Pac-12 Reset: League is embarrassingly bad

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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 Pac-12.

MIDSEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Tres Tinkle, Oregon State

The Pac-12 doesn’t have a ton of great teams and star power this season. But the 6-foot-8 Tinkle has been the league’s best and most consistent player to this point.

Averaging 19.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.4 steals per game, Tinkle rates in the top seven among Pac-12 players in all of those categories. While Tinkle is a noted scorer and double-double threat, his passing has improved over the course of his college career as he’s smart enough to find the open man when opposing defenses collapse.

Consistency has also been a huge part of Tinkle’s year. Only once has Tinkle played less than 33 minutes in a game this season while 12 points is his season low.

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THE ALL PAC 12 FIRST TEAM

  • Tres Tinkle, Oregon State
  • Luguentz Dort, Arizona State: Surprising many with his play as a true freshman, Dort narrowly missed mid season Player of the Year honors. Dort is putting up 18.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, but he’s struggled over the past few weeks to find his offense.
  • Robert Franks, Washington State: The Pac-12’s leading scorer is putting together a solid senior season. Franks is averaging 22.1 points, 7.9 rebounds per game while shooting 52 percent from the floor. Clearly Washington State’s best player, the Cougars recently lost multiple games while Franks dealt with a hip issue.
  • Bol Bol, Oregon: Much like Dort, this freshman big man would in the thick of the league’s POY race if he was healthy. Bol is averaging 21.0 points, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game, but he’s been sidelined with a foot injury since mid-December.
  • Jaylen Nowell, Washington: The sophomore has blossomed into one of the league’s best all-around guards. Nowell is putting up solid numbers as he’s at 17.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game for the season while shooting 52 percent from the floor and 38 percent from three.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Arizona State, Oregon
  • NIT: Arizona, Washington, Colorado, Oregon State
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: UCLA, USC, Stanford, Washington State, Utah, Cal

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. The Pac-12 is dreadful

It’s a new year, so I’ll try to be as nice as possible while describing the atrocity that is Pac-12 basketball. But this league is horrendous, so that is going to be tough.

At this point, the Pac-12 currently has no top-25 teams in the AP or Coaches Poll. There is no Pac-12 player even listed as honorable mention for Rob Dauster’s freshly-released Player of the Year Power Rankings. And the conference just finished a December that went down as the worst a major conference had in the last 20 years.

There are numerous other metrics that point to the Pac-12’s overall awfulness. The eye test is probably all you need. Every Pac-12 team has at least three losses, with a sizable chunk of those losses coming in buy games. They are, as a league, 4-31 in Quadrant 1 games. They are 7-10 against the WCC. Nine teams have beaten two Pac-12 teams already this season. Among them: San Francisco (Stanford, Cal), Santa Clara (USC, Washington State), San Diego (Colorado, Washington State), Seattle (Washington State, Cal) and Hawaii (Colorado, Utah).

No team in the Pac-12 currently has more than a two-game winning streak. While I don’t believe the Pac-12 will end up a one-bid league this season (more on that below), it’s definitely a conversation we might still be having in March.

2. Arizona State has a chance to be pretty good thanks to freshman Luguentz Dort’s breakout start

Arizona State freshman guard Luguentz Dort has been perhaps the Pac-12’s most positive surprise through the first part of the season. Although Dort was regarded as a consensus four-star prospect and top-50 type of talent, not many envisioned that Dort would immediately be this good.

Over the last several weeks, however, Dort has seen his blistering start slow down. The past four games, Dort is only shooting 9-for-45 from the field as his high point total is 13 over that span. Arizona State is still talented enough to knock off Kansas while Dort was in the midst of his funk. The Sun Devils were also bad enough to drop a home game to Princeton during Dort’s worst outing of the season.

So what happened to Dort these last few weeks and how will it impact Arizona State going forward? Was it merely a hot start? Are opposing defenses catching on to Dort’s tendencies and slowing him down? If Dort plays at the level he displayed to start the season, then the Sun Devils should have no issues making the NCAA tournament. But it remains to be seen how Dort will handle conference play and how he breaks out of this slump.

3. Younger players will determine the outcome of this league

College basketball has increasingly become an underclass game at the high-major level as the years have rolled along.

But this year’s Pac-12 is particularly young. Many of the league’s best players thus far have been freshmen and sophomores. And most of the teams hoping to make the NCAA tournament will have to rely on those same players to come through and take them to March.

