Five things we learned from college basketball’s opening weekend

Lance King/Getty Images
0 Comments

1. THIS CROP OF FRESHMEN BIGS ARE THE REAL DEAL: We, as media, have a tendency to overhype freshmen each and every year in college hoops.

That’s just the way that this works. When there is something new and exciting on the horizon, we gravitate towards it. There’s something about the unknown and untapped potential that gets everyone excited. Sometimes, that hype pays off. Sometimes, it doesn’t. The early returns are in, and while there is still a very long way to go, it looks like this group of freshmen are going to be as good as advertised.

Deandre Ayton was fantastic in two games for Arizona. His size, his length, his presence in the paint reminds me of Greg Oden, and while Ayton is a different player – Oden was a better defender, Ayton is more of a new-age, stretch-five – there seems to be little doubt that he is going to spend this entire season being awesome. The same can be said for Marvin Bagley III, who averaged a cool 24.5 points and 10 boards in two games this weekend. Bagley isn’t the only star freshman big man on that Duke roster, either, as the high-low partnership that he is going to have with Wendell Carter this season has the potential to be game-changing.

Jaren Jackson has been an under-discussed member of this freshmen class, but he fits perfectly at the four in Michigan State’s front line and has a shot to prove to everyone just how talented he is on Tuesday, as the Spartans and the Blue Devils face off in the Champions Classic. UNLV’s Brandon McCoy went for 25 points and 18 boards in their opener. Villanova’s Omari Spellman had a double-double. Iowa’s Luka Garza looked like a steal.

And we haven’t even seen Michael Porter Jr. play yet. as he went out after two minutes in Missouri’s win over Iowa State.

Then there is Mo Bamba …

2. THE TEXAS ADDITION OF DYLAN OSETKOWSKI CHANGES THEIR CEILING: … who was terrific in his own right in the opener against Northwestern State, but who may not even be the most important addition that the Longhorns made this offseason.

Bamba is a defensive menace. He is 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-9 wingspan and will be the single-best rim protector in college basketball this season. He’s Rudy Gobert, only with a last name that makes you want to sing a Ritchie Valens song. He changes what Texas can do defensively. Having him in front of the rim will allow Shaka Smart’s ‘Havoc’ style of play to take more chances knowing that missing on a steal may not actually lead to a layup or a dunk.

The addition of Matt Coleman helps as well. Andrew Jones isn’t exactly a point guard, and playing two lead guards together is the lineup du jour in college basketball.

But if you talk to people around the Texas program, they’ll tell you that Osetkowski is the best basketball player on the team. Not the best talent. Not the best prospect. Not the best playmaker. The best basketball player. He is 6-foot-9, he rebounds the ball, he makes threes, he can score in the post but, perhaps most importantly, he can handle the ball and facilitate offense. He takes the pressure off of the Texas playmakers offensively the same way that Bamba takes the pressure off of Texas perimeter defenders.

There is a different between being a facilitator and being a playmaker. Jones and Coleman are both playmakers. They thrive in transition, they can get an open shot for someone off the dribble or in ball-screen actions. They’re very good Big 12 guards. But they’re not exactly the kind of facilitator that can get Texas into a set or run offense. Osetkowski can do that. He will let Smart run offense through him while getting Coleman and Jones into spots on the floor where they can make a play.

At the risk of overreacting to three days’ worth of games, I think that the Longhorns are the second-best team in the Big 12.

3. BUT LET’S NOT WRITE-OFF WEST VIRGINIA JUST YET: Yes, they were bad. Yes, they got blown out by a team that didn’t have their starting point guard who was a freshmen anyway. Yes, they deserve to drop out of the top 25 for that.

And to a point, I think we may have overrated the Mountaineers entering the season. They lost a number of critical program and system guys this offseason. I actively overlooked that because they’ve lost a number of program and system guys in past seasons and improved. When Jonathan Holton graduated, Nathan Adrian stepped up. When Jaysean Paige graduated, Jevon Carter stepped up.

Maybe that well has run dry. I’ll admit as much. But there are two reasons I’m not ready to waive the white flag yet.

1. West Virginia is a team that thrives on energy, and they played a game in Germany that tipped at midnight local time, which is a nine-hour flight away if you can find something direct. This wasn’t a home environment. This wasn’t a game played in a gym like Hilton Coliseum or Phog Allen Fieldhouse. This was on a German Army Base. I don’t know how much of a role that played, or if jet lag contributed, but I can’t pretend those factors don’t exist.

2. It’s also important to note that so much of what West Virginia does is built on actually being able to score. That sounds simple, but with the way that the Mountaineers play defense – Press Virginia and all – they cannot get into their defense if the ball doesn’t go through the basket. Against the Aggies, they shot 40 threes out of 70 field goal attempts. They only made 12, meaning that they were only able to get into their press on 30 percent of those possessions. They also only grabbed 11 offensive rebounds, posting an offensive rebounding rate of 22.9 percent. They finished no worse than sixth-nationally in offensive rebounding rate the last three years, twice cracking 40 percent.

Not having Esa Ahmad really hurt them. Ahmad is not a great offensive rebounder, but he’s pretty good. He’s not great scoring around the rim, but he’s pretty good. He’s the one guy on the roster that they might be able to look to offensively in the paint. His presence allows them to score on more possessions, and that is what matters for West Virginia.

It’s been proven that shooting threes well is the most efficient form of offense. But for the Mountaineers, the way that they play, it’s more important to score on the highest number of possessions possible, even if they’re scoring in a less-efficient way.

Kevin Knox (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

4. KENTUCKY HAS A LONG WAY TO GO, BUT WE KNEW THIS: Kentucky is a long, long way from being a finished product.

On Friday night against Utah Valley, the issue they had was on the offensive end of the floor. They just couldn’t find a way to get good shots in the half court. On Sunday, it was defensive that killed them. They looked lost trying to defend Vermont’s ball-screen actions.

They started two different lineups in those two games, and both lineups featured five freshmen.

It showed.

We know the Wildcats were going to take some lumps early on this season. The issue isn’t how they’re playing now. It’s whether or not they get better as the season moves along.

5. TUESDAY NIGHT IS GOING TO BE UNBELIEVABLE: I am more excited for the Champions Classic than I have been for this event in years.

Maybe ever.

It starts with No. 1 Duke taking on No. 2 Michigan State in a battle of front courts that should make every NBA scout – both amateur and professional – get excited. Then there is the battle between point guards that need to prove themselves, and that’s before we talk about how their are two first-team preseason all-americans on the floor in Grayson Allen and Miles Bridges.

And that’s just the opener.

The nightcap will feature a Kentucky team that may end up starting a team with no one shorter than 6-foot-5 against a Kansas team that has been playing small-ball lineups that feature four guards 6-foot-6 and below. This will be the real test for the Wildcats, playing a veteran team that has national title aspirations, but it will be a good gauge game for Kansas as well. Kentucky may not be great yet, but they are big, and if there is any question about these Jayhawks, it’s how they are going to handle size.

NCAA steering farther and farther away from harsh penalties

ncaa
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
2 Comments

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

Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK
0 Comments

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

Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times/USA TODAY NETWORK
0 Comments

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

Joe Rondone/USA TODAY NETWORK
2 Comments

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

uconn
Michael Hickey/Getty Images
0 Comments

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.