No. 1 Kansas: Loaded Jayhawks will look like Kansas teams of old

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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. 1 Kansas.


Generally speaking, there are three ways for a college basketball program to be built.

One of them is the old school way: Recruit players that you know will be on campus for three or four years, develop them over time and, if the basketball gods are looking out for you, by the time they are upperclassmen they’ll be all-league players if not all-americans.

Another way is through the transfer market. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and there have been plenty of programs that have found gold with the castaways from another program, if not outright recruiting players from other rosters.

And then there is the one-and-done model, which is only really an option for the elite but has led to a pair of national titles in the last seven NCAA tournaments — Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015.

What’s rare, however, is when one program utilizes all three methods at once.

That’s precisely what this Kansas program has done. Their best player is probably Dedric Lawson, a transfer from Memphis that spent last season sitting out along with his brother, K.J., as well as former Cal point guard Charlie Moore. If Dedric isn’t the best player, then it will most likely end up being Quentin Grimes, a potential top ten pick that is a surefire one-and-done and looks to be joined in the starting lineup by another five-star freshman in Devon Dotson.

And while those guys are good and all, the leading returning scorer for Kansas is Udoka Azubuike, a center that averaged 13.0 points and 7.0 boards. He declared for the drafted but opted to return to school, as did senior LaGerald Vick, who will likely start at the three and looks to be the best shooter in the program.

Put all that together and what you have is the best team in college basketball.

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KANSAS WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

For the first time in three years, the Jayhawks have a roster that is actually suited to playing the way that Bill Self has always wanted to play.

Self is something of a throwback in this day and age of pace and space, three-pointers and small-ball. He likes having two big men on the floor. He likes getting the ball into the post. It wasn’t until recently that he really came around on the idea that shooting threes might actually be better than shooting twos.

That wasn’t necessarily by design, either.

In each of the last two seasons, Self’s roster has lacked the kind of frontcourt depth and talent that he would need to play the way that he wanted to play. In 2016-17 — the first season they played in the post-Perry Ellis era — it was Carlton Bragg that was supposed to slot into the role of the four-man, but between the legal issues that he dealt with and the fact that, you know, he wasn’t good enough, Self was forced to play small. Josh Jackson started at the four as Kansas played four guards, and it worked pretty well. Jackson was tough and physical enough to guard-up, and his skill-set on the offensive end gave Kansas another playmaker and created all kinds of mismatches. The Jayhawks won the Big 12 and reached the Elite 8, where Oregon picked them off.

Last season was much of the same. Jackson wasn’t there, but since Billy Preston was never able to get cleared and neither Mitch Lightfoot nor Silvio De Sousa were ready for that role, Self played even smaller. LaGerald Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk combined to play the two forward spots, and again, it worked. Kansas won the Big 12. They made it all the way to the Final Four, where it was the slow-footedness of Udoka Azubuike going up against the buzzsaw that was last year’s Villanova team that cost Kansas a shot at a national title.

This year’s roster looks much more like the best teams that Self has had in the past. Dedric Lawson, who averaged 19.2 points, 9.9 boards, 3.3 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.3 blocks in his final season with Memphis, might as well be Ellis. Or a Morris Twin. He can fill that role at the four perfectly. Azubuike is probably the best at-the-rim big in the country. David McCormack and Mitch Lightfoot provide more than enough depth, while K.J. Lawson is there as well.

Then there is the KU backcourt. Self legitimately has five different players that deserve to start. Quentin Grimes is probably locked into a starting spot as the off-guard, while Devon Dotson and Charlie Moore will battle it out for point guard minutes and LaGerald Vick and Marcus Garrett will fight over playing time at the three.

This is a very good and very deep basketball team that is built precisely the way that Bill Self’s best teams have been built in the past.

It’s impossible not to like what’s on the table here.

Udoka Azubuike (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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BUT KANSAS IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

The amount of noise surrounding this program right now is not going to be easy to deal with.

Outside of Louisville, who has already purged essentially everyone decision-maker involved with the basketball program, no one made more headlines with their involvement in the first college basketball corruption trial than Kansas. There were allegations that Adidas executives were funneling money to the family of two Jayhawk recruits, Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa. There were text messages that seemed to imply — but did not conclusively prove — that the Jayhawk coaching staff (Self and assistant Kurtis Townsend) were aware of and approved those payments.

De Sousa is already being held out of competition pending an eligibility review. There are serious doubts about whether or not last year’s Big 12 title and Final Four banner will still be in existence by the time this process plays out. Kansas has not yet signed their new contract with Adidas. Self and Townsend are going to face repeated calls that they be fired throughout this season.

Distractions such as those are not ideal, and neither are the questions players currently on the Kansas roster are going to ask if they didn’t get what Preston and De Sousa got.

I don’t think it necessarily hurts this particular team, but I do firmly believe that it is going to be a constant headache for Self and his coaching staff.

How effective are you at your job when you constantly have a headache or distractions in your personal life?

THE X-FACTOR

The Jayhawks are almost too good to fail this season, and while I do wonder whether the change in scenery from the American to the Big 12 will have an impact on how good Dedric Lawson is, the x-factor for me here is going to be Grimes.

Grimes is probably the most talented player in the program. He is definitely the best NBA prospect on the Kansas roster. He is also a combo-guard that, at this point, is not a great shooter and is not a great point guard playing as one half of an all-freshman backcourt.

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e2VLXWWVsSA&w=560&h=315]

I believe that Self is going to run his offense through Lawson this season, but that’s simply what makes the most sense for him to do. Lawson is probably the best player on the roster, and he’s certainly the most-proven scorer they have. But the Jayhawks will need a secondary scorer, and they are going to need someone that can provide some firepower out of the backcourt.

Grimes is the best bet to be that guy.

But until we actually see what he is going to be capable of doing as a freshman, it’s hard to know exactly what to expect.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

Kansas is not going to lose the Big 12 this year.

I think we all just need to accept that as fact and move on.

They are a consensus top two team in the country. They have one potential first-team all-american on the roster, another potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and enough depth, experience and talent to allow Bill Self to focus all his stress on what’s going to happen as a result of the FBI investigation, the looming trials and any potential NCAA ramifications that may come with it.

Kansas, believe it or not, is my favorite bet to win the national title. Of the clearcut top four teams in the sport this season, they are actually the team getting the best odds at the moment.

All that said, I do think this will be the final year that the streak of consecutive Big 12 titles will remain intact.

Because De Sousa played last season, the Jayhawks are going to eventually be forced to vacate wins; I’d be shocked if they weren’t. And when they do, the 2018 Big 12 title is going to be erased and the 2018 Final Four banner is going to come down.

There’s no time like now to start up that new streak.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 2 Kentucky
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.