Family Business: Seton Hall’s senior class has a special bond that was not likely three years ago

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NEWARK — It wasn’t about basketball.

Not entirely, anyway.

Seton Hall is not all that deep, but if there is a spot that the Pirates can afford to go down a man, it’s at the four spot. Ishmael Sanogo may be the team’s best defender and the man that head coach Kevin Willard prefers, but Michael Nzei proved on Thursday night, as the No. 23 Pirates came from 11 points down to beat No. 25 Creighton at the Prudential Center, that he can more than fill that role. In 26 minutes, he finished with seven points, 14 boards, two assists, two steals and a block.

Seton Hall is better with Ish, but they can still accomplish what they’ve spent the last three and a half years building towards without him.

That’s not why they did this. That’s not why the other three seniors on this roster – Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez and Angel Delgado – sat down with Willard to talk him into letting Sanogo finish the season as a member of the team.

“You don’t want to see your brother throw his life down the drain,” Carrington told NBC Sports.

Sanogo was suspended by Willard prior to last Friday’s game against Manhattan. It was the second time that he’s been suspended this season, missing out on an exhibition game in November. The program never officially set a timeline for the suspension or detailed specifically what Sanogo did – the New York Post reported that it was the result of a series of “really bad judgements” – but Carrington believed there was a real chance this could be it, that Sanogo’s time as a Pirate had come to an end.

So after the win over Manhattan, the seniors talked. They decided to sit down with Willard, who then called a meeting with the entire team. They were on board, so Willard and his locker room’s three leaders sat down with Sanogo and his parents.

“We had a conversation with Ish,” Carrington said, “and we told him that all the extra stuff needs to stop.”

On the 26th, Willard allowed the team to make a “family decision.”

Sanogo was back.


Angel Delgado (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Back in 2010, the NCAA made a rule change that forever changed the trajectory of package deals.

For years, college programs had been able to hire someone close to a prospect into an administrative role within their program in an effort to land a recruit. It dates all the way back to Danny Manning, whose father was hired by Larry Brown at Kansas before Danny and the Miracles led the Jayhawks to a national title. John Calipari hired DaJuan Wagner’s father, Milt, at Memphis. He also hired Tyreke Evans’ trainer, Lamont Peterson, as an administrative assistant. Baylor hired John Wall’s AAU coach Dwon Clifton during their recruitment of the star point guard.

Everyone did it.

The change, however, was significant: In order to hire a person associated with a prospect, that new hire must be one of the three officially titled assistant coaches on the staff. Otherwise, no recruits associated with that coach would be allowed to enroll at the school for two years. Head coaches could no longer scrounge up $50,000 in salary and invent a new title and no-show job to funnel money to someone close to a prospect unless they were willing to burn one of their three assistant coaching positions – the three men they rely on to recruit, to scout, to game-plan, to keep the young men on their roster in line – to get that player.

And rest assured, it still happened.

It was and is not, however, always a successful strategy.

Where should I start?

Josh Pastner hired Keelon Lawson in order to get all four Lawson brothers to Memphis, but after one season with Dedric and K.J. on his roster, Pastner was fired. Tubby Smith was hired in his place, and within a year the relationship between the coach and the family was so frayed that the Lawsons left town in explicit fashion.

Johnny Jones hired Ben Simmons’ godfather, David Patrick, and Simmons spent six months barely feigning interest in being a college basketball player. Billy Kennedy hired John Reese to get J-Mychal Reese, a top 50 prospect, but the duo both bounced midway through their second season with the program. Rick Stansbury hired Mitchell Robinson’s godfather, Shammond Williams, to land a commitment from the top 10 prospect and that ended up in disaster; Robinson is sitting out this season and training for the NBA Draft instead of playing college ball. DePaul hired La Lumiere head coach Shane Heirman to get five-star point guard Tyger Campbell and that commitment lasted all of three months.

Then there are the Porters. Both Lorenzo Romar and Cuonzo Martin have hired Michael Porter Sr., the father of Michael Jr. and Jontay, to land the duo. Romar was fired by Washington before the brothers made it to campus, and while Martin may have had success with Michael Jr. at Missouri, we probably will never know; Porter had surgery on his back after playing just two minutes this season.

Which brings me to Kevin Willard.

In 2013, Willard hired Oliver Antigua, who had coached Delgado on the Dominican National Team and helped orchestrate his arrival in the United States, before Delgado committed. Antigua would eventually leave to join his brother’s staff at South Florida before Delgado arrived on campus, which opened up another spot on Willard’s staff. That went to Dwayne ‘Tiny’ Morton, then the head coach of the famed Lincoln HS in Brooklyn, a hire that solidified the commitment of McDonald’s All-American Isaiah Whitehead. Eventually, Whitehead’s teammate, Rodriguez, would follow suit.

