns if they get caught doing anything else. If coaches get caught in a lie, the punishment far outweighs the crime. Bruce Pearl was banned from the coaching for three years because he lied about bringing a recruit to a barbecue at his house, a fairly minor violation. The same can be said for schools. If they do something like – oh, I don’t know – opt to play a player that they have been told by the NCAA is “likely ineligible,” then you have to be prepared to put every resource at your disposal behind fighting what you know is coming.

Memphis picked a fight with the NCAA. As soon as they did that, as soon as they willfully put James Wiseman on the floor at FedEx Forum against South Carolina State, they should have known they would never be able to put Pandora back in her box.

They should have known that this was going to put a bullseye on their back. They should have known that, as Sports Illustrated has reported, “a major infractions case targeting Memphis is now likely.” They should have known that those three games legitimately – and, by the rulebook, rightfully – put the future of the program and that of head coach Penny Hardaway in jeopardy.

None of what’s coming was worth it for wins over two teams no one cares about and a loss to Oregon.

It probably would not have been worth it for a full 30-something games of James Wiseman, but at least that would be understandable. I would not have put all of that on the line for a chance at living out the season the program has been anticipating since Penny replaced Tubby Smith, but I would at least see what the plan was. Memories cannot be vacated, and with public sentiment supporting the end of amateurism, maybe they could fight this thing in court long enough that it would no longer be a violation.

Oh, and the sideshow would have been incredible.

You think Zion Williamson’s shoe moved the needle?

Imagine what a full season of a potential No. 1 pick going to the war with the NCAA would have done.

But that’s not the way it played out for Memphis.

They waved the white flag last week.

On Wednesday, the NCAA ruled that Wiseman will have to serve the final 11 games of his 12 game suspension. So the Tigers may have cost themselves their best chance at getting to the NCAA tournament and they still have the NCAA coming after them.

And the complicating factor here is that this was an NCAA violation. No one is arguing that. Penny, who at the time was a Memphis booster and alum, paid $11,500 to Wiseman’s mother for the family to relocate from a ritzy private school in Nashville to a public high school in Memphis. At the same time, Wiseman stopped playing with Brad Beal Elite and started playing for Team Penny. All of this happened nine months before Penny was hired to be the Memphis head coach and around the same time that some of the most powerful voices in Memphis media started calling for Penny to replace Tubby.

This was always going to be thoroughly investigated by the NCAA.

Thinking otherwise was just foolish.

The honest-to-god truth here is that the only victim is Wiseman himself. He has been failed by every adult in this situation.

Penny should have known better than to pay Wiseman’s mother to get him to move to Memphis to play for his teams.

Memphis administrators should have known better than to allow him to step on the court when the NCAA had the goods.

Both Penny and the University should have been better prepared for what was coming knowing that this payment had happened; and if the University didn’t know this payment happened, they should have.

The NCAA should be above vindictive punishments that solely target a kid that had little, if anything, to do with this. He didn’t make the payments. He didn’t accept the payments. It wasn’t his decision whether or not to play, and if it was, Memphis never should have let an 18-year old make that decision.

One of the biggest failings of NCAA bylaws is their absolute inability to punish people that actually break the rules. Penny isn’t suspended. Wiseman’s mom isn’t suspended. No one in the athletic department is suspended.

No, the person being punished is the kid who was 16 when his mom accepted money from a man who was deemed a booster in 2008.