Big 12 preview: Kansas on top once again

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Beginning in September and running up through November 10th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Big 12 conference.

There’s plenty to know about this year’s Big 12, but the headline remains the same as it’s been for over a dozen years: Kansas is probably going to win the league.

The Jayhawks have won at least a share of the conference title for 13-straight years. This year, they’re not only a Big 12 favorite, but a national title contender.

They aren’t, though, the only storyline in a conference that consistently fields one of the strongest groups in the country. West Virginia looks like a contender again. Texas is relevant again (probably), as is Baylor (I think) and Oklahoma (maybe). Even the perennial bottom-feeders – TCU and Texas Tech – look like they’ll be in the mix for an NCAA tournament.

That, like Kansas, is no different this season.

Big Ten Preview | ACC Preview | Atlantic 10 Preview | Mountain West Preview

Bill Self (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Kansas has the most talent, but the fit is odd: The Jayhawks have a first-team All-American Devonte Graham, a McDonald’s All-American in Billy Preston, a former McDonald’s All-American in Malik Newman and plenty of other talented pieces, but the Jayhawks are thin inside and don’t have an abundance of shooting. The roster construction isn’t perfect – that’s what happens when you’ve got sit-out transfers like the Lawson brothers – but Self usually figures out how to get the most out of his teams. Weird isn’t necessarily bad, but it does present a challenge.

RELATED: Kansas is stuck in a purgatory of small-ball and playing big

The other pressing question is how Graham adjusts to moving back to a more traditional point guard role. Graham and last year’s national player of the year Frank Mason shared duties the previous three years, but Mason more often than not had the ball in his hands. That led to plenty of spot-up 3-point opportunities that may have to go elsewhere this season for the Jayhawks, likely to Lagerald Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk. Graham could also be asked to be involved a lot more pick-and-roll situations, something that he is capable of but that Mason excelled at.

Most believe that Graham is a better pure point guard than Mason, but that doesn’t mean that Graham is necessarily a better player. We took a deep dive on Kansas here.

2. Havoc in Austin, Year 3: The second season of Shaka Smart’s tenure at Texas was an abject failure. The Longhorns went 11-22, lost their final seven regular season games and finished last in the Big 12. The problem was largely offensive, with the Longhorns delivering the least-efficient season a Smart team has ever had. Three-point shooting was in no small way a culprit as Texas couldn’t even crack 30 percent as a team. Not great.

Reinforcements are on the way, though, as Smart signed five top-100 recruits in the 2017, most notably center Mo Bamba and point guard Matt Coleman. Bamba is a potential program-changer as a potential No. 1 draft pick and the type of kid who attended the MIT Sloan Analytics Conference. Bamba is the kind of defensive presence that Havoc needs to anchor around. He’s an elite rim protector at 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-9 wingspan, and his ability to erase shots at the rim when gambling perimeter defenders get beaten will make it that much easier for those guards to fly around and force turnovers. So the defense should be better, and the combination of a natural point guard in Coleman plus the return of Andrew Jones should mean the Longhorns are more effective offensively.

Bringing in this type of recruiting class to join a solid core (albeit one without Jarrett Allen after he decided to go pro) puts Texas in a spot to excel. It should also be a pretty good indication of what type of teams Smart is going to have and build in Austin as he’s unlikely to have many teams with a ton more talent than the one that will take the floor this winter.

Final Four Sleepers | Louisville | Villanova | West Virginia | USC | Wichita State | Miami

Shaka Smart (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

3. Will TCU see return on investment?: The first four seasons in the Big 12 for TCU were a disaster. The Horned Frogs proved completely overmatched in their new league, winning just eight over those four seasons. After that, it appears the school decided to get serious about hoops. They fired Trent Johnson and hired alum Jamie Dixon, reportedly to a salary of more than $3 million a year. There was also the $72 million arena renovation. TCU is investing seriously in making their basketball program something worthwhile.

This could be the first season it truly pays off.

TCU looked to be tournament-bound last year when they were 17-7 overall and 6-5 in the Big 12 before a seven-game losing streak scuttled their chances. Nearly everyone is back, including all-Big 12 center Vladimir Brodziansky, promising point guard Jaylen Fisher and talented wing Kenrich Williams. TCU was solid if unspectacular on both ends of the floor last year, which means the standard growth you’d expect with a returning roster under a second-year coach (especially one as accomplished as Dixon) means TCU should see its NCAA tournament drought end at 20 years. They very well could find themselves in the upper echelon of the league, no small feat for a program that is yet to finish better than second-to-last in their new conference.

4. Cyclone rebuild: The Iowa State program didn’t fold up shop when superstar alum and program savior Fred Hoiberg left his hometown to take the head job with the Chicago Bulls in 2015. The Cyclones continued to flourish with Steve Prohm at the helm, making the Sweet 16 in his first year and winning a Big 12 tournament championship while making a program-best sixth-straight NCAA tournament last season. Those two successful seasons, though, were built with Hoiberg players like Georges Niang, Abdel Nader and Monte Morris.

