Already known for March ineptitude, where does Virginia program go after loss to No. 16 UMBC

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“It’s March, dude,” Kyle Guy said.

He’s sitting in a folding chair in front of his locker, an ACC title shirt over his jersey and a piece of net tied to his ACC title hat with the ACC title trophy that he carried from the court sitting directly across from him. He was answering a question about why a team that has been as consistently good as Virginia has been can so reliably find themselves out of the NCAA tournament before the season’s final weekend.

“Anything can happen.”

I doubt Guy had any inkling how prescient he was.

Because on Friday night, just six days and an eternity after that moment in the locker room, the impossible happened.

For the first time in the history of the planet, a No. 16 seed beat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

And let me be perfectly clear here: UMBC did not just beat Virginia. They ran the Wahoos straight outta Charlotte. The America East champs used 17-3 run to open the second half, taking a 38-24 lead without looking back. Virginia never cut the deficit to single-digits. By the end of the game, I found myself saying, “dang, fellas, you don’t have to run up the score.” The Retrievers not only dribbled out the clock on their final possession of the game, they ate the turnover that came with it.

Because by that point, Virginia had quit.

What’s a shot clock violation when you’re up 74-54 on the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament?

What’s a turnover when you’ve just completed the greatest upset in the history of the sport?

What actually matters when you’ve made history, and done it in such resounding fashion?

Think about this: Not only did UMBC become the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed, but they also beat Virginia by a larger margin than any No. 14 or No. 15 seed since the bracket expanded to 64 teams. Prior to today, the largest margin of defeat for a top three seed in a first round game was by 14 points. Georgetown managed that as a No. 3 seed in 2010 against Ohio, as did West Virginia, a No. 3 seed, in 2016 against Stephen F. Austin. The most a No. 2 seed had ever lost by was 13 points, when South Carolina fell to Coppin State in 1997.

Virginia lost by 20 points.

And perhaps the least shocking part of this entire night is that it was Virginia that did it, that the one program known for collapsing in March more than anyone else found a way to ensure that their names will never be erased from the record books, that they will forever and always be associated with the Dark Art Of Choking.

“A week ago, we were cutting down the nets at the ACC tournament, how good that felt,” head coach Tony Bennett said with a grace and humility that few would have been able to muster in that moment. “They had a historic season. They really did. In terms of ACC wins, an ACC conference tournament championship and a historic loss, becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose. That’s life.”

“But that can’t, in the end, define these guys, our team or us.”

(Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

It may, however, be what defines the program, and that could end up being the biggest hurdle that Virginia has to clear moving forward. The mental aspect. How this affects his team between the ears.

The truth is that Virginia has an unbelievable season, one they had absolutely no business having. They entered the season ranked outside of the top 25, and that was totally justified. They lost a number of key seniors and transfers from a team that was a No. 5 seed. The most talented players on their roster were underclassmen. This was supposed to be the rebuilding year, and they instead went out and won the ACC regular season title by four games and followed that up with an ACC tournament title. They were the No. 1 overall seed, and that wasn’t in doubt for weeks.

It was amazing.

Not even the most out of touch UVA fan — and trust me when I say that there are plenty of them that fall into that category — could have seen this kind of a season coming.

“This team maxed out more than any team I’ve had,” Bennett said.

And no one is going to give a damn about any of it.

Not when they are the only No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed, and not when this program is known, above all else, for their inability to get the job done in March.

The kids in that program know the reputation they have. The alumni of the program do, too. Everyone that watches college basketball did before this season, and after what happened on Friday night, the entire world will now. Virginia will be branded as the choke artists. They are the Washington Capitals of college basketball, the Atlanta Falcons of the ACC, the Cubs before last October. English soccer fans will know them as ‘Spursy’, Lindsay Jacobellis on a snowboard.

And it’s not hard to play armchair psychologist and read what happened on Friday as Virginia succumbing to the pressure of the moment. They had yet to give up 70 points in a game this season until UMBC went for 74. They gave up fewer points in 16 of the 34 games they’ve played this season than they did in the second half (53) on Friday night. As the seconds ticked by and they couldn’t shake the Retrievers, panic started to set in. Then they got punched in the mouth at the start of the second half, spent five minutes trying to figure out what the hell happened and by then, it was too late.

The inconceivable became a reality.

(Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

To me, the question isn’t whether or not Virginia’s system works in March.

(Because it does. They’ve won two ACC tournaments playing this way. They’ve always won three ACC regular season titles doing it. And if it wasn’t for one ten-minute stretch at the end of an Elite 8 game — a stretch that was so impressive it got Malachi Richardson, who has played 47 NBA games in two years, picked 22nd overall — they would have a Final Four to their name already. There was a time when we all said that Mark Few wasn’t good enough, and Bill Self wasn’t good enough, or Jim Calhoun wasn’t good enough. There are those that now will say that Chris Mack and Sean Miller, like Tony Bennett, can’t coach because they don’t have a Final Four on their résumé. You’re only the best to never do it until you do it. Then you’re just the best.)

My question is whether or not this program can, mentally, handle the rigors of a tournament run knowing what Virginia basketball stands for to the public at-large.

Bennett was asked about that after the game. He was asked how he’ll go about rebuilding what is already a damaged psyche, and he answered it in quintessential Tony Bennett fashion.

“You’ll remember this,” he said. “It’ll sting. Maybe a No. 1 seed will get beat again. Maybe not. Maybe we’ll be the only No. 1 seed to ever lose. It’s life. It’ll go on. We’ll have to get past that. For some reason, this is what we’ve got to deal with.”

“My job will be ‘how do we bounce back’ with all our players, but a life lesson is sitting there about defining yourself maybe not by what the world says. There’s other things that matter.”

 

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.