Big 12 Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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While the final standings of the Big 12 may have been predictable, the conference’s tournament is going to be anything but. When a league is projected to get up to 80 percent of its members into the NCAA tournament, “anything is possible” isn’t a cliche or tired slogan, it’s honestly a reality.

Kansas won its 14th-straight Big 12 regular season title, setting the standard for dominance in this recent era, but the Jayhawks did it this season without an overwhelming talent or athletic advantage that has so often been the mark of Bill Self’s teams. In fact, there was a fleeting moment when it looked like the Jayhawks’ streak may come to an end. It was a moment, albeit a silly one.

The story of the Big 12 tournament is that there are legitimately nine teams that conceivably could be the last one standing at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, and the 10th-place team, Iowa State, has been beset by injuries but the Cyclones have won three of the last four Big 12 tournaments, boast a fanbase that invades Kansas City and have three wins over ranked teams themselves.

So the question becomes not only who will win the Big 12 tournament, but how many teams will the league get into the Big Dance? If it’s eight, that will set a record for highest percentage of a conference’s teams earning bids ever. Things may have to break just right – and if they break perfectly maybe we’re talking about nine – that might be the most likely scenario, not just a long-shot one.

It’s the Big 12. Who knows what’s going to happen?

 

THE FAVORITE

Despite having perhaps his weakest and most ill-fitting roster, Bill Self got the Jayhawks on top of the heap once again, even giving them enough leeway that dropping a second game to Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale didn’t hurt them. Kansas may not look like one of heavy national title contenders – despite being in line for a one-seed – in the eyes of most, but there’s pretty convincing argument that this is the most impressive of the Jayhawks’ 14 titles, especially when you consider the strength of the rest of the league

Still, the Jayhawks are vulnerable on a number of fronts. The defense can be beat, they’re 3-point dependent and Self has struggled to motivate some of his players at different times this season, complaining about effort and focus.

They’re the favorite, but not an overwhelming one.

THE CONTENDERS

If Keenan Evans doesn’t get hurt, we very well could be talking about Texas Tech as the team that finally ended Kansas’ reign. After looking like a potential Big 12 player of the year, a toe injury sapped Evans’ ability to the point where a player who was routinely putting up 30 a night suddenly couldn’t even crack double-digits. It’s not surprising the Red Raiders lost four-straight – and a potential conference crown – with Evans on the mend.

Evans, after missing a game against West Virginia, returned over the weekend and got 23 against TCU, signalling he may be ready to go this week and keep Kansas from winning another Big 12 title this season.

The other frontrunner here has to be Bob Huggins and West Virginia. The Mountaineers had a late-January lull, but have otherwise been solid. They don’t make a ton of shots, but here’s betting their style of play can wear down opponents in a game-a-day format.

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

It’s easily Oklahoma. Sure, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State could all use a dub, but the Sooners would be toying with an epic and embarrassing collapse if they lose in the first round and somehow find themselves outside the Field of 68. This is a team that spent much of the season’s first two months looking like a Final Four contender while Trae Young carved up the country.

Now the Sooners are hanging on for dear life having lost seven of their last nine and Young looking completely human. They could lose to Oklahoma State on Wednesday and still sneak in, but they’ve got the most to lose should they falter.

WHO IS ON THE BUBBLE?

The Sooners’ spot is tenuous while Kansas State and Baylor both have to be thinking that one win in Kansas City ought to get them in the field. Oklahoma State probably will need a couple wins to counteract a non-conference schedule that features a win over Florida State and not a whole lot else. The good news for the Cowboys is it looks like they just might have the Jayhawks’ number should the two teams meet in Thursday’s quarterfinal.

THE SLEEPER

When Jaylen Fisher went down to injury, it was a major blow to TCU, but the Horned Frogs come to KC playing good ball. They fell to Texas Tech in the finale in Lubbock, but had won four-straight before that. Their offense is absolutely elite with plenty of shooters around Vlad Brodziansky, who can step out and stroke it himself. TCU’s defense may be suspect, but the way they can spread you out and fill it up makes them a sneaky pick to be hoisting a trophy Saturday night.

PLAYER TO WATCH

I know you’re probably tired of hearing and reading about him, but no player has more at stake at the Sprint Center than Trae Young. It wasn’t so long ago that you couldn’t mention his name without quickly comparing him to Steph Curry, and it was just a few weeks back when his lead in the national player of the year race looked insurmountable.

Young’s legacy as a college player will be decided in the next couple weeks. Well, it could be if the Sooners’ season doesn’t end Wednesday night. Whatever struggles Young has had the last few weeks – and he was right when he said he gets guarded like no other player in the country – he can quiet all his critics with one monster month of March.

X-FACTORS

– Teams are going to key on Devonte Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk and surround Udoka Azubuike, so Kansas is going to need to get contributions from Malik Newman. If Newman can provide some pop offensively, Kansas will be in good shape.

– How healthy is Mo Bamba? The Texas freshman is dealing with a toe injury that coach Shaka Smart said makes him questionable heading into play this week. The Longhorns may not need Bamba to get past Iowa State in their opener, but if they have designs on making a serious run this week, they’re going to need their man in the middle. When he’s on his game and playing at his best, he has the ability to completely change the dynamic of a game.

– Try making sense of Baylor. The Bears opened Big 12 play with 2-7 mark before reeling off five-straight to get back in to the NCAA tournament conversation. Now, though, Scott Drew’s team has lost three of its last four. The team that won five straight can win this thing. The team that started and finished the Big 12 slate could easily go out Thursday.

NBC SPORTS BIG 12 HONORS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Devonte Graham, Kansas

COACH OF THE YEAR: Bill Self, Kansas

FIRST TEAM ALL-BIG 12

  • Devonte Graham, Kansas
  • Trae Young, Oklahoma
  • Keenan Evans, Texas Tech
  • Jevon Carter, West Virginia
  • Mohamed Bamba, Texas

SECOND TEAM ALL-BIG 12

  • Dean Wade, Kansas State
  • Sagaba Konate, West Virginia
  • Svi Mykhailiuk, Kansas
  • Manu Lecomte, Baylor
  • Barry Brown, Kansas State

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.