ACC Reset: Does ACC title run through Durham or Charlottesville?

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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 ACC.

MIDSEASON ACC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Zion Williamson, Duke

This decision really is not all that difficult. As of today, Zion Williamson is likely the favorite to win National Player of the Year; he’s been atop the NBC Sports Player of the Year Power Rankings for more than a month. The numbers he is putting up for the No. 1 team in the country more than speak for themselves — 19.8 points, 9.4 boards, 2.3 assists, 2.1 steals, 1.9 blocks — but it is more than that. He’s the most unstoppable force in college hoops. He is the piece that allows Duke to play the way they want to play this season. His versatility defensively is a major reason the Blue Devils are one of the top three teams in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric while his ability to grab-and-go in transition and make plays using his out-of-this-world physical gifts is why the Blue Devils are an impossible matchup.

Williamson is a special, special talent. By the end of the year, even the world’s biggest Duke haters will be forced to agree.

THE ALL-ACC FIRST TEAM

  • ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke
  • R.J. BARRETT, Duke: There are 353 teams in college basketball, and Barrett is ninth nationally in scoring and putting up those numbers while playing on the No. 1 team in the country. Let’s not overthink this.
  • DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia: Kyle Guy is Virginia’s leading scorer and Ty Jerome is arguably their best player, but for my money Hunter is the guy that needs to be recognized on this list. He’s the most talented player on the roster and is the guy that allows the Wahoos to be matchup proof.
  • NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech: Not only is Alexander-Walker one of the best players in the conference — he’s averaging 18.5 points, 4.3 boards, 3.8 assists and 2.5 steals while shooting 46.8 percent from three — he’s probably the most improved as well. He’s turned into a knockdown jumpshooter than is a playmaker defensively and thrives initiating offense and running pick-and-rolls. He’s become a lottery pick.
  • CAMERON JOHNSON, North Carolina: North Carolina’s best player to date this season, which is odd considering Luke Maye was their preseason all-american, Nassir Little is the future top five pick that can’t seem to crack the starting lineup and Coby White is the freshman getting all the hype.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia Tech, Florida State, N.C. State, Louisville, Syracuse, Clemson
  • NIT: Miami, Boston College, Notre Dame, Pitt
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Wake Forest, Georgia Tech
(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. DUKE’S FRESHMEN ARE WORTH THE HYPE

This is hardly breaking news.

Zion Williamson has been absolutely sensational. R.J. Barrett is a guy that has his flaws as a basketball player, but those flaws will not be all that visible when he’s playing against college athletes. Cam Reddish is struggling to find his role on this Duke team and has still managed to put up 13.5 points in just 23.8 minutes while shooting 35.6 percent from; if only all freshmen could struggle like that.

And then there is Tre Jones, the unsung hero on this Duke roster. He is a game-changing defensive presence, precisely the kind of point guard that Duke has been looking for since … well, since Tyus Jones. The Blue Devils are the favorite to win the national title this season because of those four players.

So yes.

Duke’s freshmen are worth the hype.

2. VIRGINIA MIGHT BE BETTER THAN THEY WERE A YEAR AGO

This is my favorite storyline of the season to date. Coming off of the most embarrassing loss in the history of college basketball, the Wahoos entered this season carrying the burden of being the only No. 1 seed to have ever lost to a No. 16 seed, and they’re doing so while already being saddled with the reputation of being a choke artist.

Let’s call it like it is: In the last five NCAA tournaments, Virginia has either blown a lead they shouldn’t have blown or lost earlier in the tournament than they should have based on their seed. People remember things like that, since that is the time when the most people are paying attention to college basketball.

(Eric Espada/Getty Images)

Now stop me if you’ve heard this before, but this might actually be the best Virginia team that we have seen in the Tony Bennett era. They’re as good defensively as we have become accustomed to this program being, but this team is better offensively than a typical Virginia team. Kyle Guy has been very good once again this season. Ty Jerome continues to play like a future pro. Freshman Kihei Clark has given them the lineup versatility that we knew they were lacking. Most importantly, De’Andre Hunter has given Virginia a dynamic combo-forward than can defend up and has NBA ability on the perimeter.

This is a dangerous basketball team.

3. “THE REST” IS LOADED THIS YEAR

Before the season started, one of the questions that we had about the ACC what who would be the team that would be the best of the rest; who would win the race for fourth in a league that is going to be dominated by Duke, Virginia and North Carolina.

As it turns out, there is more than one team vying for the title of “best of the rest”, and there is legitimate reason to wonder whether or not each of those teams can crack the top three in the league.