Willard also hired then-Northwestern assistant Fred Hill, and that same day former Northwestern-commit Jaren Sina pledged to the Pirates.

That completed a class that also included Brooklyn native Carrington, Newark native and Nzei.

In the years since, that group has turned into Seton Hall’s version of the Fab Five, a group of local kids rebuilding a once-proud local program.

But it didn’t start out that way.

Seton Hall won their first 12 games, but the season quickly devolved. Sina transferred out midseason. Seniors spoke on the record about how “everyone’s not focused on winning.”

“We took an ass kicking our freshmen year,” Carrington said. The Pirates would lose 15 of their final 19 games and Willard was forced to negotiate a deal to keep his job: He gets one more year, and if that promising crop of freshmen didn’t pan out, he would resign. “I definitely remember those hot seat talks, saying coach might get fired. Our freshman year was so bad my family asked me if I wanted to transfer. I said no. I felt like we had enough players. We had enough confidence in ourselves to do something special.”

Seton Hall won the Big East tournament the following season, earning the program’s first trip to the NCAA tournament in a decade.

They returned the following year.

And in the final year with that core together, the Pirates have their best team to date.

“I’m ready for those guys to graduate,” Creighton head coach Greg McDermott said with a laugh on Thursday night. “I might come to their graduation and congratulate them.”


Myles Powell (Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

The most difficult thing – and arguably the most important thing – for a college basketball program that is not a one-and-done factory to do is to get old while keeping talent on the roster. Kids don’t want to wait to get playing time. They don’t want to sacrifice their shots and their stats for an extra year when a star opts to return to school. Hell, they don’t want to be in school when they could be making six or seven figures playing professionally.

The fantasy of college basketball as anything other than a billion-dollar business has passed, but the beauty of what has grown in Seton Hall’s basketball program is a throwback to a bygone era. This roster, this senior class, is essentially made up of local kids, guys that have known each other for years, guys that have developed a bond that goes far beyond basketball.

Delgado had a chance to go to the NBA after last season. He returned to school. “The decision was easy,” he told NBC Sports in October, “and I’m excited to be back with these guys.”

“We brothers,” he added on Thursday. “Not only when we’re in school, but we’re going to be brothers when we leave here,” and that sounds like lip service, the kind of thing that a program coaches its players to say. But with Seton Hall, the proof is in the pudding.

Take Carrington, for example. He’s playing a new position this season and the transition has not been smooth. His scoring is way down. His efficiency is way down. He’s not shooting the ball well. And he doesn’t care, not when his team is still winning games. Delgado is the same way. He’s been doubled every time he’s touched the ball. He’s not posting the same stat lines he did when he was the best big man in the Big East a season ago, but his smile has been as big and as infectious as ever.

No one has batted an eye as sophomore Myles Powell has become the team’s second-leading scorer, or as Desi Rodriguez has usurped the title of Seton Hall’s All-American Candidate.

Which brings me to Thursday night.

All the writing was all the wall. All the narratives were lined up. It was the perfect storm. Seton Hall was just two weeks removed from a loss to in-state rival Rutgers. One player, Jordan Walker, had reportedly quit the team over a play time beef before returning a few days later while a second player, Sanogo, was suspended. Then there was the game against Manhattan, where Powell was ejected as the two teams had a pre-halftime scuffle. At halftime of their Big East home opener, a game they had to win if the pipe dream of a Big East regular season title had any chance of becoming a reality, Seton Hall had foregone playing any defense in the first half, trailing No. 25 Creighton 53-42 at the break.

They rallied and won despite having to play the final three minutes without Delgado, who had fouled out of the game.

In the locker room, after the win, when Nzei spotted Delgado, he said, “I got you! I got 14 rebounds!”

Delgado’s response?

“I freaking love you, man. You don’t even know how much.”


Desi Rodriguez (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Just how long Sanogo remains a member of the Seton Hall program is up to him at the end of the day.

His brothers want him there, even with all the extras. Willard wants to win, and Sanogo gives him the best chance to do that. This group is good enough to do things Seton Hall hasn’t done since the days of P.J. Carlesimo, and the players he entered with did not want to experience that without him.

But the reason he’s still wearing that Seton Hall jersey on gamedays goes beyond basketball.

“If we win the Big East or the national championship, seeing him there will make me a really happy person,” Delgado said. “But I want Ish to graduate. I want Ish to walk across that stage with us.”

“I would want somebody to do it for me,” Carrington added. “That’s what family does.”

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.