SEC Preview: Kentucky, Florida and Texas A&M look primed to battle for a title

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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 SEC.

The SEC has generated quite a bit of hype this offseason.

Some of it is justified.

Increased recruiting efforts by the likes of Alabama, Missouri, Auburn and Mississippi State mean that there are a number of teams that aren’t accustomed to NCAA tournament buzz getting some in October.

That’s before you consider that Kentucky, Florida and Texas A&M all look top 25-good while Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Arkansas have ‘tough out’ written all over them.

But we’ve heard this story before.

Will this season be any different than the last?

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Kentucky is ridiculously talented, but the pieces may not fit together

The Wildcats are loaded with talent once again. When Jarred Vanderbilt returns from his foot injury, John Calipari will have eight five-star prospects at his disposal this year. Three of them – Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Hamidou Diallo – spent last season as a part of the program in one way or another, and that doesn’t even include Shae Gilgeous-Alexander, who has quietly been climbing up NBA Draft boards.

Kentucky should be terrific on the defensive end of the floor thanks to all that length and athleticism. The problem is on the offensive side of the ball. For starters, there just isn’t enough shooting on the roster to be able to space the floor. There also is a lack of elite-level playmaking and shot creation. Put another way, if Kentucky finds themselves in a grind-it-out half-court game, how are they going to be able to create offense? Who on this team scares you if you are an opposing coach?

Part of the problem is the roster construction. Much like the 2014-15 team, Kentucky may have too many big guys. Don’t be surprised to see Kevin Knox, who should be a four at the college level, play the majority of his minutes on the perimeter. But unlike that Kentucky team, this one doesn’t have the same caliber of potential NBA talent. There is no Karl Towns or Devin Booker. There is n Tyler Ulis or Harrison twin. I would even argue that Knox is less effective on the perimeter than Trey Lyles was.

I trust in John Calipari to figure this thing out, to find a role for each of his guy’s to play and a way to get them to buy into that role. He’s one of the best at that.

I just can’t see how that is going to play out from where I’m sitting.

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Tyler Davis (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

2. Texas A&M can actually contend for the SEC crown

I firmly believe that this season, and it starts with their front court, which is as big and as talented as anyone. The name to know is probably Robert Williams, a 6-foot-10 sophomore from tiny Oil City, Louisiana, who opted to forgo the NBA and return to college for his sophomore season. He is a potential top five pick, should his jumper and perimeter ability catch up to his ridiculous athleticism and physical tools, but he probably won’t be the best big on the Texas A&M roster this season.

That title belongs to Tyler Davis, a 6-foot-9 behemoth. He’s the rock on the low block for the Aggies, who can score and draw fouls in the paint and own the glass. Throw in shooters like Tony Trocha-Morelos and D.J. Hogg to space the floor, and that’s going to be tough to deal with.

The concern is in the back court. Texas A&M was without a point guard last year and brought in three potential cures to that issues: freshman Jay Jay Chandler, redshirt freshman J.J. Caldwell and grad transfer Duane Wilson, who left Marquette to enroll with the Aggies. One of those three is going to have to step up and take over the position this year.

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3. Kentucky isn’t the only team with awesome freshmen

While the Wildcats have the most – as in number – talented recruits on their roster, they don’t have the most – as in best – talented newbies in the SEC.

That title probably belongs to Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr., a 6-foot-10 freak-of-nature athlete who already has advanced perimeter skills and an impressive ability to knock down the three. I’m not comparing him to Kevin Durant as a player – Nno one should ever be compared to Kevin Durant as a player unless it’s to say “he’s not ever going to be as good as Kevin Durant” – but I could see his freshman season following in the footsteps of Durant’s: Massive numbers on a team that he carries, early round NCAA tournament exit after landing a middling seed. Simply put: Missouri’s supporting cast is either A) a freshman, like his younger brother Jontay, or B) not all that talented.

While Porter could end up being the first pick of the 2018 NBA Draft, the first point guard taken off the board looks like it could end up being Alabama’s Collin Sexton. Sexton is interesting for a couple reasons:

  1. He’s a high-volume scorer that did so much of his work by drawing fouls. Is he going to get the same calls at the college level that he got in high school and AAU?
  2. He’s a guy that could average 20 points on a team that desperately needs a scoring boost. The Crimson Tide finished 158th nationally in offensive efficiency last season. They were 10th in defensive efficiency. They need Sexton.

