College Basketball Bid Thieves: What teams could steal a spot in the tournament from the bubble?

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What defines a bid thief?

It’s pretty simple, really: A team that has no chance at earning an at-large bid winning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament in a conference where there is an at-large team. If, say, neither Gonzaga nor Saint Mary’s wins the WCC tournament’s automatic bid, then that means that the WCC will receive three bids, or two at-large bids and one automatic bid.

That means there is one less spot in the at-large pool for the teams in the middle of the SEC, the Big 12 and the ACC.

Hence the term big thief.

Where are this year’s potential bid thieves coming from? Who should the teams on the bubble be wary of?

PAC-12

The Pac-12 is weird this year. Not only are there only two teams that can be considered a lock for the NCAA tournament at this point in the season, both of those teams — who were, at one point, ranked in the top five nationally this year — have fallen off a cliff. Arizona lost Allonzo Trier to a failed PED test and they may have lost their head coach in Sean Miller. Arizona State, on the other hand, has just lost. They’re 7-9 in Pac-12 play and seem to be headed for the 8-9 game in the Pac-12 tournament. That would mean that they would face-off with Arizona in the quarterfinals, assuming that Arizona can get a split at home against Stanford and Cal this weekend.

Put another way, it’s going to be much easier for a sleeper to make a run in the Pac-12 tournament than it will be in any other major conference tournament.

So who are the potential bid thieves here?

At this point, I think USC is going to be on the right side of the bubble. UCLA and Washington might be able to play their way into a bid without having to win the automatic bid. Leaving them out, I think OREGON and UTAH have both played well of late, while STANFORD has proven they have the ability to get hot and reel off four wins in a row. Frankly, I think you pencil the Pac-12 in for five bids and figure out who those five bids are on Selection Sunday.

AMERICAN

The American has three teams at the top of the league — Cincinnati, Wichita State and Houston — that are locks for the Dance. They also don’t really have much in the way of a bubble team, unless you Temple is going to be able to make a run to the tournament.

What they do have, however, is SMU. Prior to Shake Milton suffering a broken hand and Jarrey Foster tearing his ACL, the Mustangs looked like a team that might be able to earn a tournament bid. Two weeks before Milton’s injury, he had 34 points in a win at Wichita State. They have not been the same team since, but Milton is the type of talent that could spark a run in a conference tournament. It’s also probably worth mentioning that TULSA, who looks like they will finish fourth in the league, had won six in a row prior to Sunday’s loss at Cincinnati. They haven’t lost a game that wasn’t a roadie against Wichita State or Cincinnati since Jan. 17th.

ATLANTIC 10

The Atlantic 10 may have just opened up that much more. Rhode Island, who looked like far and away the best team in the league, went out and lost by 30 points to St. Joe’s on Tuesday night at home.

Spoiler alert: St. Joe’s is not all that good this season.

At this point, I really only think that one of three teams can win the Atlantic 10 tournament this season — URI, St. Bonaventure and Davidson have been far and away the best teams in the conference during league play — but both URI and the Bonnies seem like they should be in come Selection Sunday.

That leaves DAVIDSON, who shook off a slow start to the season to really play some good basketball for the last month. The Wildcats have won seven of their last nine games, and those two losses came at URI and at St. Bonaventure in triple-overtime on Tuesday night. They are, as usual, an offensive juggernaut with talents like Peyton Aldridge and Kellan Grady on the roster, but what’s promising is that, in A10 play, they’ve been the league’s fourth-best defensive team; they were the second-best defensive team in league play prior to giving up 117 points to the Bonnies last night.

Bob McKillop’s club could end up making the Atlantic 10 a three-bid conference.

WCC

We know who the two best teams in the WCC are: Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga. That isn’t much of a secret at this point. And barring some kind of disastrous loss for the Gaels, both of them are locks for the NCAA tournament. They will also be on opposite sides of the bracket, meaning that there will be some opportunities for opponents to pick them off before the final.

The team to watch out for here is BYU. San Diego would have been a threat before their coach was arrested for domestic violence and San Francisco does have a win over the Gaels, but BYU is the only team in the league that is close to par with the Zags and the Gaels from a talent perspective.

MOUNTAIN WEST

As of now, the only team in the Mountain West that has any chance at an at-large bid is Nevada. BOISE STATE is on the fringes, but they missed their chance to add an elite win when they lost at home to the Wolf Pack, and since they are locked into theNo. 2 seed, they only way they’ll be able to do that in the MWC tournament is in the beat Nevada in the title game … and earn the automatic bid.

And that probably makes the Broncos the ultimate big thief. They’re a borderline top 50 team on KenPom with the best player in the conference — sorry Caleb Martin — on their roster in Chandler Hutchison.

But if you wanted to bet on where the bubble is going to lose a bid, the Mountain West is probably the safest best. The league doesn’t have the profile to actually carry more than one at-large team, but they do have some talent in the conference and teams that are unquestionably good enough to pick on Eric Musselman’s club. Let’s start with UNLV, who has quite a bit of talent — including future first round pick Brandon McCoy — and will be playing home games throughout the league tournament. They also won at Nevada (albeit while Nevada was injured) this month. WYOMING has one of the best one-two punches in the conference with Justin James and Hayden Dalton and they beat a full-strength Nevada team in Laramie earlier this year.

FRESNO STATE has some talent on their roster this year. SAN DIEGO STATE got Malik Pope back after he sat out for one game and they seem to have figured out that Jalen McDaniels might actually be their best player. Even NEW MEXICO has won some games this year.

The MWC tournament is going to be wild this year.

Chandler Hutchison (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

CONFERENCE USA

The big question here is whether or not you believe that Middle Tennessee State is actually an NCAA tournament team. They are 26th in the RPI, they have three Quadrant 1 wins this season while playing in a league that isn’t exactly loaded with talent and their one “bad” loss this season came at home against Belmont, who is 77th in the RPI; the cutoff for that being a Quadrant 2 loss is 75th in the RPI.

So let’s assume that the Blue Raiders are going to be dancing as long as they don’t lose to one of the dumpster fires that currently exist in CUSA. That leaves two legitimate bid thief candidates: OLD DOMINION and WESTERN KENTUCKY. WKU is loaded with high-major cast-offs like Darius Thompson (Virginia), Lamonte Bearden (Buffalo), Moustapha Diagne (Syracuse) and Dwight Coleby (Kansas and Ole Miss), while ODU is more balanced and better defensively. The Monarchs, however, have lost all three games they’ve played against WKU and MTSU this season.

MISSOURI VALLEY

Is Loyola-Chicago is deserving of an at-large bid? According to Bracket Matrix, they are the second highest-rated mid-major program. They also have a win at Florida and a top 35 RPI. But a 3-3 mark against the top two Quadrants and a pair of losses to teams outside the top two Quadrants is not ideal, particularly when you consider that they could end up taking another one if they don’t lose to either ILLINOIS STATE or BRADLEY.

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.