Monday Overreactions: Tennessee’s done, Michigan’s done, Texas Tech is back!

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: R.J. Barrett, Duke

Barrett went out on Saturday evening and reminded everyone in the country that Duke is more than just Zion Williamson.

Playing on the road in front of a record crowd against a Syracuse team that had already beaten Duke once this season, Barrett popped off for 30 points and seven assists on 14-for-20 shooting from the floor and 2-for-5 shooting from three. He carried the Duke offense throughout the first half, as the team’s struggles from beyond the arc once again became the biggest talking point for a team that ranks near the bottom nationally in three-point percentage. Once Syracuse started to try and force the ball out of his hands, he became the facilitator, setting up the likes of Alex O’Connell — who scored 17 of his career-high 20 points in the second half — in a 75-65 win.

It was utterly dominant and a stark reminder that, yes, Zion Williamson is the best player in college basketball, but that R.J. kid is pretty damn good, too.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Texas Tech Red Raiders

There is no team in the country that is currently hotter than Texas Tech is.

Three weeks ago, the Red Raiders went into Lawrence and got drubbed by Kansas, 79-63, in a game where they trailed by 25 points midway through the second half. They have won five games in a row since that loss by an average of 27 points, and in those five games, Texas Tech is shooting 58-for-124 (47%) from three. That run was capped by one of the most all-encompassing beatdowns that we have seen from anyone this season — a 91-62 evisceration of Kansas that put the Red Raiders a game up on the Jayhawks in the Big 12 standings and in sole possession of second place, one game behind Kansas State.

On January 31st, Texas Tech ranked 101st in KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric. After this run, the Red Raiders now rank 47th.

I do not expect Tech to be able to continue shooting at this clip the rest of the season, but I do think that this group, with the way that they are capable of defending, is good enough to get to a Final Four and win the national title if they can continue to shoot anywhere near this well.

MONDAY OVERREACTIONS

1. THERE ARE FIVE TEAMS IN THE TOP TIER

We reached an era where we love talking about tiers in college basketball, and I have to admit, I am one of those people that loves it the most.

So let’s do it.

As of today, there are five teams that are very clear sitting a cut above everyone else in the sport. There are five teams that we can call the favorites to win the national title. Let’s talk through them all:

1. DUKE: This is obvious. The Blue Devils are the most talented team in the country when they are at full strength, and based on what we know about Zion Williamson’s knee injury, there is no reason to think that he won’t return to the lineup at some point soon. When Duke is hitting their threes, they are borderline unbeatable, but there is hardly a guarantee, on a night-by-night basis, that they are going to be hitting said threes. That’s where this weekend’s win over Syracuse becomes interesting: Alex O’Connell, the real AOC, hit five threes and scored 20 points. Is he the key that unlocks Duke’s Death Lineup?

2. GONZAGA: There is only one team in college basketball that has beaten a full strength Duke this season, and it is the Zags. Their depth up front took a hit when Killian Tillie went down for the second time, and there are some valid concerns about Josh Perkins, their ability to defend and whether or not we can trust a team that will end the season on a two month run of not being tested, but there is no questioning the talent they have or just how good they can be offensively.

3. VIRGINIA: The Cavaliers have lost twice this season, and both of those losses came against Duke. This is probably the best Virginia team that we have seen in the Tony Bennett era, and I say that because De’Andre Hunter is an absolute monster that gives them the kind of lineup and matchup versatility the ‘Hoos have lacked in recent seasons. They are legit.

4. KENTUCKY: I’ve been on the ‘Kentucky is back’ bandwagon since they pummeled North Carolina two months ago. The rest of the world is catching up to me after the Wildcats pummeled Tennessee and Auburn on back-to-back Saturdays this month. With how good P.J. Washington has been for the last five weeks, the Wildcats are going to be a threat to beat anyone and everyone they see in March.

