Big 12 reset: Who makes a run at Kansas?

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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 Big 12.

MIDSEASON BIG 12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech

Losing Keenan Evans, who averaged 17.6 points per game, and Zhaire Smith, who went one-and-done as the 16th overall pick in June’s NBA draft, should have been a major setback for Texas Tech, but instead the Red Raiders are 11-1 and ranked 11th in the AP poll thanks in large part to Culver’s emergence as dominant force.

The 6-foot-5 sophomore has seamlessly moved into Evans’ role as the engine of Texas Tech’s offense, averaging 19.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game while shooting 56.3 percent overall and 45.2 percent from 3-point range. He’s got an offensive rating of 124.8 with a usage rate of 30 percent. He’s high-volume and high-efficiency while also getting his teammates involved with a 31.8 percent assist rate. If Texas Tech is the team to finally stop Kansas’ run atop the league, Culver will be a massive reason why.

THE ALL BIG 12 FIRST TEAM

  • JARRETT CULVER, TEXAS TECH
  • MARIAL SHAYOK, IOWA STATE: The Cyclones are a surprising 10-2 while weathering injuries and suspensions, and the Virginia transfer has played a big part. He left Tony Bennett’s program searching greener offensive pastures, and he’s now leading the Big 12 in scoring with 20.1 points per game.
  • DEDRIC LAWSON, KANSAS: The Memphis transfer has been as good as Kansas could have hoped as he’s averaging a double-double of 19.6 points and 10.8 rebounds while also dishing out 2.5 assists per game and shooting 51.8 percent from the floor.
  • LAGERALD VICK, KANSAS: Just a few months removed from essentially being cast out of the Jayhawk program, Vick has at times been a savior this season for Kansas. He’s single-handedly won them a couple of games, and is averaging 15.8 points while shooting 46.8 percent from 3-point range.
  • ALEX ROBINSON, TCU: The Horned Frog guard is averaging an eye-popping 8.6 assists per game while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 42.3 percent from 3-point range to average 13.1 points.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Kansas, Texas Tech, Kansas State, TCU, Iowa State, Oklahoma, West Virginia
  • NIT: Texas, Baylor
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Oklahoma State
(Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. KANSAS HAS COMPETITION

Kansas is probably going to win the league because that’s what they do every year, but it may not be as easy as it looked back in October. Texas Tech is thoroughly legit, having racked up 11 wins and pushing Duke to the brink on a neutral floor. The Red Raiders are, at the moment, the clearest and best threat to the Jayhawks’ supremacy in the Big 12 thanks to Jarrett Culver’s emergence and Chris Beard continuing to prove himself one of the country’s most capable coaches.

The Red Raiders aren’t alone, though. Kansas State hasn’t been great, but if Dean Wade comes back from a foot injury sooner than later, the Wildcats have experience, continuity and talent. Jamie Dixon has TCU rolling, and the Horned Frogs are better than most think while Oklahoma looks surprisingly strong. Then there’s Iowa State, which has been really good despite Lindell Wigginton playing in essentially just one game, and has Hilton Coliseum homecourt advantage to lean on.

Sure, Kansas is going to win, but it might be pretty interesting along the way.

2. CHRIS BEARD HAS TEXAS TECH IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL

Situated out in west Texas in Lubbock, Texas Tech is a helluva tough job. There’s little-to-no tradition, little natural recruiting and a landscape whose most interesting feature is often tumbleweeds (and I mean this very literally). Chris Beard, though, seems built to make it a winner. He calls that part of the world home and was a part of Bob Knight’s staff when Knight had the Raiders rolling.

He won big in his one season at Arkansas-Little Rock and then had Texas Tech in the tournament in Year 2. His teams are defensively elite, something that seems ideal for keeping Texas Tech relevant year in and year out. Maybe they can’t get guys like Jarrett Culver and Zhaire Smith every year – or maybe they can – but you can bet they’re gonna defend. Beard is the real deal.

3. TEXAS CONTINUES TO HAVE ISSUES

Shaka Smart waited out a job for Texas for four years after taking VCU to the Final Four, and the idea would be he’d instantly take his career to the next level at a Power 5 school, especially one with the resources likes Texas. It, uh, hasn’t gone like that.