The addition of both Porters immediately makes Missouri one of the most interesting teams in the country, let alone the league. Will that be enough for Cuonzo Martin to get to his third NCAA tournament in ten seasons as a head coach? On the other hand, Alabama has a legitimate argument to be considered a top three team in the league. We’ll see if either of those things lasts.

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Michael Porter Jr., Missouri Athletics

4. The losses suffered by Florida are going to hurt more than you think

The good news for the Gators is that they returned KeVaughn Allen, who is one of the most dangerous scorers in all of college basketball. He’s capable of popping off for 30 points on any given night, and if he, as an upperclassmen this season, can find a way to iron out some of those inconsistencies, we’re talking about a potential SEC Player of the Year candidate.

That’s big.

But it’s also burying the lede, because the Gators lost three critical pieces from last season’s team: Kasey Hill, Devin Robinson and Justin Leon. Hill never did live up to the hype that he had coming out of high school, but by the time that he graduated from Florida he was a veteran leader, an above average playmaker and a defensive menace at the point. Throw in Robinson and Leon, two versatile, athletic forwards that were switchable defensively, and this group is going to take a big step down from the team that finished last season ranked as college basketball’s No. 2 defense, according to KenPom.

I think Chiozza will be fine at the point, and Egor Koulechov and Jalen Hudson should be able to impact this team immediately, but unless the likes of Keith Stone and DeAundre Ballard are ready to fill the void left by Robinson and Leon, the Gators are going to have some growing pains.

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

5. Critical seasons are on tap for Bruce Pearl and Ben Howland

For the last three years, we’ve been hearing about how the influx of talent and investment into coaching ability was going to change the trajectory of SEC basketball for the teams not named Kentucky and Florida in the league. To date, that hasn’t exactly gone as planned. Frank Martin reached the Final Four last season with a once-in-a-generation South Carolina team. Rick Barnes has been fine at Tennessee; the Vols play hard and win above their talent level, and they have a solid young core that could make them relevant in a year or two.

Pearl and Howland are a different story. Pearl is in year four now, and after arriving at Auburn with a massive amount of hype, he’s yet to even sniff the NCAA tournament. This year’s team has the talent to do so, but the cloud of the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball is hanging over the program. A former assistant coach, Chuck Person, was arrested after taking more than $90,000 in bribe money from a financial advisor, some of which was supposed to be earmarked for players on the Auburn roster.

Auburn has a roster that is good enough to make the NCAA tournament this season. Will all of those players remain eligible all season long? Will Bruce Pearl still be employed in March?

Howland is in a bit of a different situation. Mississippi State has had a number of strong recruiting classes in a row, and with Quinndary Weatherspoon retuning to school and being joined in Starkville by his brother, Nick, the Bulldogs look like a team that should be able to make a run, particularly when you factor in Lamar Peters. But chemistry issues have dogged this program, and Howland has never really been one for team-building activities, so there are some real concerns.

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Bruce Pearl (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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PRESEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tyler Davis, Texas A&M

I’m not sure that there is a tougher big man to guard in college basketball than Tyler Davis. At 6-foot-10 and 261 pounds of solid muscle, Davis has slimmed down from the 300-pound behemoth that committed to A&M. He immovable when he gets position on the block, and while he’s something of a land warrior when it comes to protecting the rim, he does have some solid moves on the block, a soft touch around the rim and the ability to use his body to create angles.

THE REST OF THE ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM

  • Michael Porter Jr., Missouri: Porter is an obscenely talented freshman, a player that has the potential to end up being the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. His 6-foot-10 size, athleticism and ability to play on the perimeter like a guard makes him a candidate to score 20 points per game this season.
  • KeVaughn Allen, Florida: Allen is one of the most dangerous scorers in college basketball. We all saw him go for 35 points on Wisconsin. Consistency is the issue with him.
  • Yante Maten, Georgia: Perennially underrated playing for a middlling SEC program like Georgia, Maten’s flown under the radar over the course of the last two seasons. He’s the best big man in this league, and that’s saying a lot.
  • Robert Williams, Texas A&M: Big Bob Williams made the decision to return to school for his sophomore season, something that was relatively unexpected but that really helped boost the stock of the Aggies.
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FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky
  • Mustapha Heron, Auburn
  • Collin Sexton, Alabama
  • Quinndary Weatherspoon, Mississippi State
  • Terrence Davis, Ole Miss
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Grant Williams (Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

BREAKOUT STAR: Grant Williams, Tennessee

Grant Williams doesn’t look like a guy that would be a great basketball player. Generously listed at 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, Williams has the build of a tight end, not a power forward, but that didn’t stop him from putting together a terrific freshman season. He averaged 12.6 points, 5.9 boards and 1.9 blocks and, with the Volunteers losing a couple of scorers off last year’s roster, he’ll be asked to play a bigger role this year. He’ll be a name SEC teams have to pay attention to.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Mark Fox, Georgia

