No. 10 Auburn: How will the reigning SEC champs handle what’s returning?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 10 Auburn.


Auburn, last year, had one of the strangest seasons I can recall in my time covering this sport.

No one, and I mean no one, had the Tigers pegged as a surefire tournament team heading into the season. It’s true that Bruce Pearl was coming off of his best season as the head coach of the Tigers, but that doesn’t mean that Auburn was particularly good. The Tigers went 18-14 in 2016-17 and 7-11 in the SEC, climbing out of 13th place in the SEC for the first time in Pearl’s tenure.

So expectations weren’t particularly high heading into the year, and all of that happened before the bombshell of an FBI investigation into corruption in college basketball dropped right as practices were starting.

Suddenly, Auburn and Pearl were thrust into the middle of a massive scandal. Former assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested and charged with fraud, part of a bribery scandal where he was paid as much as $91,000 to help funnel money to players on his roster and exert his influence over where they would opt to invest their money once they reached the professional ranks. Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, two of the most talented players on the team, were ruled ineligible — Purifoy will be suspended for the first nine games of the 2018-19 season as well — while five-star prospect E.J. Montgomery eventually decommitted from the program.

And while all of this was happening, Pearl — who already had an NCAA rap sheet thanks to a barbecue and Aaron Craft — was refusing to speak with Auburn’s investigators; the scuttle was that he might not make it to the new year employed.

What did the Tigers do?

Oh, they just went out and won 26 games, took home a share of the SEC regular season title and reached their first NCAA tournament in 15 years despite losing their best frontcourt weapon in February to a grisly dislocated ankle.

It was a remarkable year, one that likely would have resulted in numerous Coach of the Year awards had Pearl, you know, not been on the brink of being fired.

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AUBURN WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

They bring back a number of key pieces from last season’s team, and get a number of key players back that were in street clothes in March.

Let’s start with Anfernee McLemore. He’s not the most well-known player on this team by a longshot, but I think he may be the most important. When he’s healthy, he is the perfect piece to put at the five for the Tigers. He’s only 6-foot-7, but he’s a terrific athlete vertically, he shot 39.1 percent from three last season and he would have led the nation in block percentage had he managed to play enough minutes to qualify. An energetic rim-protector that can rebound the ball and shoot it from distance is exactly what you want in your big man if you are a team that wants to play fast, spread the floor and create mismatches.

McLemore suffered a gruesome injury to his left ankle in mid-February — think Gordon Hayward — and the Tigers fell off a cliff afterwards. They lost to South Carolina the day he was injured. They lost two of their last four regular season games. They lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and after struggling to beat a short-handed Charleston team in the first round, they were dropped by 31 points in the second round by Clemson. McLemore is expected to be back to 100 percent by the time the season. If and when he is, he’ll be back in the starting lineup and the Tigers should be closer to what they were for the majority of last season.

Anfernee McLemore (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The other guy that is critical to the way that this Auburn team wants to play is point guard Jared Harper. He led the team in assists last season and is integral to the way that they run that uptempo offense. He — and Bryce Brown, the best shooter in the program if not the SEC — both declared for the NBA Draft before opting to return to school. Like McLemore, Brown should be healthy to start the season; he was slowed by a shoulder injury down the stretch of last season.

With the gut that makes their offense click bank in the fold and the most important player defensively healthy, the Tigers should be back to their uptempo, high-scoring ways once again.

They also bring back Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

ST LOUIS, MO – MARCH 09: Jared Harper (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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BUT AUBURN IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

The reason that the Tigers were as good as they were last season was due to the fact that they played in an SEC where everyone was just OK.

Look at the teams that finished behind Auburn and Tennessee in the league standings. Florida finished third despite losing 13 games on the season. It took Kentucky four months to figure out who their go-to guy was, and they still managed to finished fourth in the league, tied in the standings with a Missouri team that didn’t have Michael Porter Jr. Texas A&M was a massive disappointment. Alabama finished below .500 in the conference despite having Colin Sexton and one of the nation’s top ten defenses.

The league was deep, there were plenty of teams that were tournament-worthy and winning a league title in a conference that is that balanced is not something that should be overlooked.

That said, looking up and down Auburn’s roster, what is there that is really all that intimidating? I don’t know that they had an NBA player last season, and that was before they lost Mustapha Heron to a transfer.

What made Auburn so good last season was the style they played — super-uptempo, spread out and hard to guard — while doing so with an energy level higher than everyone they played. I’m not sure if there is a coach in the country better at getting a group of guys with a chip on their shoulder to play with that foxhole mentality than Bruce Pearl, and he proved it last season.

Calling Auburn a group try-hards would not be fair, and I truly do believe that playing hard, playing with a motor and playing with the kind of energy that Auburn did is a skill, but at some point, talent in basketball wins out, and Auburn does not have a roster that is as talented as many of the other top teams around the country and in their own league.

Bryce Brown (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

On the court, the key to this season for the Tigers is going to be how they replace the scoring of Mustapha Heron.

While he has hit warts as a player, Heron was certainly capable of being a guy that could get a bucket when Auburn needed a bucket. He finished the season as the team’s leading scorer and popped off for more than 20 points eight times.

And that brings me to what is arguably the bigger question mark for this program moving forward: How will they reincorporate Purifoy and Wiley into the mix?

Like I mentioned earlier, the reason that Auburn had as much success as they did last season was because they had a group of guys that bought into the collective and fit into the way that Pearl wants to play. Wiley is a former five-star recruit that was once projected as a first round pick, but he’s also a lumbering 6-foot-11 center that is over 250 pounds even when he’s in shape. He is the polar opposite of McLemore, and it is hard to figure how a dude like that is going to play in that offense.

The same can be said for Purifoy, who is a talented wing but, again, is not a player that is necessarily the ideal fit for Auburn’s style of play. Can he fill the scoring void left by Heron?

And can Wiley co-exist on a roster that wants to play fast? What happens if McLemore and Chuma Okeke take over the starting roles? How will the program’s chemistry be if Samir Doughty ends up starting over Purifoy?

2018-19 OUTLOOK

I don’t see Auburn winning a second straight SEC regular season title.

Kentucky is absolutely loaded and might be the best team in the country. Tennessee, who won a share of the title last season, returns everyone from that team. They are going to enter the season in the top five of some preseason rankings, and deservedly so. Auburn, as much as they bring back, has more question marks and more risk than any of the other teams sitting at the top of this league.

That said, it’s hard to ignore the success they had last season or the importance McLemore’s return.

The Tigers should make a return trip to the NCAA tournament and they should do so as a top four seed.

They’re good.

But given what they lost — and, in a way, what they’re getting back — I think it’s more likely that the bottom falls out and this group ends up outside the top 25 than they find a way to win the SEC.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 11 Kansas State
No. 12 Virginia Tech
No. 13 Michigan State
No. 14 Florida State
No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

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.