No. 2 Kentucky: Are the Wildcats too deep and too talented for their own good?

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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. 2 Kentucky.


Think about where we are with this Kentucky program for a second.

Coming off of an OK season that saw Kentucky struggle early, win 26 games, find a rhythm and, just when you thought the field had opened up for them to make a run to the Final Four, get dropped by No. 9-seed Kansas State in the Sweet 16.

They lost four members of last year’s freshman class in the offseason — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo and Jarred Vanderbilt. They lost Sacha Killeya-Jones to a transfer. Tai Wynyard turned pro. All told, two-thirds of the players in Kentucky’s rotation last season left, and the only three returnees will all be entering their sophomore season.

As always, Kentucky head coach John Calipari landed an absolutely loaded recruiting class, landing five five-star prospects as well as Stanford grad transfer Reid Travis, the latter of whom is viewed as the difference-maker with this group.

And not just because he averaged more than 19 points in the Pac-12 last season.

It’s because Kentucky is now looked at as an experienced group, at least by their standards.

Think about that for a second.

This Kentucky team has a nine-man rotation. Five of the nine are freshmen, and one of those freshmen was originally a member of the Class of 2019 and enrolled in school early. Three of the remaining four are sophomores, and the fifth — a redshirt senior — only arrived in Lexington after the 2018 NBA Draft had taken place. He’s been there for all of four months.

That’s where we are with this Kentucky team.

They are looked at as experienced.

Will that experience be enough to get them John Calipari’s second national title?

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KENTUCKY WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

The Wildcats pretty much have the perfect roster build for a college basketball team.

There are nine guys on the roster that are going to be in the rotation — ten if you want to throw in Jemarl Baker — which is more or less the perfect number. There is enough depth that an injury or two won’t be crippling and they can survive foul trouble, but there are enough minutes in a basketball game to ensure that all nine are going to see consistent playing time; one of the tenants of Jay Wright’s Villanova program in recent years is to limit the number of players he has available to him to keep everyone happy with their playing time. That’s worked out pretty well.

And of those nine rotation players, four are bigs and five are guards. Three of their five guards — Quade Green, Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley — are point guards by trade, but all three of them are capable of playing off the ball if they want to use a two-point guard look. They have shooters on the wing — Tyler Herro, Green — as well as a physical athlete in Keldon Johnson that can guard up and let Kentucky play small if they have to.

In the front court, they have a seven-footer that can block shots and catch lobs — the new and improved Nick Richards, who looked terrific in the Bahamas — as well as a trio of power forwards that all have differing skill-sets. Travis is a bruiser on the block that can score in the post and will compete on the glass. P.J. Washington is the best defender and, potentially, the best player on the roster. E.J. Montgomery is probably the most skilled of the group, a smooth face-up four with the most ability on the perimeter.

The team is as balanced as they are versatile. They have guys that can be lockdown defenders and guys that are going to end up being all-conference scorers. They can play big and they can play small.

And perhaps the best part of all of this is that all of these kids can play. Of the nine, I’m not really sure there is a weak link. Richards really struggled as a freshman, but he looked like a different player during Kentucky’s trip to the Bahamas. Montgomery is probably the biggest unknown of the freshman class, but he was a top ten prospect for a reason.

Put another way, you can tell me that just about any combination of these nine kids is going to be Kentucky’s best five this season, and I’d probably believe it. That kind of depth and balance is valuable.

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Keldon Johnson (Chet White | UK Athletics)

BUT KENTUCKY IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

The Wildcats are one of four teams in college basketball this season that I think are in a tier of their own: Kansas, Duke, Gonzaga and Kentucky.

Ranking those four teams in any order in the top four of your top 25 can be justified, although for my money Kansas and Kentucky, in that order, are the two best teams in college basketball.

There are a couple reasons that I would take the Jayhawks over the Wildcats.