Texas has unquestionably underachieved, and this year is shaping up to be the same. The Longhorns showed some promise with wins over North Carolina and Purdue, but those seem to be outweighed by losses to Radford, VCU and Providence (all three at home). Maybe the Longhorns figure it out and act like the team beating the likes of the Tar Heels and Boilermakers, but multiple bad losses like that make you wonder.

There is no wondering about what the problem is as it’s been the issue for much of Smart’s tenure in Austin. THe offense is ranked 100th in KenPom a year after slotting 89th and two years removed from registering 177th (they were 49th in Smart’s first year with Rick Barnes’ players). The defense has been very good, but if Texas can’t field a good-to-quite-good offense (which isn’t exactly asking a lot), it’s hard to see them breaking through in a meaningful way.

(Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. HOW GOOD IS KANSAS?

The thinking coming into the season was that Kansas was the best team in the country. They had returning contributors, top-flight transfers and top-rated recruits coming in. That cocktail of talent and experience in Lawrence usually means a special season is in the offing.

And the Jayhawks have really done nothing to dispel that notion, but…they haven’t exactly looked as good as you’d expect. They sleep walked through a game against Vermont, needed overtime to beat Stanford and had close calls against New Mexico State and VIllanova before losing at Arizona State. They’re 11-1 with some nice wins, but…something seems underwhelming. Maybe it was the high expectations. Maybe it’s Duke looking dominant from the start or Michigan being great or Gonzaga and Virginia looking awesome, too.

The Jayhawks are probably fine, but maybe they’re not great? Who knows? We’ll probably get an idea of it quickly in the Big 12, though.

2. IS OKLAHOMA FOR REAL?

Normally, you don’t lose a lottery pick – the nation’s leader in scoring and assists – and get better, but that may be the case for Oklahoma. Trae Young looked to be a generational player for the Sooners, a Norman native whose game was creative and dynamic, but Oklahoma faltered down the stretch, with that very style Young played taking much of the blame.

It’s probably not fair, but those detractors may have some evidence in their corner as the Sooners are suddenly thriving with an 11-1 record with Wisconsin on a neutral the only misstep. They’re doing it with defense and just enough offense while playing with pace. Maybe it’s a mirage, but the evidence is mounting that Lon Kruger’s team is for real.

3. HOW STRONG IS THE BOTTOM?

What’s separated the 10-team Big 12 from some of the country’s other top conferences in recent years is that the bottom of the league has been unlike other conferences – it’s been pretty good. As cliche as it sounds, there just haven’t been nights off in the Big 12.

Is that the case this year again?

Baylor has a couple nice wins, but some disconcerting losses as well. Oklahoma State looks like the likeliest culprit to drag down the league-wide RPI, though as they’ve already lost to the likes of Charlotte and Tulsa with Charleston and LSU their top-100 wins. As strange as it sounds, you’ve got to keep an eye on West Virginia as well given how uneven they’ve looked, though it’s hard to picture Bob Huggins’ program faltering quite like that.

Still, as far as cellars go, it could be rather formidable.

(Darryl Oumi/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. THEY’LL GET EIGHT BIDS

Yeah, I know, I only picked the league to get seven teams up above, but let’s get bold here. Assuming West Virginia gets things squared away and Texas starts looking more like a blue blood, there’s strong shot the conference gets 80 percent of its membership into the Big Dance. That’ll probably come on the heels of a lot of conference records hovering around .500, but the conference has built enough of a reputation that it wouldn’t be punished for mediocrity but rather for high-level parity.

2. KANSAS STATE UNDERWHELMS

Expectations were probably over-cooked for Bruce Weber’s team given they got to the Elite 8 largely thanks to a friendly path – shoutout to UMBC – after a so-so regular season. The Wildcats lost to the best team they’ve played – Marquette – and struggled against the likes of Southern Miss and George Mason (while losing to Tulsa). If Dean Wade missing a ton of time, Kansas State could tumble down the standings.

3. KANSAS’ STREAK FINALLY ENDS

No, it won’t. Maybe next year, everybody.

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.