College Basketball’s X-Factors: 12 storylines that will determine national title

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The college basketball season will finally be here in two weeks, meaning that the time for previewing the year is just about over. 

But we’re not there yet.

So before things officially kick off, let’s take a closer look at the 12 things will could end up deciding how the season plays out.

League titles.

Final Four trips.

Even the national title.

You can call them story lines, you can call them positional battles, you can call them whatever you like.

Here are the x-factors to monitor as we enter the 2018-19 college basketball season. 



ARE WE READY TO TRUST JOSH PERKINS?

I love everything about Gonzaga’s frontcourt.

I’m all-in on the Rui Hachimura bandwagon. I think it’s only a matter of time before he is a college basketball star, and he already is the biggest name in basketball in his native Japan. Killian Tillie proved his merit during the WCC tournament last March, and Brandon Clarke is the guy that no one is talking about enough. Those three together are as good as any frontcourt trio in college hoops this season.

I also have little doubt that Zach Norvell Jr. and Corey Kispert will take a step forward this season. Norvell is one of the most dangerous shooters in the sport, while Kispert is a former four-star recruit that is going to see a bump in minutes this season. Throw in Geno Crandall’s arrival from North Dakota, and there should be an issue with scoring on the perimeter.

The question mark, for me, is Perkins.

In a vacuum, he’s fine. He’ll lead Gonzaga to a WCC title. They’ll end up as a high seed in the NCAA tournament. They’ll win 25 or 30 games. But at this point, is that enough for the Zags? They’ve been to a national title game. They’ve been a No. 1 seed. Anything short of a Final Four this year will probably be looked at as a disappointment, and to get to a Final Four, Gonzaga is going to have to beat the best teams in the country.

And my issue is whether or not Perkins, who averaged 12.3 points and 5.1 assists as a redshirt junior, can be as effective as he needs to be against the best teams in the country. Can he create against the best point guards in the sport? Is he improved as a decision-maker? Is he the leader on the floor that, say, Nigel Williams-Goss was?

If he is, then the Zags are a good bet to get back to the national title game.

Coby White (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

IS COBY WHITE THE POINT GUARD THAT NORTH CAROLINA NEEDS?

The thing that we always talk about with North Carolina is that Roy Williams is one of the few coaches in the country that would still prefer to play with two physically-imposing big men at the same time. His coaching philosophy centers around dominating the glass — the more rebounds he gets, the more shots his team takes and the fewer shots his opponents take.

This year’s North Carolina team will look nothing like that. They are going full small-ball, with a lineup that could feature Nassir Little, Cam Johnson and Luke Maye as their starting frontcourt. That is already going to place a priority on being more efficient offensively, and that’s before we consider the fact that UNC lost the guy that was their point guard by title — Joel Berry II — and the guy that was actually their point guard — Theo Pinson.

This is a concern for two reasons:

  1. Roy Williams’ best teams have always had an elite point guard. Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson, Kendall Marshall, Marcus Paige and Berry.
  2. UNC’s point guard this season will likely be Coby White, a low-end five-star prospect that is known as one of the best scorers in the class.

There is going to be a lot of responsibility put onto his plate this season. Can he handle what is going to be asked of him?

Gonzaga and North Carolina aren’t the only schools with point guard concerns:

  • KANSAS: The Jayhawks may have the most interesting point guard battle this season. Charlie Moore is the redshirt freshman that transferred in from Cal and spent last season learning the system and Bill Self’s offense. Devon Dotson, a top 20 recruit, is the best pure point guard on the roster, but he’s also a freshman. So is Quentin Grimes, a combo-guard that might end up being a top ten pick. I’m sure someone from that group is going to turn out to be really good for the Jayhawks, I’m just not quite sure who it is going to be or how long it is going to take for that position to get settled.
  • FLORIDA STATE: The Seminoles saw their starting point guard transfer out of the program this offseason, meaning that the preseason top 15 team is going to have two guys battling it out for the job: Junior Trent Forrest, who is more of a combo than a pure point guard, and David Nichols, a grad transfer that spent the last three seasons at Albany.
  • UCLA: With Aaron Holiday off to the NBA, Jaylen Hands looks like he is going to be taking over the point guard duties. As a former five-star prospect, Hands is, on paper, someone that should thrive in this role. But there are plenty of red flags. He’s not a good defender, he can be selfish at times and there are real concerns about whether or not he’s a point guard or a scorer that likes to dribble the ball up the floor. Combine that with Tyger Campbell, a steadying presence on the ball, tearing his ACL, and Steve Alford is going to have is work cut out for him.
Tyler Herro; Chet White/UK Athletics

WHO IS KENTUCKY’S GO-TO GUY?

