AAC Reset: Cincinnati, Houston, UCF established as frontrunners

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason recaps to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy?

What is still left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the American Athletic Conference.

MIDSEASON AAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: B.J. Taylor, UCF

The 6-foot-2 guard has bounced back from injury brilliantly, averaging 17.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 40.9 percent from the floor, 39.3 percent from 3 and 81.3 percent from the free-throw line. He needs to be more consistent (that 2-for-10 against Alabama stands out), but he’s an electric scorer that will make the Knights go.

THE ALL AAC FIRST TEAM

  • B.J. TAYLOR, UCF
  • MARKIS MCDUFFIE, WICHITA STATE: The senior has rediscovered his all-conference form after a disastrous sophomore season, even if the Shockers aren’t winning at that level. He’s averaging 18.8 points while shooting 42.3 percent from the floor and 37.5 percent from 3. He’s also grabbing 5.1 rebounds per game.
  • JARRON CUMBERLAND, CINCINNATI: The best player on the league’s best team, Cumberland is putting up a career-best 16.2 points while shooting a scintillating 47.1 percent from distance.
  • SHIZZ ALSTON, TEMPLE: The conference’s top scorer at 19.3 per game, Alston has helped Temple to a surprise 10-2 record in Fran Dunphy’s final season at the helm.
  • COREY DAVIS, HOUSTON: The 6-foot-1 senior is averaging 15.3 points in efficient manner, shooting 34.7 percent from 3 and 94.3 percent from the line. He’s also putting up 3.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.2 steals per game

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Cincinnati, Houston, UCF
  • NIT: UConn, SMU, Temple
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Memphis, Wichita State, Tulsa, ECU, South Florida, Tulane
(Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. THREE AT THE TOP

This isn’t so much something we’ve learned as has been confirmed through the season’s first two months. It seems pretty apparent that Cincinnati, Houston and UCF are the class of the conference, sporting a combined record 34-4. All three teams are in the KenPom top-40 while the rest of the league is outside the top-70.

Among those three, you could argue that Houston and Cincinnati may be a smidge ahead of the Knights as the Cougars and Bearcats both have good wins and no bad losses, something UCF can’t say with a loss to FAU on the resume and a home win against a so-so Alabama team leading the win docket. Still, the Knights belong in this trio given the strength of the roster and only one hiccup.

It’s almost assured that the league champion will emerge from this group of three, and it’s probably likely that the trio will comprise the entirety of the conference’s NCAA tournament bids.

2. PENNY HARDAWAY MAKES THINGS INTERESTING

Memphis hasn’t been particularly successful on the floor in the first year of the Penny era, with South Dakota State its best win and with losses to Charleston and Oklahoma State, but there have been more than a few moments that make the Tigers’ hire of their star alum already an absolute winner.

First off, Hardaway landed five-star recruit James Wiseman in the 2019 class, giving the Tigers not only a monster recruit, but one who hails from Memphis as well. Succeeding with kids from the city – five-star kids or otherwise – is a huge part of the Memphis job, and one Hardaway looked ready to immediately excel in and he has. Not just with Wiseman, but with Tyler Harris, who is having a splendid freshman season. Then there’s the feud with Rick Barnes, who I don’t think has ever been in a feud of any type in his life, but found Hardaway cursing him out after Barnes’ Tennessee team beat the Tigers in a rivalry game. Bringing a little juice to that matchup is a heck of a lot of fun.

Maybe most importantly, though, Memphis fans are flocking back to games. The Tigers are averaging nearly 15,000 fans per home game after averaging just over 6,000 per game in Tubby Smith’s last season. Memphis basketball – despite not yet winning a bunch of games – matters. That was half the battle, one Penny is winning in a major way.

3. WICHITA STATE IS WHAT WE THOUGHT THEY’D BE

You could have talked yourself into Wichita State this past offseason, banking on a Markis McDuffie return to form and Gregg Marshall just bending reality to his whim to keep the Shockers near the top of the AAC and in the NCAA tournament. It looks like you would have been kidding yourself, though.

