2018 NCAA Tournament: Eight must-see first round matchups

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While there were certainly areas in which the selection committee could be criticized for its work on this year’s bracket, there’s no denying the fact that there are some intriguing matchups set for the first round.

Games involving the eight and nine seeds tend to rate among the most suspenseful, as one would expect, but there are other matchups to be considered as well.

Below are eight — two from each region — of the best matchups of the first round.

Games involving the teams playing in the First Four were not picked here, which means no Florida vs. St. Bonaventure or UCLA (a game that can be good regardless of which team the Gators get).

No. 4 Wichita State vs. No. 13 Marshall (East Region, Friday)

In its first season in the American, Wichita State won 25 games and on Selection Sunday received a lot more respect from the committee than they’ve received in past seasons. That being said, the Shockers have themselves a tough matchup in 13-seed Marshall. The Thundering Herd, back in the tournament for the first time since 1987, love to play fast, spread teams out and fire up three-pointers with Jon Elmore and C.J. Burks being the team’s top two offensive weapons.

Wichita State doesn’t lack for scoring talent, with Landry Shamet leading the way on the perimeter and Shaq Morris being an incredibly tough matchup due to his physicality and ability to step out away from the basket. That, especially with Wichita State’s struggles in defending the three, should make for a fun game Friday afternoon in San Diego.

No. 7 Arkansas vs. No. 10 Butler (East Region, Friday)

There are some solid 7/10 matchups in the bracket, with this battle between the Razorbacks and Bulldogs leading the way. Arkansas is experienced on the perimeter, with Anton Beard, Jaylen Barford and Daryl Macon leading the way offensively. In the post, Arkansas has a freshman center in Daniel Gafford who’s become a bigger name in the eyes of NBA Draft types as the season’s progressed. Lastly, the uptempo style the Mike Anderson’s team plays can be quite the adjustment for teams that are not too familiar with it.

While Arkansas likes to ramp up the pressure, Butler plays in the half-court more often than not. In senior Kelan Martin the Bulldogs have one of the best forwards in the country, not just the Big East, and guard Kamar Baldwin is no slouch either. Defensively, LaVall Jordan’s team has done a good job of keeping their opponents off the offensive glass but defending the three has been an issue. Arkansas, on the other hand, is one of the best perimeter shooting teams in the country. Given the difference in styles, this could wind up being one of the first round’s best games.

No. 8 Seton Hall vs. No. 9 NC State (Midwest Region, Thursday)

The storylines for this matchup are interesting to say the least. Seton Hall has four seniors in its rotation, veterans who would like nothing more than to cap their careers with a deep NCAA tournament run. On the other side is an NC State team that, while it has some experienced players of its own, has surprised many simply by reaching the tournament in Kevin Keatts’ first season at the helm. It wouldn’t be fair to label this a “house money” situation for the Wolfpack, but they may be dealing with less pressure than the Pirates. As for the talent on the court, the matchup between Seton Hall’s Angel Delgado and NC State’s Omer Yurtseven should be an interesting one.

Delgado’s averaging 13.3 points, 11.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game, getting better at dealing with double teams as his career’s progressed. Yurtseven’s made significant strides from his freshman to sophomore season, and he enters the tournament averaging 13.8 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Both teams have talent across the board, and the matchup between playmakers Khadeen Carrington and Markell Johnson could determine the winner. Also worth keeping tabs on: the health of Seton Hall’s Desi Rodriguez, who made his return to the lineup in the Big East tournament after missing three games with an ankle injury.

No. 7 Rhode Island vs. No. 10 Oklahoma (Midwest Region, Thursday)

Given the team’s nosedive in Big 12 play, there were questions as to whether or not Oklahoma would make the NCAA tournament. Not only are the Sooners in the field, but they won’t have to play in the First Four, either. First up for Trae Young and company is a Rhode Island squad that won the Atlantic 10 regular season title and reached the final of the conference tournament. Rhode Island may not have an individual option as explosive as Young can be on the offensive end of the floor, but their perimeter attack is experienced, tough and talented.

