Why Villanova, Kansas, Michigan and Loyola-Chicago will (or won’t) win a national title

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VILLANOVA

WHY THEY WILL WIN: They’re college basketball’s best team

It really is that simple, I think. We’ve known just how good this team can be on the offensive side of the ball all season long. They are unselfish, they have an unbelievable amount of floor-spacing and they just so happen to be led by the nation’s best player in point guard Jalen Brunson. There is a reason that this team was college basketball’s most efficient offense.

But there is more to it than just the scoring, because Villanova has been excellent defensively all through March. That was the issue with this group all season long. They were capable of putting up 100 points on anyone, but on the nights where they put up 70 — on the nights where their threes weren’t falling — they struggled to find a way to defend at a level that allowed them to win. That’s no longer the case, at least not based on the evidence we saw against Texas Tech on Sunday.

WHY THEY WON’T WIN: They won’t be able to take advantage of those mismatches

One of the things that makes Villanova so hard to guard is their versatility. They have big men that can make threes and a point guard that plays in the post. They can switch 1-through-4 without much of a problem, and they have at least three players on the floor at all times that can operate in ball-screen actions. They are the essence of small-ball.

But here’s the issue: Both Michigan and Kansas can matchup with that. Kansas essentially plays four guards while the Wolverines, who still need to get past Loyola-Chicago to get a shot at Villanova, play small as well and have a center that may actually be more versatile than Villanova’s Omari Spellman. Now it’s fair to wonder if it’s possible to out-Villanova Villanova, but taking advantage of mismatches is one of the strong suits for the Wildcats. That option won’t be there, at least not on Saturday night.

KANSAS

WHY THEY WILL WIN: The Jayhawks have gotten this far without Devonte’ Graham

OK, that might be overselling it, but outside of the game against Penn, Graham — the first-team all-american representative for Kansas — has not been all that good. Even against Penn, he was inefficient. Through four NCAA tournament games, Graham is shooting 34 percent from the floor and averaging just 16 points. Take away the 29 points he scored on 24 shots against Penn and he’s averaging just 11.7 points in the last three games.

I do not think that is something that can possibly last. Devonte’ Graham is just too good, and when he wakes up, with the rest of this roster — specifically Malik Newman — playing the way that they’ve been playing, the Jayhawks can hang with anyone.

WHY THEY WON’T WIN: Who is Udoka Azubuike going to guard?

Udoka Azubuike has been a monster this season, so much better than I thought that he was going to be. But here’s my concern: Against Villanova, he is going to have to chase around Omari Spellman on the perimeter, a guy that bangs threes and that beats bigger defenders off the dribble. That does not seem like an ideal situation, not if the Jayhawks are trying to keep their best big man out of foul trouble. And if the do manage to find a way to beat Villanova, Azubuike is going to have to try and slow down Moe Wagner, who is a monster on the perimeter in his own right.

Bill Self is a genius when it comes to things like this, but these are matchups that would worry me quite a bit if I was a Kansas fan.

MICHIGAN

WHY THEY WILL WIN: Their defense is just so good

This is by far the best defensive team that John Beilein has ever had at Michigan. They are just unbelievable defensively. It starts with Zavier Simpson, who is one of the most annoying and pesky players on the defensive end of the floor in all of college basketball. Throw in a roster that is filled with lanky, tough and athletic wings and a center in Moe Wagner that has dedicated himself to being able to clear the defensive glass, and what you have is a team that can take anyone out of what they want to do on that end of the floor.

They are in the Final Four because their defense has been elite.

A John Beilein-coached team is winning because of their defense.

How about that?

WHY THEY WON’T WIN: They are too streaky shooting the ball

Michigan has played three tortuously-ugly basketball games in the NCAA tournament and one game where they looked like absolute world-beaters. The ugly games came when they played teams that could matchup with their versatility, which caused Michigan to struggle with their ability to shoot the ball from the perimeter. When they played a team with two big men, they made 14 threes.

And in this tournament, they are not going to be playing teams that play two bigs the way that Texas A&M played two bigs. That doesn’t mean there is no chance that Michigan can win — Purdue didn’t play two bigs in the Big Ten title game, Michigan State didn’t in the semifinals, etc. — but it is easier for them to take advantage of what they do best when they are playing someone that has bigger bodies along the front line.

LOYOLA-CHICAGO

WHY THEY WILL WIN: It’s destiny

Someone needs to investigate Loyola-Chicago for accepting impermissible benefits, because I think that Sister Jean has some kind of deal with a higher power. They’ve won on three buzzer-beaters. Three of the four teams they’ve faced had a star player dealing with a major injury. Against Tennessee, the game-winning shot bounced off the rim and/or backboard a half-dozen times.

There is something going on here, and I’m not sure that it’s done yet.

WHY THEY WON’T WIN: The talent gap is just too big

With all due respect to the teams that Loyola-Chicago has beaten thus far in the tournament, but they are not the most talented. Miami was missing their best player. Tennessee wins more on defense and effort than by being the most talented team on the floor. (I had Loyola in the Sweet 16, NBD.) Nevada was probably the most talented team they’ve played, but they play iso-ball. Kansas State was missing their best player.

And now, the Ramblers have to face-off with a Michigan team that has a pro in the middle, one of the best defenses in the sport and a masterful tactician on the sideline. Win that, and they get a No. 1 seed. I’m not saying they can’t win, but this is the first time where they are clearly the inferior team.

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.