The Shockers appear to be taking the step back that looked all but inevitable after losing the likes of Landry Shamet, Connor Frankamp and Shaw Morris off last year’s team. Now, the Shockers haven’t hit rock bottom – they’ve got wins against Providence and Baylor – but losses to Louisiana Tech, Davidson, Alabama and VCU makes it seem all the more likely that this isn’t going to be a caliber of team Wichita State has become accustomed to fielding during its seven-year NCAA tournament streak, which appears destined to end this spring.

(Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. HOW LONG CAN HOUSTON STAY PERFECT?

Kelvin Sampson’s team hasn’t exactly had a murderer’s row schedule, but the Cougars are 13-0 heading into AAC play. That’s undefeated, for those of you keeping score at home. Their next toughest tests come at Temple (KenPom 74) on Jan. 9 and at SMU (89) on Jan. 16. If they make it through those two games, they very well could be blemish-free heading into an interesting three-game stretch to begin February at UCF, vs. Cincinnati and at UConn.

No one is expecting Houston to run the table, but given the meh-ness of their non-conference schedule and the blah-ness of the AAC at large, they’re going to need to rely heavily on simple win accumulation to boost their NCAA tournament resume and seed line. Getting to February undefeated would help that, for those keeping score at home.

2. THE HURLEY REBUILD AT UCONN

Spirits seem to be high in Storrs, where the hometown Huskies sit 8-4 in the first two months of the Dan Hurley era. UConn is playing respectable basketball and hope seems to be in the air, a welcome change after what looked to be a miserable finish to Kevin Ollie’s tenure, which still has an ugly cloud over the university. So, that’s an improvement.

UConn probably isn’t all that good, though. At least not right now. The Huskies’ did beat Syracuse on a neutral, but beyond that, they’ve lost every game of consequence on their schedule. Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert are playing well, and that might be enough to score a few AAC victories to keep everyone happy while Hurle continues the rebuild.

3. CAN A FOURTH TEAM SNEAK INTO THE DANCE?

For a team other than Houston, Cincinnati or UCF to make the NCAA tournament, it’s probably going to take a magical run through the conference tournament, which is hosted by Memphis at the FedEx forum this year, if you’re looking for a real juicy storyline.

Other than that, though, there doesn’t really seem to be a path. No one has done enough in the non-conference to really put themselves in a strong position, and the conference just doesn’t appear to have enough opportunities to win games that move the needle. If it’s going to happen, though, it’ll likely need to be UConn, SMU or Temple really surprising and notching a whole host of victories – including a few against that top trio.

(Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. CINCY TAKES THE TITLE

Houston may be undefeated, but Mick Cronin’s team looks to be the best the AAC has to offer. The Bearcats’ two losses both came to Power 5 teams, the first a season-opening home loss to Ohio State and the second in Starkville to Mississippi State. Neither of those give any indication other than the Bearcats aren’t quite a top-25 team.

Cincinnati looks to have another borderline-elite defense, which is constructed from the inside out, with opponents struggling to score around the basket while the Bearcats are also generating a host of turnovers. The offense isn’t quite as strong, but Jarron Cumberland can help cover up some deficiencies.

2. THE NATION REMEMBERS TACKO FALL

The UCF big man became of national interest early in his career simply by the fact that he stands 7-foot-6 and has a great name, but injuries – and playing in the AAC – had him fade into the background some.

Expect that to change, with UCF having legit talent that will make the Knights an AAC contender and an interesting team to watch – if you can stomach their slow pace. The big man is sporting a 14.6 block percentage at the moment. There are few players that can impact a game defensively like he can – and nearly none are as interesting to watch given his height.

3. PENNY WILL GENERATE MORE HEADLINES

Maybe he won’t tell another coach to get the “@*&! out of here” but here’s guessing the Memphis coach will continue to make things interesting, even if wins aren’t expected to come in bunches next year. It’s clear after having an All-Star NBA career and then being a big fish in high school basketball, he’s not too concerned about the decorum that keeps so many head coaches from being truly interesting characters. Bless him for it.

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.