The biggest concern I have with this Kentucky team isn’t really a concern, it’s more of a question: Do they actually have a star?

We know that they have enough good basketball players to absolutely steam-roll some pretty good competition during their trip to the Bahamas, and anyone with the ability to google “college basketball recruiting rankings” will know that the talent on this team isn’t lacking. There are multiple NBA players on this team, and they go two-deep at just about every position on the floor.

I wonder about how their rotation is going to pan out, but I’m not really all that concerned about it. John Calipari has proven over and over again that he is as good as anyone in college basketball at getting his guys to buy into playing the role he needs them to play. I also wonder about whether or not Kentucky will actually be able to find a lineup that can be elite offensively and defensively — they need shooting on the floor, but their best defenders can’t shoot and their best shooters can’t defend — but Cal has enough pieces that he should be able to mix-and-match based on opponent and matchup.

Those aren’t red flags as much as they are a natural progression for a team.

The red flag for me is that I’m not sure there is a go-to guy on this roster. Who is getting the rock at the end of a clock? Who is Cal calling plays for in crunch time? I’m not sure it’s Reid Travis; he can be double-teamed too easily on a team that doesn’t have great shooting. I don’t know if P.J. Washington or Quade Green is ready to handle that load. Kentucky’s freshmen point guards are both talented and will play in the NBA, but neither, at this point, is necessarily known for what they can do with the ball in their hands. The same can be said about Keldon Johnson.

Frankly, Tyler Herro is the guy that would make the most sense. He led the team is scoring in the four games in the Bahamas and he thrives running off screens the same way that Jamal Murray and Malik Monk did before him, but he also might be the fifth-best perimeter player Kentucky has.

There are going to be some big games that are decided by whether or not Kentucky can score on critical possessions, and finding a guy Cal can trust will be so important.

Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, Reagan Lunn/@DukeMBB

CAN DUKE SHOOT WELL ENOUGH TO GO FULL SMALL-BALL?

Duke is going to spend this season trying to run out their version of the death lineup.

Tre Jones, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson are all going to start. I’d assume one of Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden will join them, and I fully expect those four to spend a lot of time on the floor together with Alex O’Connell, which would be a thrilling way to get Zion some minutes at the five.

That would look an awful lot like the lineup Golden State has made so popular, the one with Draymond Green at the five.

But what makes that Warriors five — what made last year’s Villanova starting five — so dangerous was that everyone on the floor was a good-to-great three-point shooter. No one could be left open lest you want to give a 40+ percent three-point shooter an open, rhythm jumper.

This Duke team, as talented as they are, just does not have the guys that can shoot it like that. In fact, each of the four freshmen on this team are at their best when they have the ball in their hands; it’s a roster that, in a way, is made up of a point guard, two point forwards and Zion, who has made a name for himself by being a grab-and-go big. Individually, I love the pieces on this roster, but I do have questions about how well this roster actually fits together.

IS ‘THE VILLANOVA WAY’ STRONG ENOUGH TO OVERCOME THE LOSS OF FOUR NBA PLAYERS?

Villanova had four players get picked in the top 33 picks of the 2018 NBA Draft. That is an unbelievable amount of talent for ay program to try and replace, particularly one like the Wildcats, which isn’t exactly known for churning out one-and-done five-star talent on an annual basis.

What Villanova is known for is their ability to develop players and ensure that their ‘next-man-up’ is always ready for the role he is going to be asked to play.

Well, they are going to have a team full of guys being asked to do just that. Eric Paschall and Phil Booth should be up for the challenge. They are both redshirt seniors that have been with this program through two national title runs. They’ll be fine. It’s the sophomore class — Collin Gillispie, Jermaine Samuels, Dhamir Cosby-Rountree — and the incoming freshmen — specifically Cole Swider and Jahvon Quinerly — that are going to be rushed along.

If Jay Wright can fast-track them to being able to handle a major role right away, the Wildcats should once again be a national title favorite come March.

Kyle Guy (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

HOW DOES VIRGINIA HANDLE WHAT MAY BE THE WORST LOSS IN COLLEGE BASKETBALL HISTORY?

This one is really, really simple: Virginia entered the 2017-18 season as a team with a reputation for choking in March.

Fair or not, the truth is that Virginia had been a No. 1 seed twice and a No. 2 seed once in the four years before the start of last season, and those tournament trips resulted in a loss in the Sweet 16, a loss in the second round and, in 2015-16, a loss in the Elite 8 where the Wahoos blew a 15-point lead in the final ten minutes to No. 10-seed Syracuse.

