College Hoops Contender Series: Can Sean Miller overcome scandal to (finally) get Arizona to the Final Four?

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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’ve gone through Kentucky and Kansas already this week. Today, we’ll take a look at Arizona.

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Allonzo Trier (Chris Coduto/Getty Images)

WHY THEY WILL WIN

There are two ways to answer this question.

The first is relatively simple. Arizona has three things that, alone, would make them relevant in the Pac-12 title and Final Four discussion:

  1. They have a junior that will be a Preseason All-American, in the mix for National Player of the Year and could end up leading all of high-major basketball in scoring this season. His name is Allonzo Trier.
  2. They have the potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, and his name is not Allonzo Trier. It’s Deandre Ayton, who has a shot at earning those same accolades that Trier will be in the mix for.
  3. Those two will be coached by Sean Miller, who is the best coach in the country to never reach a Final Four and may be the best coach in the country, period.

But, and this may actually be more important than any of those three things individually, Arizona also has the perfect blend of ridiculous incoming freshmen talent and talented returning veterans that can provide the kind of leadership and experience that you don’t see from 18 and 19-year olds.

The Wildcats will likely start just one freshmen this season. Three of their starters — Trier, a junior, and seniors Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Carterwright — are upper-classmen. Sophomore Rawle Alkins should also slide into the starting lineup center he returns from a foot injury that is expected to keep him out for the first couple of weeks of the season.

The best teams during the one-and-done era — Kentucky’s title-winning team in 2012, Duke’s title-winning team in 2015, Kentucky’s Final Four team in 2015 — have all had that blend.

It’s why Arizona will be in the top three of every preseason top 25 you see coming out this month.

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Deandre Ayton (Getty Images)

WHY THEY WON’T WIN

Before we get into the off-the-court stuff, let’s talk on-the-court.

The way that I see it, there are four things to be worried about with this Arizona team. Let’s walk through each one of them, in order of the most concerning to the least concerning:

1. Point guard play: There are two point guards on Arizona’s roster as of today. One of them is a freshman named Alex Barcello, a borderline top 100 prospect that, in an ideal world, won’t be playing major minutes for a national title-contending team, at least not as a freshman. The other is Parker Jackson-Cartwright, a senior and former four-star recruit that has spent his entire Arizona career has the second option at the point.

The last two years, he played behind Kadeem Allen, a converted scoring guard and tenacious defender that turned himself into the kind of a player that piqued the interest of the Boston Celtics in last year’s NBA Draft. He was a physically imposing, 6-foot-3 menace that also happened to be a 43 percent three-point shooter. Before that, Jackson-Cartwright slotted in behind T.J. McConnell, another savvy, defensive menace that has carved out an NBA career for himself.

That is not the kind of point guard that Jackson-Cartwright is. He has some of the same skills offensively that McConnell had, and his ability to facilitate at the point without needing shots to be happy will be valuable on a roster that has enough guys that want to score, but can he have an impact defensively? Is he a leader the way that past Arizona point guards have been? The answer to both of those questions may be ‘yes’, but if they are ‘no’, will some combination of Barcello, Allonzo Trier and Emmanuel Akot rotating through those lead guard minutes be enough for Arizona to win a title?

We’ve seen what happens when title favorites — ahem, Duke — have question marks at the point, and until Jackson-Cartwright proves otherwise, he falls into that category.

2. Which Deandre Ayton are we going to see this year?: There has never been a question about the amount of talent that Ayton has. He’s 7-foot with a 7-foot-6 wingspan. He’s athletic, he’s fluid, he’s mobile and he has a back to the basket game and three-point range. He, quite literally, is the prototype for a big man in this modern era of basketball.

But he doesn’t always play like it.

The knock on him has always been his motor. When he decides to show up, like he did at Peach Jam during the summer of 2016, he dominates anyone that gets in his way — Wendell Carter, Mitchell Robinson, Marvin Bagley III — but we’ve yet to see Ayton consistently churn out those kind of performances. His detractors will say it is because he is lazy, or he isn’t competitive, or he doesn’t love basketball; you know the clichés. Others will tell you that it is because he was never challenged at the high school level and that when he was, he showed up to play. That idea is supported by the reports coming out of Tucson, that Ayton has been terrific to date.

The truth is that we won’t know which Ayton we are going to see until we actually see him. He might end up being the best player in college hoops. He also might end up being Perry Jones.

3. Are there enough shots to go around?: Allonzo Trier is going to be Arizona’s go-to guy. He may end up being the best scorer in college basketball this season. He’s going to get his shots. Then there’s Rawle Alkins, a former five-star prospect that averaged double-figures as a freshman and opted to return to school to try and boost his NBA stock. He’s going to need shots, too. Ayton is going to need shots. Dusan Ristic is going to need post touches.

The bottom line is this: the hardest thing to do at this level of college basketball is to convince players to buy into a role. John Calipari is the best at it, but he doesn’t even have a perfect track record. In a perfect world, the No. 1 pick might end up being Arizona’s third option offensively this season. Is everyone going to be OK with that?

4. Who plays the four?: Like the point guard spot, the four is going to be something of a question mark for Arizona this season.

Ayton will likely end up starting there, because Ristic is a senior and because he is much more skilled on the perimeter than the 7-foot Serbian. But I still think that Ayton’s best position at the college level is as a small-ball five, and if he is playing at the five, who does Miller line up at the four? Keanu Pinder might be the answer, but he’s a JuCo transfer that played all of 12 minutes per game last season. It might be Ira Lee, but an all-freshmen front court isn’t always the easiest answer. Maybe Miller plays Akot there and fully dives into the small-ball era?

I don’t know.

And frankly, I’m less concerned about this than I am intrigued. I think Arizona has enough talent and enough different pieces that it should be fine however Miller decides it will come together.

Assuming the season goes as planned, which brings us to …

5. … Arizona’s involvement with the FBI investigation: Arizona is all over the FBI complaints that came down last month. Book Richardson, an assistant coach that had been with Sean Miller for 11 years, was arrested. Richardson allegedly took bribes to influence where players on the roster would invest their money and accepted a $15,000 payment that was earmarked for a Class of 2018 prospect named Jahvon Quinerly. Two players currently on the Arizona roster were mentioned by Richardson during the commission of the alleged crimes, although the FBI did not release their names, and another assistant coach, who was with the program as of last spring, was also involved in a dinner with the uncle of one of Arizona’s top recruits.

And we don’t know if that’s all that the FBI has. All we know is what they have released.

Are there going to be more Arizona players or coaches involved in this scandal? Will Arizona get wind of any potential arrests or players that may be deemed ineligible? Is this a situation where the Wildcats will try to fall on their own sword?

Only time will tell.

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

Rawle Alkins (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

PREDICTION

Barring some kind of craziness – and craziness enveloping this Arizona season certainly has a greater-than-zero possibility – Arizona is going to end up winning the Pac-12 regular season title. That became a safe bet after the Pac-12 decided that the Wildcats will only be playing UCLA and USC once, and that both of those games will be played in Tucson.

But Arizona fans probably don’t care all that much about Pac-12 titles at this point.

They’ve been there.

What they want is a Final Four, which is more or less the only thing that Sean Miller doesn’t have on his coaching résumé at this point. The 48-year old currently holds the title of ‘best coach to never make a Final Four,’ something he inherited from Mark Few, who inherited it from Bill Self, who inherited it from Jim Calhoun.

Point being, sooner or later, Miller is going to make that run to the final weekend of the college basketball season.

And with the amount of talent, depth, experience and versatility he has with this group, I fully expect that this will be the year he gets it done.

If, you know, nothing crazy happens.

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.