Let’s start with Virginia Tech, who has emerged as the best team that Buzz Williams has produced in Blacksburg. We knew, coming into the season, just how good Justin Robinson was, but with the emergence of Nickeil Alexander-Walker as a legitimate star in the league, the Hokies all of a sudden look like they have the best backcourt in the ACC. They start four seniors, they are betting quality minutes off their bench and we still haven’t seen Landers Nolley or Chris Clarke. This team is for real.

I think the same can be said for Florida State. While M.J. Walker has not quite taken the step forward I think everyone expected him to take, Mfiondu Kabengele has developed into one of the most productive players in the ACC. Trent Forrest has embraced the point guard role while Terance Mann is playing the best basketball of his life. If Phil Cofer can get back to where he was last season, the Seminoles are a very real threat to get back to the Elite Eight.

I also believe that N.C. State belongs in this conversation as well. I have so much respect for what Kevin Keatts is able to do when running a program, and it only took him one year to get the Wolfpack to be what he wants a basketball team to be: They’re loaded with guards, they love to press, they have a number of guys that can really shoot the rock and their bigs are good enough to get the job done. They’re probably third-best of this group, but that still leaves them as something close to a top 15 team this season.

(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. CAN A GROUP OF FRESHMEN WIN A NATIONAL TITLE?

Only twice in the one-and-done era has a team that was built around freshmen won the national title. Kentucky did in in 2012 with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist running the show. Duke did it in 2015, as Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow carried them to a title. This Duke team, however, is different in the sense that their four-best players are all freshmen. Neither the 2012 Kentucky team nor the 2015 Duke team had this little upper-class influence on their roster. 

That said, I think the reason that there is a very real shot Duke can get this done is the presence of a couple of key veterans pieces. Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden don’t play all that much, but the options that they provide Duke — Bolden with his size and rim protection, DeLaurier with his versatility and shot-blocking — let Mike Krzyzewski change looks based on opponent.

But the two biggest reasons why I think Duke can avoid the fate of other freshman-led teams — besides, you know, the fact that their Big Three is awesome — is the presence of Jack White and Tre Jones. Those two are elite level glue guys that make a major difference in the way Duke can play. We took a deep dive into their impact on the program last month.

2. WILL SYRACUSE TURN THIS THING BACK AROUND?

The Orange are the team in the ACC that has been the toughest to figure out early on this season. On the one hand, this is a team that wasn’t all that good last season that managed to gather quite a bit of preseason hype due to the fact that they won three NCAA tournament games and returned everyone of note from last year’s team.

So I get it.

But it’s also worth noting that this is a team that was elite defensively last season and not only added a couple of talented offensive weapons, they brought back Oshae Brissett and Tyus Battle, the former a sophomore expected to make the leap and the latter and all-american and NBA draft hopeful. I know that they have lost to some teams they should not have lost to, but I think the ceiling is still there.

That said, it seems like the best place for Syracuse to be heading into the NCAA tournament is as a No. 10 or No. 11 seed. So maybe the Orange are right where they want to be.

3. WHAT HAPPENS WITH NASSIR LITTLE VS. ROY WILLIAMS?

The most annoying topic of discussion this season has been the debate over whether or not Nassir Little deserves more playing time for North Carolina. The truth is this: Little plays a position where North Carolina has depth to spare. We know Roy Williams wants to play with two big men. We also know that he already has Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson on the roster. If Little wants to get minutes, he is either going to have to outplay one of those guys — one of whom was an all-american last season and the other who has been playing at an all-american level this season — or be good enough to convince Williams to play small.

And while Little has been effective this season, he hasn’t done either of those things. It might happen as he continues to get acclimated to the college level and figures out what Williams wants from him, but it hasn’t happened yet.

The reason Little isn’t playing more isn’t a conspiracy. He just has a lot in front of him to beat out.

(Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. VIRGINIA WINS THE ACC TITLE AGAIN

The Cavaliers are legit this season. I’m on board with the idea that this is Tony Bennett’s best team in Charlottesville, and I think they prove that with their fourth ACC regular season title in the last six seasons.

2. DUKE JOINS VIRGINIA IN THE FINAL FOUR

I also think this is the year that Virginia breaks through and makes it to the Final Four. The narrative will always be “you can’t win the big one” until you win the big one. Ask Jay Wright. Or Bill Self. Or Mark Few. Or Jim Calhoun. Tony Bennett is the next on that list.

Duke will join them there as well, but that shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The Blue Devils are my pick to win the title.

3. THE ACC GETS AT LEAST THREE TEAMS INTO THE ELITE EIGHT

I really believe in the depth of this league, and I already told you I think that they are going to get two teams into the Final Four. This means that one of the other four top 15 teams find a way to win three games in March. That’s very doable.

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.