Lagerald Vick’s surprise return has buoyed No. 2 Kansas through uneven start

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BROOKLYN — Lagerald Vick was long gone.

After a terrific preseason and a better start to his junior year, Vick hit a brutal slump right around the start of conference play last season. He averaged 17.4 points over the course of the first two months of the season. Then, in a home loss to Texas Tech at the start of league play, he had just two points and two boards in 34 minutes. He scored single digits in five of his next six games, and despite being forced into playing major minutes for a team that didn’t have any depth, Vick’s performances — and, more importantly, his effort — never reached the level or the consistency that Bill Self demanded or expected. He was benched after an embarrassing home loss to Oklahoma State for Mitch Lightfoot.

Self did not think that he was getting the most out of Vick, and he was right. Vick did not think that he could do anything please the man that he was playing for, and he may have had a point. By February, they knew they had to go their separate ways.

Vick declared for the 2018 NBA Draft with the intention of signing with an agent.

Kansas gave away his jersey, No. 2, to Charlie Moore.

Then he went through the draft process, and reality clapped back: He wasn’t going to get drafted. Unless he wanted to learn a new language and play in a place where basketball is secondary to soccer, he options were limited. Accept a G League salary and hope he could play his way onto an NBA roster, or return to Lawrence, hat in hand, and hope that he would be welcomed back.

Vick never actually signed with that agent. He never cost himself his eligibility.

So when Vick pulled his name out of the draft, he was still able to return to play college ball for another year. After reaching out to Self, Vick and his family met with the Kansas coaching staff. The staff then met with their team. Everyone was on board. Vick agreed to buy into what the coaching staff wanted from him. The players who would lose minutes to Vick were fine with losing those minutes if it would help Kansas win games.

And Self?

He knew the talent that he was getting back.

It’s a decision that may have saved Kansas from an embarrassing start to their 2018-19 campaign.

Vick has been Kansas’ best player in the first two weeks of the season, and it’s not particularly close. After a quiet outing in the season-opening win over Michigan State, Vick has averaged 24.0 points in the last four games. He scored 32 points and hit all eight of his threes as the Jayhawks won a game against Vermont in Allen Fieldhouse where they trailed in the second half and Dedric Lawson went scoreless. He scored 33 points in a come-from-behind win over Louisiana, a game in which the Jayhawks trailed by as many as 12 points.

“We went through a period of time where the only basket Dedric could make was where he was sitting on his butt,” Self said after No. 2 Kansas stated their claim to the No. 1 spot in the polls with a come-from-behind 87-81 win in overtime of the NIT finals at the Barclays Center on Friday night. “We may not have won those last two home games we had if Lagerald wasn’t going 15-for-20 from three, so I’m very happy to have him back.”

(Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

Vick was not Kansas’ best player on Friday night. That title belongs to Lawson, who looked every-bit the part of the All-American that he was entering the season, finishing with 24 points, 13 boards and six assists. But Vick did make a major impact on Friday. Tennessee outplayed Kansas in the first half. They pushed their lead to nine points midway through the second half before Kansas finally woke up.

The first Jayhawk lead of the second half?

That came via Vick, who buried back-to-back threes and a third jumper in the span of 1:19, a personal 8-0 run that turned a 56-53 deficit into a 61-56 lead. That Kansas immediately gave that lead right back says just about all you need to know about this Kansas team two weeks into the season.

“We’ve got a little bit of experience returning, but that’s a pretty young team out there,” Self said. The Jayhawks have started two freshmen in their backcourt all year — point guard Devon Dotson and off-guard Quentin Grimes — which is to say nothing of how new this group is. They lost three starters from last year’s team, they are playing three transfers major minutes and five of their rotation players did not play last season.

“I think if I had returning guys then I could have a decent feel within a month or so,” Self said. “I don’t really know what we have yet. If you’ve watched us play so far or studied us, it’s been a different guy almost every night. Go through a period of time where guys can’t scratch. Lagerald couldn’t scratch against Michigan State. The good thing is that different guys are stepping up different nights.”

And that’s where Vick’s impact is truly felt.

Look, the truth is this: Vick is truthfully just a piece for Self this season. Kansas’ best player is Lawson, a do-it-all four that is tailor made to play the power forward spot for Kansas. He can pass, he can score on the block, he can make threes, he’s effective in high-low actions and mid-post isolations. You can’t ask for much more.

The most important player for the Jayhawks is probably Udoka Azubuike, the low-post hoss that will be the player Self builds around. Grimes is the most talented player on the roster. Dotson is probably the x-factor at the point.

Vick?

He’s more-or-less out there to do a job. But he’s also the most experienced piece in the Kansas perimeter attack, a player that can pop-off for 30 points on the nights where Azubuike is in foul trouble, or Lawson is struggling, or Grimes can’t get out of his own head.

The concern with Vick’s return was whether or not he would be fine playing that role.

It looks like he is.

“Lagerald has been great from an attitude standpoint, a leadership standpoint, a playing standpoint,” Self told me when asked if he’s glad his senior guard returned to school. “He’s been a ten so far. I’m very excited about Lagerald being a part of it.”

“He’s been terrific.”

Maybe that new numbers suits him.

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.