Mountain West Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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The goal of the Mountain West in recent years has been to get back to the days earlier this decade in which the conference could count on multiple teams going to the NCAA tournament. There’s still work to be done in this regard, as the 11 teams will arrive in Las Vegas knowing that only regular season champion Nevada is well positioned to hear its name called on Selection Sunday.

Despite seeing multiple players suffer injuries throughout the course of the season, Eric Musselman’s Wolf Pack won the Mountain West by two games. Led offensively by twins Caleb and Cody Martin, forward Jordan Caroline and guard Kendall Stephens, Nevada may not be that deep but the team doesn’t lack for talent or experience either.

That being said Nevada won’t lack for challenges in Las Vegas, especially with Fresno State and San Diego State on their side of the bracket. Leading the way on the bottom half of the bracket is two-seed Boise State, which has some work to do in order to ensure itself of an NCAA tournament bid.

Here’s a look at the 2018 Mountain West Tournament, an event that’s been won by the top seed twice in the last five seasons.

THE FAVORITE

Even with Saturday’s loss to San Diego State in the regular season finale, Nevada has earned the label of favorites heading into the tournament. Boasting a 15-3 league record, the Wolf Pack had the Mountain West’s most efficient offense and defensively led the conference in both effective field goal and three-point percentage defense. Nevada’s top four scorers, led by Caleb Martin at 19.5 points per game, have combined to account for nearly 65 points per game on the season. And without Lindsey Drew, who went down with a ruptured Achilles last month, the Martin twins, Caroline and Stephens have even more on their plates.

But if a Josh Hall, who chipped in with ten points in Nevada’s win at UNLV on February 28, or Hallice Cook can step forward this week that would bode well for the Wolf Pack. What also helps this team is the fact that they take care of the basketball, as their 9.1 turnovers per game were by far the least in the Mountain West. That being said, they’ve got a tough half of the bracket to navigate.

THE CONTENDERS

Boise State leads this list, due in large part to the presence of senior guard Chandler Hutchison. Averaging 19.5 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, Hutchison leads the Broncos in all three statistical categories. While Leon Rice certainly has other options he can call upon offensively, led by Christian Sengfelder and Justinian Jessup (who’s shooting 46.7 percent from three), when a big play needs to be made it’s Hutchison who will have the ball in his hands.

After Boise State, New Mexico and San Diego State both deserve mention. Paul Weir led the Lobos to a 12-6 record in league play, and after being stuck on the bench his first two seasons in Albuquerque Anthony Mathis has emerged as the team’s leading scorer. And UNM capped the regular season with a win over Fresno State. As for the Aztecs, after getting blown out by Nevada on February 10 Brian Dutcher’s team won its last six to finish the regular season. SDSU is balanced offensively, with Malik Pope leading four double-figure scorers, and freshman Jalen McDaniels is going to be a star in this league.

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

Boise State. With Nevada due to pick up an at-large bid if it doesn’t win the tournament, that leaves the Broncos as the only other team in the Mountain West that has a shot at reaching the NCAA tournament if they don’t win the automatic bid. But that would likely require Boise State reaching Saturday’s title game, at minimum. A win over Utah State or Colorado State in the quarters won’t do much for their resume, and neither would a semifinal win over New Mexico/Wyoming/San Jose State. And it should be noted that if Nevada isn’t the opponent in the final, a close loss could spell doom for Boise State there as well.

WHO IS ON THE BUBBLE?

Boise State. Ranked 41st in the NCAA’s most recent RPI update, Boise State enters the Mountain West tournament with two Quadrant 1 (Loyola-Chicago and Oregon) and four Quadrant 2 wins to its credit. The RPI likes Boise State more than other metrics, which have the Broncos ranked in the fifties with the exception of the KPI (61). Getting to the final may not be good enough, especially if the opponent in that game isn’t Nevada. Why risk it? Just win the whole damn thing and sleep easy Saturday night.

THE SLEEPER

Given the fact that they aren’t listed with the contenders above, Fresno State would be the best choice here. However, this is a group that is now playing without guard Jaron Hopkins as he suffered a right foot injury in a loss at Wyoming on February 24. Hopkins accounted for 20 points and five assists in the Bulldogs’ home win over San Diego State, their quarterfinal opponent, back on February 6. While many like to parrot the phrase “it’s hard to beat a team three times in the same season,” that’s been proven to be false.

Matchups matter, and Fresno State has some guys who can cause trouble in Deshon Taylor and Bryson Williams. The Bulldogs can account for the loss of Hopkins, especially with the time off between the end of the regular season and the start of the conference tournament. The bigger concern regarding Fresno State is the way that San Diego State is playing of late. As for any other sleepers, Wyoming is a team worth monitoring with Justin James and Hayden Dalton leading the way for Allen Edwards’ team. With San Jose State being the opponent in their tournament opener, Wyoming will likely face New Mexico for the third time this season in the quarters (UNM won both meetings).

PLAYER TO WATCH

Caleb Martin, Nevada. Martin, one of the top transfers in the country, is averaging 19.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game on the season, shooting 47.3 percent from the field, 43.1 percent from three and 75.4 percent from the foul line. Martin going off over the course of three days, especially when he’s scored 20 points or more in 17 games this season, would surprise no one. And frankly, he’s a fun player to watch.

X-FACTORS

– Does Nevada’s lack of depth catch up with it due to the quick turnarounds? Three games in as many days could be a tough ask for the Wolf Pack, but the versatility of the players available should help matters.

– UNLV’s mindset. The Runnin’ Rebels lost five straight to end the regular season, with four of the losses being by double digits. There’s enough talent on this roster to cause some trouble, but given the beating they took at the hands of rival Nevada at Thomas & Mack on February 28 (101-75) who knows what this team will be thinking if the teams meet for a third time on Thursday.

– San Diego State’s defense. Long known for its commitment on that end of the floor, during a stretch in which it went 2-6 SDSU allowed 77 points or more in seven of those games (losing six). The Aztecs have defended better during the current six-game win streak, and if that carries over into Las Vegas maybe they make a run.

NBC SPORTS MOUNTAIN WEST POSTSEASON HONORS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chandler Hutchison, Boise State

COACH OF THE YEAR: Eric Musselman, Nevada

FIRST TEAM ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST

  • Justin James, Wyoming
  • Chandler Hutchison, Boise State
  • Caleb Martin, Nevada
  • Hayden Dalton, Wyoming
  • Jordan Carolina, Nevada

SECOND TEAM ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST

  • Sam Merrill, Utah State
  • Deshon Taylor, Fresno State
  • Cody Martin, Nevada
  • Shakur Juiston, UNLV
  • Brandon McCoy, UNLV

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.