Given the shaky start of the league this season, that’s not guaranteed to happen. Some talented young teams like UCLA have already fizzled out. Others like Oregon need to get healthy. Many of these teams are going to depend on freshmen for the rest of the season and it’s going to come with mixed results.

(David Becker/Getty Images)

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. Can the Pac-12 rebound and get multiple teams in the NCAA tournament?

So, we already know the Pac-12 is really bad. Can the league still rebound and salvage the season?

It will likely take a few of the top teams like Arizona State, Oregon, Arizona and Washington pooling together and beating up on the other teams in the conference to create a lead pack. As things currently stand, those are the only four programs rated in the top 75 on KenPom with any sort of chance at making an at-large bid.

As long as those four teams don’t suffer horrible losses to teams like Cal, while winning some games against each other, the Pac-12 will have plenty of chances to improve its at-large status before March.

2. Can Arizona get over the hump and make it back to the tournament?

This season was always going to be a difficult one for Sean Miller and Arizona. The FBI’s college basketball corruption scandal hit the Wildcats hard.

It led to many of Arizona’s top recruiting targets going elsewhere. Yet Arizona still finds itself at 9-4 and in good position to make at least some kind of postseason. Whether that’s the NCAA tournament or not remains to be seen.

Arizona finally had its seven-year non-conference home winning streak snapped this season. They haven’t defeated anyone of note besides for Iowa State and UConn. But there’s just something about this team that’s intriguing for some reason. The Wildcats usually defend at a high level. Miller is still one of the best coaches in the country. The three-point shooting has been dreadful at times, but Arizona has still managed. If the Wildcats can figure out some things on offense, then they could be a dangerous team in a down conference.

3. The health of Oregon

Oregon has a chance to figure things out and be pretty good. It all starts with getting healthy.

Freshman Bol Bol has been sidelined with a left foot injury since mid-December as he’s missed the past four games for the Ducks. Head coach Dana Altman has been pretty vague about Bol’s injury, so there’s some uncertainty as to when he might return to the team.

Big man Kenny Wooten will also be sidelined four-to-six months after suffering a broken jaw. And another highly-touted freshman, Louis King, is still working himself back into proper game shape after missing the first several weeks of the season.

If Oregon is able to get fully healthy, they have the weapons to be the best team in the Pac-12. But for right now, that’s a major question mark

(Elsa/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. The Pac-12 goes winless in the NCAA tournament after getting two teams in

The Pac-12 went 0-3 in the 2018 NCAA tournament. And two of those teams were featured in First Four games.

While I don’t think the Pac-12 is so bad that it’s only a one-bid league this season, things are certainly trending in a negative direction once again. Even if the Pac-12 gets multiple teams into the Field of 68, none of its teams are going to have a desirable enough profile to merit a great seed. The entire process is going to be an uphill battle.

And while Arizona State knocked off Kansas, there haven’t been a lot of marquee wins against quality competition for the Pac-12 this season. Even if the Pac-12 is fortunate enough to get multiple teams into the tournament, I don’t have confidence that they’ll win any games once they get there.

2. Arizona State wins the Pac-12

To this point in the season, Arizona State has defeated two top-25 teams. The rest of the Pac-12 combined has one top-25 win.

And while Arizona State has shown plenty of flaws in some recent losses — particularly some woeful stretches of poor shooting — they have the talent to compete with any team in the country. Dort has looked like a go-to player at times this season and he’s flanked by three more double-figure scorers in Remy Martin, Kimani Lawrence and Zylan Cheatham. The Sun Devils currently have a top-50 defense.

In a league that doesn’t have any truly good teams it says something when Arizona State knocks off a national title contender like the Jayhawks. Unless Oregon gets healthy and figures it all out, the Sun Devils look like the favorite in the league at this point.

3. The UCLA coaching search becomes more interesting than the on-court action

Let’s be honest, with the Pac-12 being as bad as it is on the court this year, the off-court movement of the UCLA coaching search is going to be more fun to watch (or hear about).

The Bruins likely won’t be able to start conducting serious interviews until the end of the season — since most of their presumed targets are currently coaching. But if UCLA decides to make some early moves on an out-of-work coach like Fred Hoiberg or Earl Watson then things could get really interesting.

To be clear, UCLA is not making a change for this current season. But the framework will be put in place for the coaching search, as we’ll start to hear names trickle out of the Westwood over the next several months. The UCLA job isn’t what it used to be. It’s still an elite program with an unmatched history conducting a coaching search with big names being thrown around in the middle of the season. That sort of thing rarely, if ever, happens in college hoops.

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.