This season marks the unofficial start to Prohm’s tenure as the roster has completely turned over with four starters, all of whom were all-Big 12 players, gone and eight newcomers among the ranks. Competing at the top of the league and advancing to a seventh NCAA tournament in a row seems unlikely for ISU, but the young talent – both on the roster and committed in 2018 – is plenty of reason for optimism in Ames. This year’s group will be led by Lindell Wigginton, a top-25 recruit who picked the Cyclones over the likes Oregon and Arizona State. The 6-foot-1 point guard is athletic and skilled, putting him on track to be the fourth point guard in a row that Prohm has had drafted (Morris, Cam Payne and Isaiah Canaan).

Under both Hoiberg and Prohm, ISU has been an elite offensive team, but this team has plenty of question marks on that end, especially in the shooting department. The Cyclones are due to take a step back this season, but if they can show promise, a quick return to prominence could be in the offing.

RELATED: Where is Kentucky going to get their scoring from this season?
Jevon Carter (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

5. Press on: It’s now Year 4 of Press Virginia in Morgantown, and Bob Huggins has had enough success with the scheme to think that the roster matters less than the system at this point. Thing is, though, that Huggs has a pretty dang good roster this season.
Jevon Carter may be the Big 12 player of the year when all is said and done, and he’s the engine powering the Mountaineers. He’s one of the best defenders in the country and a turnover-generating machine, with a steal rate of over 4 percent. West Virginia’s defense is built to create chaos, and Carter is an agent of chaos.

Esa Ahmad will miss the first half of the season due to academic issues, but Huggins has all the depth he needs to keep rolling out fresh bodies, a critical component of their pressing style. What has evaded West Virginia in recent years has been consistent offense when it can’t just get transition buckets. That’s probably going to be an issue again this year as shooting probably won’t be a strength. If the Mountaineers can find some reliable deep threats, that can change their ceiling dramatically.

MORE: 2017-18 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Devonte’ Graham, Kansas

Taking the reins for Frank Mason is a big job in Lawrence, but Graham looks to be more than equipped to do it. He’ll be quarterbacking the conference’s best team back at his natural position. A monster year is in order for Graham, who is already a potential first round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. This season will be the one where he proves himself.

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

THE REST OF THE BIG 12 FIRST TEAM

  • Jeffrey Carroll, Oklahoma State: The 6-foot-6 wing has taken himself from three-star recruit to NBA prospect
  • Vladimir Brodziansky, TCU: A force inside, on the boards and on defense, Brodziansky is the league’s best returning big man
  • Jevon Carter, West Virginia: Just a prototypical Bob Huggins player with grit and production.
  • Mo Bamba, Texas: The league’s best freshman will be in a spot to put up big numbers.
Mohamed Bamba and Trae Young, Jon Lopez/Nike

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Trae Young, Oklahoma
  • Zach Smith, Texas Tech
  • Svi Mykhailiuk, Kansas
  • Malik Newman, Kansas
  • Manu Lecomte, Baylor

BREAKOUT STAR: Malik Newman, Kansas

A disappointing freshman year at Mississippi State and a year sitting out in Lawrence has many forgetting that Malik Newman was one of the top players in the 2015 class. Kansas is the conference’s most talented team, but there’s a spot for a big role for Newman.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Bruce Weber, Kansas State

Bruce Weber got a two-year extension after Kansas State snuck into the NCAA tournament, but the Manhattan faithful are still not sold on Weber’s future there. This may not be a make-or-break year, but it’ll certainly be setting up one if Kansas State struggles.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

Kansas, West Virginia and Texas will all have chances at deep runs.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT

The freshman of the year race between Mo Bamba and Trae Young.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • Nov. 14, Kansas vs. Kentucky
  • Dec. 5, Texas vs. VCU
  • Nov. 10, Iowa State vs. Missouri
  • Dec. 2, Baylor vs. Wichita State
  • Jan. 27, West Virginia vs. Kentucky

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @FakeBobHuggins

POWER RANKINGS

1. Kansas: Jayhawks have won 13 league titles in a row, and this isn’t the season the streak comes to an end.
2. West Virginia: The style isn’t always pretty, but the results are for Bob Huggins’ crew.
3. Texas: The Longhorns add serious pieces to an already talented core that should make it the best year of Shaka Smart’s short tenure.
4. TCU: Jamie Dixon’s has a dynamic group at his alma mater, which likely means the first NCAA tournament in Fort Worth since 1998.
5. Baylor: Johnathan Motley left a year early for the NBA, but Scott Drew’s cupboard isn’t bare.
6. Texas Tech: Chris Beard nearly got the Red Raiders into the dance in his first season, but the second won’t likely end short of it.
7. Oklahoma: A lot of the Sooners’ season will rest on how quickly freshman phenom Trae Young adjusts to the college game.
8. Kansas State: Without Wesley Iwundu, who will get buckets for the Wildcats?
9. Iowa State: Eight newcomers means the Cyclones will go through plenty of growing pains.
10. Oklahoma State: Jeffrey Carroll is a pro, but how much talent is around him remains to be seen – as does how much the FBI corruption investigation impacts the program.

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.