WCC Conference Preview: Can anyone threaten Gonzaga?

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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.

Today, we are previewing the West Coast Conference.


While the West Coast Conference can boast a national title contender in Gonzaga, the goal for the league is to see more than just one team make waves nationally.

After a run of four straight season in which at least two teams reached the NCAA tournament, the 2017-18 season was the second in the last three in which the WCC has been a one-bid league.

Turning things around in that regard will largely be the responsibility of BYU and Saint Mary’s, which comes as no surprise even with the latter having lost four starters from last season.

Gonzaga, BYU and Saint Mary’s enter the 2018-19 season as the headliners in the WCC, with San Diego and San Francisco appearing to be the teams closest to the conference’s “big three.”

And with there being a host of talented players in this league who don’t play for Gonzaga, BYU or Saint Mary’s, that should make for some fun winter nights along the west coast.

Mark Few (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. Gonzaga’s flirtation with the Mountain West prompts changes

While the conference realignment wave at the beginning of this decade was largely influenced by football, college basketball has seen some of its power programs (that don’t sponsor football) make moves as well. At the very least Gonzaga considered a move itself, with there being “exploratory” conversations in February between athletic director Mike Roth, basketball coach Mark Few and Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson. Ultimately no move was made, with Gonzaga remaining in the WCC and the conference making some changes to its schedule.

The conference schedule has gone from 18 to 16 games, so the true round-robin format is gone. For the programs expected to be at the top of the league that should mean at least one less game against a projected conference bottom-feeder, which could have a positive impact on the strength of schedule and NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) numbers that are used to by the NCAA tournament selection committee.

The conference tournament has also changed, with the top two seeds receiving a bye to the semifinals. There are also other changes that will go into effect in the future with regards to non-conference scheduling, and the moves (plus the likely loss of earned NCAA tournament revenue had the school left the conference) were enough to satisfy Gonzaga. The WCC dodged a bullet this past spring.

2. Mark Few’s Bulldogs looks like a national title contender

Focusing on the action on the court, Gonzaga is a Top 5 team nationally in the eyes of many. Three starters are back from a team that won 32 games, the WCC regular season and tournament titles, and reached the Sweet 16 in 2017-18. And the returning starters don’t include junior forward Rui Hachimura, who averaged 11.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game last season and was one of college basketball’s best reserves.

Guards Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr. are also back, as are junior forward/center Killian Tillie and sophomore forward Corey Kispert. Add to this a talented crop of newcomers, which includes transfer Geno Crandall (North Dakota) and Brandon Clarke (San Jose State) and freshmen Filip Petrusev and Greg Foster Jr., and Gonzaga has enough talent and experience to be a national title contender.

That being said, the Bulldogs will be without Tillie for much of non-conference play as he underwent surgery to repair a stress fracture in his ankle. That puts more pressure on players such as Kispert, Clarke and Petrusev in the front court, as they’ll be tested by a schedule that includes games against Washington, Tennessee and North Carolina.

3. BYU sets its sights on top spot

With regards to its performance within the conference, the 2017-18 season was BYU’s worst as a member of the WCC since joining in 2011. Dave Rose’s Cougars posted an 11-7 mark in conference play, finishing five games behind second-place Saint Mary’s, and after a loss to Gonzaga in the WCC tournament final BYU finished its season in the Postseason NIT. BYU’s looking to take a step forward in 2018-19, and with five starters back the Cougars have the pieces needed to do just that.

Leading the way is junior forward Yoeli Childs, a first team All-WCC selection who averaged 17.8 points, 8.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game last season. The 6-foot-7 Childs, who also blocked 1.8 shots per game, shot better than 54 percent from the field and will once again be one of the conference’s best players. Also back in Provo are guards TJ Haws, Jashire Hardnett and Nick Emery, who averaged 13.1 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game in 2016-17, and senior forward Luke Worthington. Reserves such as Dalton Nixon and Zach Seljaas will provide the depth for a talented group that could be the team best equipped to challenge Gonzaga.

Yoeli Childs (William Mancebo/Getty Images)

4. Saint Mary’s looks to replace three key starters

Saint Mary’s had a successful 2017-18 season, winning 30 games and finishing conference play with a 16-2 record. But that overall win total wasn’t enough to get the Gaels into the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season. Now Randy Bennett will have to account for the loss of three starters from that team, most notably one of the best big men in college basketball in Jock Landale. Sophomore guards Jordan Ford, who averaged 11.1 points and 2.7 rebounds per game last season, and Tanner Krebs (7.7 ppg, 5.2 rpg) are back to lead the way.

