No. 9 North Carolina: The Luke Maye Show rolls on for another season

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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. 9 North Carolina.


North Carolina has been the most successful program this side of Villanova over the course of the last five years because they bucked the trend, whether that was the plan or not.

In an era where the other bluebloods have chased one-and-done talent and rebuilt their roster each and every offseason, the Tar Heels reached the 2016 national title game and won the 2017 national title on the backs of veterans.

Marcus Paige, Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, Theo Pinson. Roy Williams went from being a Hall of Famer to one of the very best to ever do it thanks to players that stuck around for three or four years.

Now that might not have been by design.

The scandal that enveloped the UNC athletic department for years took some of the luster off of the program. Concerns about whether or not the program would be eligible for the NCAA tournament played a role in why a handful of those one-and-done prospects — namely, Brandon Ingram — ended up elsewhere.

This season is different.

For the first time in years, the Tar Heels will be relying quite heavily on a pair of highly-touted freshmen to carry them.

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NORTH CAROLINA WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

When Luke Maye committed to North Carolina in the fall of 2014, no one in the country thought much of it. Here was a three-star recruit, an in-state kid and the son of a former Tar Heel quarterback, committing to program that he had loved his entire life. The most notable thing about his decision to enroll at UNC was that he was, for a long time, the only member in Roy Williams 2015 recruiting class thanks to the academic scandal that was still hanging over the program at the time.

For forward three years, and Luke Maye had turned a memorable buzzer-beater during a national title run into an all-american season.

And now, he will enter the 2018-19 season as the best returning player in all of college basketball.

If you predicted that would happen, please buy me a Powerball ticket and predict the winning numbers.

In all seriousness, Maye is a terrific talent and almost the antithesis of a Roy Williams big man. For years and years, Williams was one of the last coaches to embrace the small-ball movement, but as his roster dictated it, he made the change last season and bought in. UNC’s best lineup a season ago featured Maye — a 6-foot-9 forward who is at his best as a shooter or when he has the chance to face-up — at the five with Cameron Johnson — a 6-foot-8 shooter that is officially listed as a guard — at the four. Johnson, along with fellow senior Kenny Williams, will join with Maye to provide Ole’ Roy with plenty of shooting and plenty of veteran leadership.

And, unlike past seasons, that group will be joined by a pair of five-star freshmen in Nassir Little and Coby White.

Little is the name to know here. He’s a consensus top three player in the class and, depending on how R.J. Barrett performs cross-town at Duke, he could end up being the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. He’s a perfect fit alongside Maye and Johnson, as he is more toolsy and, at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, known more for what he can do defensively. White is the bigger question mark, but we’ll get into that in a bit.

The Tar Heels have a really nice blend of role-playing veterans and talented freshmen to go alongside their all-american senior.

They are also going to be coached by Roy Williams, who is definitively one of the best to ever do it.

Nassir Little (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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BUT NORTH CAROLINA IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

I may be in the minority here, but I actually think that losing Theo Pinson is going to hurt North Carolina more than losing Joel Berry II.

That’s not meant as a shot at Berry, either. He was terrific. He was the MOP when the Tar Heels cut down the nets in 2017. He played in two national title games. His resume speaks for itself.

What he did for this North Carolina team, however, can more easily be replaced than what Pinson did. Berry may have played the point for the Tar Heels last season and he may have been the ‘one’ in Roy Williams’ secondary break, but for all intents and purposes, Pinson was the playmaker on that Tar Heel team the last two years. He’s the guy that made things have in the halfcourt, helping to break down a set defense. He’s the guy that led the program in assists. He was their most important player for long stretches, and while the Tar Heels bring in guys that can score, they don’t have someone that can do the things that Pinson did.

But that doesn’t mean that UNC won’t miss Berry, who provided the kind of leadership every team in the country needs. That’s not necessarily something that can be coached into you. You either have it or you don’t, and Berry had it.

And all of this becomes more relevant when you realize that UNC will likely end up starting a freshman at the point this season …

THE X-FACTOR

… and that brings me to Coby White.

First things first: Roy Williams, more than anything, is known for being a coach that wants to play two bigs as much as possible. He’s also known as a coach that prioritizes playing in transition, that runs a lethal secondary break and that attacks the glass with abandon.

The other thing that Williams’ best teams have been known for has been point guard play.

Ray Felton was the starter with the Tar Heels won the 2005 national title. Ty Lawson ran the show when North Carolina cut down the nets in 2009. The 2017 title saw UNC led by Joel Berry II, who isn’t going to have the NBA career of the other two but who was an all-american in his own right. In 2012, the year where the Tar Heels were the one team that could have kept John Calipari from getting his national title with Kentucky, North Carolina had Kendall Marshall at the point.

Marshall was a pure point guard in every sense of the word, but he’s also something of the outlier in this group.

Coby White (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Berry was more of a natural scorer than he was a playmaker, as Pinson was the guy that North Carolina ran their offense through last season. Felton and Lawson both put up big assist numbers in their time in college — both were clearly more than capable as playmakers — and while they weren’t exactly score-first, they certainly were scoring point guards. Having a player that can go coast-to-coast, having a lead guard that can get him 20 points on any given night, that’s what Williams’ best teams have had. It’s part of what makes his offense work.

And that’s where Coby White comes into play.

A low-end five-star prospect, White is a 6-foot-5 combo-guard that scored a state-record 3,573 points while in high school, a downright ludicrous number that should tell you all you need to know about his reputation as a bucket-getter. It also provides the clear contextual concerns for this UNC team: Not only is White looking at stepping into the ACC as a starting point guard as a freshman, he’s potentially doing so as a score-first combo on a team where he will be surrounded by plenty of shooting and a roster full of veterans, particularly UNC’s all-american big man, Luke Maye.

It’s almost counter-intuitive to say this, but the freshman that could end up being a top two pick in the 2019 NBA Draft — Nassir Little — is less important to North Carolina’s success this season than the freshman that profiles as their next three- or four-year starting point guard.

How quickly will White adjust to playing at the one in the ACC? Can he score at that level? Can he also be more than just a scorer at that level?

The answers to those questions could end up being the difference between the Tar Heels competing for the ACC title and making a run at a Final Four and finishing the year as something closer to a No. 6 seed.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

The Tar Heels should be fine.

They are old, they are talented and they have at least one all-american on a roster that is going to be coached by a Hall of Famer.

That’s enough to win a lot of basketball games.

That said, given the question marks we do have about their point guard situation, I think the ceiling on this team is a little bit limited. In a one-off competition like the NCAA tournament, anyone can win, I just find it difficult to believe that the Tar Heels are going to have the horses to make a run at getting back to the Final Week of the season.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 10 Auburn
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.