Mark Fox is one of the more well-respected coaches in the SEC. His teams run good offense, they’re well-disciplined defensively, generally-speaking they tend to play above their talent level. He’s good at what he does. He’s also a basketball coach at a football school in a football state, and while he’s done well to make the program respectable – he’s been there for eight seasons, reached two NCAA tournament and three NITS and hasn’t finished below .500 in the league since 2012 – but at some point winning matters. With J.J. Frazier gone, Fox is heading into Yante Maten’s senior year without much coming down the pipeline.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

How did the SEC end up getting seven teams into the NCAA tournament?

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

… the one season that we’ll get Michael Porter Jr. on a college campus. He has a chance to be special.

EIGHT NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • 11/10, Texas A&M vs. West Virginia (Germany)
  • 11/14, Kentucky vs. Kansas (Chicago, Champions Classic)
  • 11/26, Texas A&M at USC
  • 12/5, Texas A&M vs. Arizona (Phoenix)
  • 12/9, Florida vs. Cincinnati (Newark, N.J.)
  • 12/23, UCLA vs. Kentucky (New Orleans, CBS Sports Classic)
  • 12/29, Louisville at Kentucky
  • 1/27, Kentucky at West Virginia
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Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky Athletics
CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

POWER RANKINGS

1. Texas A&M: The Aggies have a front court that is absolutely loaded. One of the best in the country. Picking them to win the conference means betting that Billy Kennedy will be able to figure it out with the young point guards on his roster.
2. Kentucky: This is a young, athletic and talented Kentucky roster that doesn’t seem to fit together all that well. I have expanded thoughts here, but in a nutshell: I think they’ll take their lumps early but that John Calipari will figure it out.
3. Florida: Florida will be good, but as I wrote earlier, I’m not buying the hype that this is a top ten team entering the season.
4. Alabama: I’m not sure what else there is to add about Alabama from what I wrote earlier. This is a team that was elite defensively and lacked scoring before going out and landing Collin Sexton.
5. Missouri: This is where the SEC gets really interesting. The top four in the league is pretty clear-cut, but the teams ranked 5-10 can pretty much be put into any order. I bet on talent, which is why I have Michael Porter Jr.’s team at the top of this group, but my concerns about this roster makeup can be read in full here.
6. Tennessee: The Vols are my sleeper in the SEC this season. This is a young group that plays hard, defends well and has an up-and-coming star in this league in Grant Williams. Rick Barnes is a better coach than you realize.
7. Ole Miss: I have no idea what Andy Kennedy is going to do with this front court to replace Sebastian Saiz, but I do know that a back court that includes Deandre Burnett, Terence Davis, Markel Crawford, Breein Tyree and Devontae Shuler – and that doesn’t include Cullen Neal – is one of the nation’s most underrated.
8. Arkansas: I don’t get the hype Arkansas has gotten this offseason. They lost one of the SEC’s best rim protectors and rebounders in Moses Kingsley and once of the best floor-spacers in Dusty Hannahs, and they’re supposed to get better?
9. Vanderbilt: The loss of Luke Kornet is really going to hurt this group. Matthew Fisher-Davis is one of the better guards in the SEC you probably haven’t heard of, and the ‘Dores are going to be old and well-coached, but I’m not seeing tournament upside here.
10. Auburn: The Tigers have top four upside, particularly in Austin Wiley can get healthy (and in shape) and Mustapha Heron continues to develop as a scorer. But I’m still not sold on this team being able to overcome everything that is currently swirling around the program.
11. Georgia: I think Mark Fox is a terrific coach and Yante Maten is a terrific player, but there just isn’t enough talent on this roster to beat out what is a good middle-of-the-pack in the SEC.
12. Mississippi State: As much talent as there is on the Bulldogs roster, I’m worried about their front court. Mario Kegler was the one guy that could space the floor. He transferred.
13. South Carolina: The loss of Sindarius Thornwell is a blow, but losing P.J. Dozier might have hurt more. He was a guy the Gamecocks could have built around this season. Not anymore.
14. LSU: I do think that the future is bright for LSU under Will Wade. They are already recruiting well, landing a top point guard prospect in the Class of 2017 in Tremont Waters. But when the best thing you can say about a program is ‘they’re recruiting well,’ it’s not a good sign for the present.

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.