But after those two Saint Mary’s will be looking for contributions from newcomers and players who played sparingly in 2017-18. Redshirt junior forward Kyle Clark appeared in just three games before undergoing knee surgery, and senior center Jordan Hunter averaged just over seven minutes per game in 32 appearances. Graduate transfer Aaron Menzies, who averaged 11.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game at Seattle last season, will be a key newcomer for the Gaels as will redshirt sophomore forward Malik Fitts (7.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg in 2016-17 at South Florida). Saint Mary’s has a lot of new faces but the expectations remain high for a program that hasn’t failed to win at least 20 games in a season since 2006-07.

5. Pepperdine and San Diego have new head coaches

There were two head coaching changes in the WCC this past spring, and both hires are familiar faces to those who follow the league. Pepperdine, which let Marty Wilson go after seven seasons, hired Lorenzo Romar to lead its program. Prior to head coaching stops at Saint Louis and Washington, Romar, who last season served as associate head coach at Arizona, spent three seasons at Pepperdine. After his 1996-97 team won just six games, Romar led the Waves to 17 and 19-win seasons before moving on to SLU.

As for San Diego, its circumstances differ from those that prompted the change at Pepperdine. Lamont Smith resigned in early March after being arrested on suspicion of domestic violence, but he was never charged. Stepping into the head coaching role is Sam Scholl, another USD alum who served as acting head coach for the remainder of the 2017-18 season. Of the two new head coaches Scholl is better positioned to win immediately, with San Diego returning its top four scorers from last year’s 20-win squad including first team All-WCC selection Isaiah Pineiro.

Rui Hachimura (Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

PRESEASON WCC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga

One of college basketball’s best reserves last season, Hachimura moves into a starring role for the Bulldogs in 2018-19. In 2017-18 the 6-foot-8 Hachimura shot 56.8 percent from the field and 79.5 percent from the foul line with an effective field goal percentage of 57.7. With Gonzaga needing to account for the departure of Johnathan Williams III, who led the team in both scoring and rebounding as a senior, Hachimura will even more opportunities to put up quality numbers offensively. And with Killian Tillie out of the lineup for the time being, Gonzaga will need Hachimura to take the next step in his growth as a player and NBA prospect.

THE REST OF THE ALL-WCC FIRST TEAM

  • Frankie Ferrari, San Francisco: As a junior the 5-foot-11 Ferrari averaged 11.4 points and 4.6 assists per game, ranking tied for fifth in the conference in the latter statistical category.
  • Zach Norvell, Gonzaga: As a freshman Norvell, who redshirted in 2016-17, averaged 12.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. And if Gonzaga needs a big shot late in a game, there’s a decent chance that the fearless Norvell will be the one letting fly.
  • Yoeli Childs, BYU: In averaging 17.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.8 blocks per game, Childs increased his scoring average by 8.3 points per game from his freshman to sophomore season. While a similar increase may not occur in 2018-19, there’s no denying the junior’s status as one of the WCC’s best players.
  • Killian Tillie, Gonzaga: Due to the aforementioned stress fracture in his ankle, the 6-foot-10 Tillie (12.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg in 2017-18) will be out for approximately eight weeks. But when on the floor the versatile junior is a key cog in the Gonzaga attack, due to his ability to play either in the paint or away from the basket offensively (58.0 percent from the field, 47.9 percent from three).

FIVE MORE NAMES TO KNOW

  • Josh Perkins, Gonzaga
  • KJ Feagin, Santa Clara
  • TJ Haws, BYU
  • James Batemon, Loyola Marymount
  • Isaiah Pineiro, San Diego

BREAKOUT STAR

The pick here is Saint Mary’s sophomore guard Jordan Ford (11.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 1.6 apg in 2017-18), due in large part to the fact that the Gaels will need him to break out given the team’s personnel losses. As a freshman Ford shot 50.8 percent from the field, 44.3 percent from three and 75.4 percent from the foul line, doing so on just over eight field goal attempts per game. Look for Ford to be safety into double figures in shot attempts, and he’s skilled enough to not take a step back from an efficiency standpoint.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE

No names this time around. With Pepperdine making its move in the spring, replacing Marty Wilson with Lorenzo Romar, there isn’t a coach that enters the 2018-19 season under a considerable amount of pressure to produce a big year.

ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING …

The WCC has managed to be a multi-bid conference, with BYU joining Gonzaga.

I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT …

Seeing if Gonzaga can reach the Final Four for the second time in the last three seasons.

FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR

  • November 6, BYU at Nevada
  • November 19-21, Gonzaga at the Maui Invitational (vs. Illinois, 11/19)
  • November 24, Harvard at Saint Mary’s
  • December 9, Gonzaga vs. Tennessee (in Phoenix)
  • December 15, Gonzaga at North Carolina
Randy Bennett (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

PREDICTED FINISH

1. GONZAGA: Gonzaga’s the clear favorite to win the WCC, even with the loss of Tillie for the next eight weeks. His absence will be felt during non-conference play, as the Bulldogs have matchups with Washington, Tennessee and North Carolina in addition to their appearance in the Maui Invitational to navigate. That being said, Mark Few’s team is loaded with talent from guards Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr. on down to an All-America candidate in Rui Hachimura. And newcomers such as transfer Brandon Clarke and Geno Crandall, who averaged 16.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg and 3.6 apg at North Dakota last season, and freshman big man Filip Petrusev should be impact additions.

2. BYU: Of course the returns of Yoeli Childs and TJ Haws will give the Cougars a shot at getting back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2015. What will also help is the return of guard Nick Emery, who withdrew from school last November amid an investigation into his possibly receiving impermissible benefits from a booster. Emery, who averaged 14.7 points per game in his first two seasons at BYU, will have to miss BYU’s first nine games this season. When on the floor he gives BYU another quality perimeter scorer, which is needed due to the loss of leading scorer Elijah Bryant.

3. SAINT MARY’S: Three of the top four scorers from last season’s team have moved on in Jock Landale, Calvin Hermanson and Emmett Naar, with sophomore Jordan Ford being the lone returnee. Ford could be in line for a big 2018-19 season given the combination of those personnel losses and his skill set. Fellow sophomore guard Tanner Krebs, who made 29 starts last season, should also be a factor and the same can be said of transfers Aaron Menzies and Malik Fitts. While the Gaels have some questions to answer, they should once again be a top three team in the WCC.

4. SAN FRANCISCO: After winning 20 games in Kyle Smith’s first season at the helm, San Francisco won 22 games and reached the championship series of the CBI in 2017-18. All five starters, including first team All-WCC point guard Frankie Ferrari, return from a team that despite the strides made last season still has room for growth. San Francisco was the last team to crack the BYU/Gonzaga/Saint Mary’s hold on the top three spots in the WCC standings, finishing tied for second in 2013-14, and the Dons could very well pull off this feat again.

5. SAN DIEGO: The Toreros reached the 20-win mark for just the fourth time in the program’s Division I history last season, and there’s a decent chance that the count increases to five in 2018-19. San Diego’s top four scorers, led by redshirt senior forward and first team All-WCC selection Isaiah Pineiro, return to play for first-year head coach Sam Scholl.

6. PACIFIC: The Tigers have made strides in Damon Stoudamire’s first two seasons as head coach, with the overall win total improving by three games (11 in 2016-17 to 14 last season) and the conference win total improving by five (from four to nine). While there are eight newcomers to work into the program, Pacific welcomes back three of its top five scorers in guards Roberto Gallinat and Kendall Small and forward Jahlil Tripp.

7. LOYOLA MARYMOUNT: The Lions boast one of the WCC’s best individual talents in senior guard James Batemon, who averaged 17.8 points and 4.6 assists per game in his debut season at LMU. He’s one of four starters back for head coach Mike Dunlap, and given the talent and experience on this roster it’s likely that the Lions take a step forward after last year’s 11-20 finish.

8. SANTA CLARA: Senior guard KJ Feagin lead the Broncos in both points and assists last season, earning first team All-WCC honors as a result. He’ll once again lead the way for Herb Sendek’s group, with sophomore forward Josip Vrankic looking to take a step forward after averaging 10.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game as a freshman.

9. PEPPERDINE: Lorenzo Romar begins his second stint at Pepperdine with anything but an empty cupboard, as the top three scorers from last season’s team (Kameron Edwards, Colbey Ross and Eric Cooper Jr.) all back. While that is a positive, both Edwards (nine games) and Cooper (13) missed time due to injury so it goes without saying that they’ll need to remain healthy if Pepperdine is to take a step forward.

10. PORTLAND: Turning things around at Portland hasn’t been easy for Terry Porter, whose teams have won 11 and 10 games in his first two seasons at the helm. Four of Portland’s top five scorers from a season ago, led by sophomore guard Marcus Shaver and redshirt junior wing Josh McSwiggan, are back and Pitt transfer Crisshawn Clark is eligible after sitting out last season.

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.