First of all, I’m worried about just how different Kentucky’s best offensive lineup looks from their best defensive lineup. Ashton Hagans and Keldon Johnson are, without a doubt, the two-best perimeter defenders on this roster. I’d hesitate to call either a liability on the offensive end, but it’s pretty clear they have their limitations at this point in their development, Hagans more than Johnson.

Quade Green and Tyler Herro, on the other hand, are without a doubt the best perimeter scorers on this roster, but they are a liability on the defensive end of the floor.

There are some similar distinctions that we can make in the frontcourt. As good as Reid Travis and P.J. Washington are, I have some concerns that the two of them operate in the same space on the floor. Neither are known for their ability to make perimeter shots — in fact, that’s probably the very reason both are still in school at this point — and that could clog up the lane on a team that will have some shooting concerns again this season.

And yes, those shooting concerns are valid. Kentucky’s best shooters are not good defenders, and vice versa. If you don’t understand why this is a concern, think about the reason ‘3-and-D’ has become entrenched in basketball lexicon in the last decade.

Richards is not the player that either Travis or Washington is at this point in his development, but he’s probably the best fit stylistically to the way Cal wants his five-men to play. He’s a seven-footer than can block shots and spaces the floor vertically in the halfcourt. His guards can throw the ball to the top of the square when they drive and draw help knowing that Richards will be able to finish the lob off with a dunk. I’m not sure the same can be said for the other two bigs.

Then there is Montgomery, who is the most skilled of the four bigs and probably the best NBA prospect even if the impact he has on this Kentucky team this season will probably be the most muted.

But all of that brings me to the biggest issue …

Tyler Herro; Chet White/UK Athletics

THE X-FACTOR

… which is that I have no idea who is going to be Kentucky’s go-to guy this season.

Who is their star? Who is the guy that is going to get the rock at the end of a clock? Who is Coach Cal going to call a play for when he needs a bucket to slow down an opponent’s run? Who is going to have the ball in his hands when a game is on the line?

If I had to hazard a guess today, I think it would be Tyler Herro.

The 6-foot-6 sharpshooter and former Wisconsin commit was the program’s leading scorer during their trip to the Bahamas, and while he’s not the best NBA prospect or the most talented player on the roster, I do think that he is the most polished.

He’s also the guy that can fit perfectly into the role played by Kentucky’s leading scorer in each of the last three seasons: Jamal Murray, Malik Monk and Kevin Knox. Those three guys are all different players, but they were used essentially the same way by Coach Cal. They were run off of screens on the baseline and put into pindown actions in an effort to get them catch-and-shoot opportunities. For Murray and Monk, those shots came from beyond the three-point line. For Knox, they were 12-to-15-foot jumpers. The shots came from different spots on the floor, but the sets they ran weren’t all that much different.

Herro may not be the guy that gets all the hype this season, but I would not be shocked in the slightest if he is the player that gets trusted to take the biggest shots of the season for Coach Cal.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

I’m really excited to see how this Kentucky team unfolds this season.

The one thing that Coach Cal does better than just about any other coach in the sport is convince players — talented, NBA-caliber players destined for the NBA draft lottery — to buy into the collective and thrive in the role that will be best for his team.

This season, he has nine guys on his roster that are all more or less at the same level; nine guys that are going to be able to contribute important minutes to a team with national title aspirations; nine guys that, in theory, all have a case to be the starter at their position.

How is he going to make all these pieces fit? How is he going to utilize the skill-set of each of these guys? Will he find a way to unleash the athleticism of Hagans and Johnson while simultaneously allowing us to watch Herro run off screens like his Rip Hamilton? Will Travis be able to bully opponents in the paint without hindering the chances Montgomery has to flash his perimeter skill?

I fully expect Cal to find a way to make it work.

How, exactly, that happens?

I can’t wait to find out.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 3 Gonzaga
No. 4 Duke
No. 5 Villanova
No. 6 Nevada
No. 7 Tennessee
No. 8 Virginia
No. 9 North Carolina
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.