The “Batman and Batman” combination of E.C. Matthews and Jared Terrell lead the way, with Jeff Dowtin Jr., Jarvis Garrett, Stanford Robinson and Darron “Fatts” Russell are key members of the rotation as well. This afford Dan Hurley the option of using multiple players on Young, ensuring that the freshman has to deal with a relatively fresh defender for much of the game. How Young deals with this, and which of his teammates manages to step forward, will determine the outcome. But for the perimeter matchup alone, this is a nice way to start Thursday’s slate.

No. 5 Kentucky vs. No. 12 Davidson (South Region, Thursday)

John Calipari’s young Wildcats should be confident after they managed to win three games in St. Louis to take home the SEC tournament title. But they’ll be up against a Davidson squad that did the same in the Atlantic 10, and unlike Kentucky anything less than the automatic bid would have meant the NIT (or worse) for Bob McKillop’s team. Davidson has a host of capable perimeter shooters, and in senior forward Peyton Aldridge and freshman guard Kellan Grady they’ve got two players who have led the way offensively.

Davidson is a tough team to defend because of their spacing and player/ball movement, but it should be noted that Kentucky has been one of the best teams in the country at defending the three. Offensively Kentucky has seemingly determined who should be doing what, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander being the team’s best playmaker, Kevin Knox its best scorer and the other members of the rotation (most notably P.J. Washington, Quade Green and Wenyen Gabriel) stepping forward when needed. If Jarred Vanderbilt is unable to return after missing the SEC tournament due to an injury that would hurt, but it isn’t an issue that Kentucky cannot overcome. How Kentucky goes about defending Davidson — and vice versa — is what makes this such a fun matchup.

No. 6 Miami vs. No. 11 Loyola-Chicago (South Region, Thursday)

The Hurricanes took a hit personnel-wise when Jim Larranaga announced that Bruce Brown won’t be available due to the foot injury he suffered in late January. Miami did end the regular season well, winning its final four games, but to not have the sophomore guard on the court could prove costly against a balanced Loyola-Chicago attack that is also good defensively.

Experienced guards Clayton Custer, Donte Ingram and Marques Townes lead the way for the Ramblers, and when you add in Missouri Valley Defensive Player of the Year Ben Richardson, Porter Moser’s got the pieces needed to match up with Miami’s talented perimeter attack. The key for Miami could be the play of senior JaQuan Newton, who struggled a bit in the games immediately following his move to the bench but has since improved his play. If you like guard play (Miami’s Chris Lykes is incredibly fun to watch), this is a game you need to watch.

No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 12 South Dakota State (West Region, Thursday)

After playing in just nine games last season due to injury, all Keita Bates-Diop did this season was win Big Ten Player of the Year. His play is just one reason why, in Chris Holtmann’s first season at the helm, the Buckeyes are back in the NCAA tournament after they missed out in both 2016 and 2017. But the matchup Ohio State drew is a tough one, with the Jackrabbits being led by two-time Summit League Player of the Year Mike Daum.

“The Dauminator” is averaging 23.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, shooting 46.2 percent from the field, 42.1 percent from three and 85.6 percent at the foul line. Given his size (6-foot-9, 245 pounds) and ability to step away from the basket, Daum is an incredibly tough matchup for opposing teams. Freshman guard David Jenkins Jr. and senior guard Reed Tellinghuisen should not be overlooked either, and the same can be said for Ohio State’s Jae’Sean Tate and C.J. Jackson. How the Buckeyes and Jackrabbits account for the league players of the year on the other side should be fascinating to watch.

No. 7 Texas A&M vs. No. 10 Providence (West Region, Friday)

After they came back to blow out West Virginia in their season opener, Texas A&M had the look of a team capable of making a run to the Final Four. Things haven’t gone as planned since, with Billy Kennedy’s team being impacted by injuries and suspensions for much of the season. But the Aggies are back in the tournament, and in Tyler Davis and Robert Williams they’ve got a couple pros in the post. How Providence deals with those two will be interesting to watch, as they’ll need a big effort from leading scorer Rodney Bullock on both ends of the floor.

What may also help Providence inside is the recent play of Nate Watson, as the freshman stepped up during the Big East tournament. Where the Friars may have an edge is on the perimeter, with senior point guard Kyron Cartwright leading the way and there being multiple contributors capable of supplementing his efforts (Alpha Diallo being one). Ed Cooley’s team doesn’t lack for toughness, which will be key as they go up against a Texas A&M team that’s been quite good on the offensive glass.

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.