5. NORTH CAROLINA: If there is a questionable addition to this list, it’s probably the Tar Heels. I say that because we’ve seen North Carolina be somewhat inconsistent this year. But in the last week, UNC went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and pounded the same Duke team that won at Syracuse by 16 points. Then, on Saturday, they pounded a Florida State team that had won eight straight games. Luke Maye is starting to get it going. Nassir Little looks like he’s ready to turn a corner. This is a dangerous basketball team, one that looks like they are getting ready to peak at the right time.

(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

2. SUNDAY’S LOSS IS PROOF MICHIGAN CANNOT WIN A NATIONAL TITLE

Everything was lining up for Michigan to make a run at winning the outright Big Ten regular season title this year. The Wolverines had four games left on their Big Ten schedule, with two of those games coming against the Spartans. Not only that, but the first of the two — on Sunday — came in Ann Arbor in a game where Michigan State was playing without Josh Langford and Nick Ward, their second- and third-best scorers. That meant all of their offense would be running through Cassius Winston, who was going to spend the afternoon dealing with Zavier Simpson, who is a pest when playing anyone, let alone his team’s biggest rival in a game that had Big Ten title implications.

And what happened?

Winston went for 27 points and eight assists as Michigan State went into Crisler Arena and pushed around the Wolverines. They won 77-70. They got what they wanted on the offensive end of the floor, especially down the stretch. They also made the Wolverines look utterly inept on the offensive end of the floor, and in the end, that’s their Achilles’ heel. It doesn’t matter how good Michigan is defensively if good teams are going to be able to stifle them offensively.

3. SATURDAY’S LOSS IS PROOF TENNESSEE CANNOT WIN A NATIONAL TITLE

The Volunteers climbed all the way to No. 1 in the nation by steamrolling the dregs of the SEC. Now that they are starting to play the teams at the top of the conference, things are … well, they are not going as well as the Vols had hoped. One week after going into Lexington and getting absolutely mollywhopped by Kentucky, Tennessee went into Baton Rouge, took on an LSU team that did not have Tremont Waters available and got precisely nothing out of their star big man Naz Reid and still found a way to lose.

I love the idea of this Tennessee team. They are a group of unheralded kids that have taken the nation by storm, winning an SEC title last year and 23 of their first 24 games this year. But the more I watch the Vols, the more I think that there is a ceiling for this team that isn’t as high as some of the teams they are going to see in the Elite Eight and beyond. They aren’t guarding like they did a year ago, and while they have been uber-efficient on the offensive end of the floor this season, the things they do well can be taken away far too easily.

This is the first time all year I’m officially worried.

4. KANSAS STATE IS ONE WIN AWAY FROM WINNING THE BIG 12

Tonight’s game in Phog Allen Fieldhouse might just be the biggest game that Bruce Weber has coached since he took Bill Self’s Illinois team to the national title game in 2005. He’s going into Lawrence with a one-game lead on Texas Tech and a two-game lead on Kansas in the race to be the first team to win an outright Big 12 title since 2004, the first year that Self was at Kansas after leaving the Illini.

And the game couldn’t come at a better time.

Kansas is coming off of a 29 point loss at Texas Tech on Saturday. Kansas State is coming off of a 39 point win over Oklahoma State. They haven’t won in Lawrence since 2006. This is the game-changer.

5. JAY WRIGHT DOESN’T KNOW THAT YOU ARE ALLOWED TO SHOOT TWO-POINTERS

You live by the three, you die by the three, and over the course of the last three game, Jay Wright’s team has been murdered by the three-ball. They have now lost three games in a row — to St. John’s, Xavier and Georgetown — and four of their last five, falling two games off of the pace set by Marquette at the top of the Big East.

And while some will look at this and say that it is proof that Villanova’s start to conference play was inflated by who they were playing, I think the bigger issue is that teams have figured out what Villanova wants to do and Jay Wright hasn’t found an answer yet.

On the season, the Wildcats are shooting 53.2 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc, the second-highest percentage in the country. But during this three-game losing streak, 109 of their 178 field goal attempts — a whopping 61.3 percent — have been three-balls. They have made just 30, or 27.5 percent, of those threes during the losing streak.

Villanova can’t find ways to score inside the arc, and because of that, they are being forced to shoot contested threes.

That’s a bad combination of things.

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.