That’s the kind of thing that can get in the head of a player, and I don’t think I’m being presumptive when I say that it probably played a role in Virginia suffering what might be the most embarrassing loss in the history of college basketball. UVA not only became the first No. 1-seed to ever lose to a No. 16-seed, they were run out of the gym, losing 74-54.

There are myriad Hall of Fame coaches that could never win the big one until they won the big one — Jim Calhoun, Bill Self, Lute Olson, even Jay Wright was thought to be a choke artist before winning two out of three NCAA tournaments — but they never had to deal with the weight of trying to get their team to forget something that history will never, ever forget.

IS BOL BOL AWESOME? OR IS HE OVERRATED?

This will be the question that determines who wins the Pac-12 this season. Bol Bol is unique. He is a 7-foot-3 center that can be as dominant of a shot-blocker as his father, Manute, was. He also shot 46 percent from three on more than four attempts per game on the EYBL circuit in 2017.

The issue with Bol Bol is that his motor runs far too hot and cold. When he wants to be, he is absolutely dominant in the paint, something of a forcefield around the rim. But he has yet to prove that he wants to be great every time he steps on the floor.

Then there is the Kenny Wooten factor. A few years back, Chris Boucher became something of a sensation for the Ducks, as he was a shot-blocking, three-point shooting center. But as it turns out, Oregon was actually a better basketball team when Jordan Bell took over at center full-time, as evidenced by their run to the Final Four in 2017 after Boucher tore his ACL.

Wooten, like Bell, is active and switchable at the five. Bol Bol is not. Will this saga play out like that one?

Bruce Pearl (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

DOES AUBURN’S TEAM-BUILDING GET BROKEN DOWN BY THE RETURN OF AUSTIN WILEY AND DANJEL PURIFOY?

Auburn is coming off of a season where they won a share of the SEC regular season title despite losing two starters and an assistant coach prior to the first game as fallout from the FBI’s investigation.

That surprise run to a league title happened because everything that Auburn did worked in concert. They were able to play small and play fast, they had guys that bought into the system and the style of play, Bruce Pearl was able to get his kids playing with a chip the size of Alabama on their shoulder.

This year, the Tigers will be getting back Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy, the two players that were suspended for last season, and it’s worth questioning whether their addition is going to help or hurt matters. Will team chemistry still be there? Can Wiley — a lumbering, 6-foot-11 center — play at the pace Auburn wants to play at? Can Purifoy accept where he fits into the team’s rotation?

The collective was better than the sum of the parts for Auburn last season, and that’s a delicate balance to maintain.

IS THIS THE YEAR MICHIGAN STATE’S JUNIORS BECOME STARS?

Michigan State enters this season as the No. 10 team in the preseason AP Poll.

If they are going to live up to that hype, they are going to need their trio of juniors — Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and Joshua Langford — to live up to the hype they had entering their freshmen year.

Winston should be ready. He was already one of the best point guards in the country last season, a slick passer and uber-efficient playmaker that shoots the cover off the ball. Ward and Langford, however, are bigger question marks. Ward has yet to find a way to stay on the floor for extended minutes while playing for Izzo, while Langford has turned into something of a mid-range jump-shooter, which is the antithesis of efficiency.

CAN MICHIGAN OR SYRACUSE SCORE?

Again, this one is really simple.

Syracuse returns everyone from a team that reached the Sweet 16 and finished as the nation’s fifth-best defensive team, according to KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. They also finished 135th in adjusted offensive efficiency. That’s not good.

Michigan reached the national title game last season as a top three defense nationally, but they struggled to score for long stretches last season and lost their top three offensive weapons — Mo Wagner, Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and Duncan Robinson.

Both teams will enter the season in the top 25, but they may not stay there for long if they can’t figure out a way to score.

CAN PURDUE SCORE IF CARSEN EDWARDS ISN’T THE ONE SHOOTING?

Purdue lost four starters off of last year’s team, and while they return Carsen Edwards — a preseason all-american that might just end up leading the nation in scoring — that’s really the only guy they bring back that is a proven threat to score.

Ryan Cline, Nojel Eastern, Matt Haarms. Will any of these guys be able to take some of the weight off of Edwards’ shoulders?

CAN WEST VIRGINIA BE PRESS VIRGINIA WITHOUT JEVON CARTER AND DAXTER MILES?

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that Press Virginia became a thing when Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles were freshmen, or that Bob Huggins was able to have success with it over the course of the last four years with those two playing heavy backcourt minutes.

They were perfectly designed to play basketball that way.

So what happens to West Virginia and this style when they are gone? Can Beetle Bolden and Brandon Knapper continue to apply pressure the way that their backcourt predecessors did?

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.