Mid-major stars to watch during championship week

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The beauty of the mid-major tournaments that we will be obsessed with this week is that this is where stars will be born.

They’ll burst onto the national scene if they find a way to get to the NCAA tournament, but this is where they’ll earn themselves the right to have that chance. 

So who might end up being the next Harold Arceneaux or the next Jairus Lyles? Can anyone go from being a cinderella to an NBA player like C.J. McCollum or Kyle O’Quinn? Who might end up giving us a memory that lasts longer than Bryce Drew’s game-winner or a double-order of onions like Ronald Moore did?

These are your best bets:

CONFERENCE TOURNEYS: 21 Mid-Major Stars | Best Bets | Bid Thieves | Schedule

1. JA MORANT, Murray State

If you don’t know who Ja Morant is at this point, I don’t think you can call yourself a college basketball fan. He’s going to be a top five pick in the 2019 NBA Draft — he might go No. 2 — because he is an uber-athletic dunking machine that just so happens to lead the country in assists (10.3 per game) while averaging 24.1 points. The world needs Morant in the NCAA tournament, trying to put a 50-burger on whatever poor No. 4 seed happens to draw Murray State in the first round.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/8, 9:00 p.m. in the OVC semis

2. CHRIS CLEMONS, Campbell

Clemons is 5-foot-9. He’s currently averaging 30.1 points, and no Division I player has finished a season averaging 30 points since Charles Jones (LIU) and Bubba Wells (Austin Peay) did it in 1997. He is currently sixth on the Division I all-time scoring list at 3,136 career points. He’s 14 behind Doug McDermott for fifth on the all-time scoring list with a very real shot of getting to No. 2 if he can find a way to play four more games.

And if you’re not careful, he will dunk on you:

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/7, 6:00 p.m. vs. No. 8 seed Hampton

3. MIKE DAUM, South Dakota State

Clemons is not the only 3,000 point scorer in college basketball right now, because the 6-foot-9 Daum has climbed past Hersey Hawkins and Oscar Robertson into ninth on the career scoring list. He makes threes. He dominates the glass. He can’t really guard anyone, but it doesn’t matter all that much when he’s putting up 25 and 10 every night. The Jackrabbits have reached the NCAA tournament each of the past two seasons, so Daum is hardly a secret at this point in his career.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/9, 6:00 p.m. vs. No. 8 Western Illinois

4. C.J. MASSINBURG, Buffalo

You really should know who Massinburg is at this point. He averaged 18.5 points in the NCAA tournament last season, when he led Buffalo to an upset win over No. 4 seed Arizona in the first round of the tournament and gave Kentucky all they could handle in the second round. Then he went for 43 points as the Bulls won at West Virginia in the first week of the season.

WHEN HE PLAYS: The MAC tournament starts 3/11

5. FLETCHER MAGEE, Wofford

Magee is 14 made three-pointers away from becoming the all-time Division I leader in career three-pointers made. He’s averaging better than 20 points for the second straight season. He shoots more than 10 threes per game, and he’s never had a season where he shot worse than 42.3 percent from beyond the arc.

But here’s the craziest part — the threes that he shoots look like this:

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/9, 12:00 p.m. in the SoCon quarters

6. JORDAN FORD, St. Mary’s

Ford might be the best guard that St. Mary’s has had since the days of Patty Mills and Matthew Dellavadova. He’s averaging 21.5 points this season, nearly doubling his scoring output from a season ago, and he has a chance to one day play in the NBA. The Gaels have the best chance to win the WCC automatic bid of teams not named Gonzaga and that’s going to be the only way that St. Mary’s can actually get to the NCAA tournament.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/11, 8:30 p.m. in the WCC semis

7. JORDAN DAVIS, Northern Colorado

Northern Colorado is second in the Big Sky. That’s good. Davis averages 23.7 points and 4.7 assists for UNC. That’s better. But the real reason that you need to know who this dude is? He might do this again:

WHEN HE PLAYS: The Big Sky tournament kicks off March 13th

8. DYLAN WINDLER, Belmont

Windler needs his breakout moment. While Morant is out here setting records, Windler has a case to be the OVC Player of the Year. He’s the only Division I player averaging 20 points, 10 boards and 2.5 assists, and in OVC play, he’s putting up 23.0 points and 10.9 boards while shooting 48.1 percent from beyond the arc. He’s an NBA prospect, but he has yet to have a blow-up game in front of the world.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/9, 7:00 p.m. in the OVC semis

9. MIYE ONI, Yale

Bryce Aiken of Harvard is the guy that gets all the hype in the Ivy League, but Oni is probably the best player in the league. A 6-foot-6 native from California, Oni is a junior that is averaging 18.3 points and 6.5 boards. He’s a borderline first round pick as of today, and the best part? He was originally committed to the same Division III school that former Michigan guard Duncan Robinson played for.

WHEN HE PLAYS: The Ivy League tournament starts 3/16

10. JALEN PICKETT, Siena

Pickett is probably the best freshman in the country that you have never heard of. He averaged 15.7 points, 6.7 assists and 4.6 boards for the Saints, who finished tied for second in a wide-open MAAC. He had 46 points and 13 assists in a game earlier this year. Keep an eye on this dude, he could end up being an NBA player.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/9, 9:30 p.m. vs. No. 4 Rider

11. JUSTIN WRIGHT-FOREMAN, Hofstra

Hofstra steam-rolled the CAA this year thanks in very large part to the nation’s second-leading scorer, Wright-Foreman. He put up 26.8 points this season, and he also hit what might be the shot of the year:

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/10, 12:00 p.m. in the CAA semis

12. JOHN KONCHAR, Fort Wayne

The season did not end well for the Mastadons, as they lost their last four regular season games to fall out of the Summit League title race. That will make it that much more difficult for Konchar, who averages 19.7 pints, 8.5 boards and 5.3 assists, to make a national name for himself, but it is doable.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/10, 8:30 p.m. vs. No. 6 South Dakota

13. ANTOINE DAVIS, Detroit

Antoine is the son of Detroit head coach Mike Davis. He’s the nation’s third-leading scorer at 26.0 points. He’s a freshman. He has made 128 threes this year, which breaks the record that was set by one Stephen Curry. The problem? Detroit is the No. 7 seed in the Horizon League tournament.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/6, 7:00 p.m. vs. No. 2 Northern Kentucky

14. ANTHONY LAMB, Vermont

We all know how good the UVM program is at this point, and Lamb is currently the star in Burlington. He had 24 points at Kansas this year. He put 34 on Yale and 37 on Harvard. He had 42 points against St. Bonaventure. People that loved Georges Niang will be thrilled to see his dopplegänger get some run if UVM can get to the Big Dance.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/9, 7:00 p.m. vs. No. 8 seed Maine

15. GRANT RILLER, Charleston

There may not be a more dangerous scorer in college basketball than Riller right now. The junior guard is averaging 22.3 points and 4.0 assists, but he popped off for 43 points against Hofstra, 33 points against Northeastern, 32 against Memphis and 30 at VCU.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/10, 8:30 p.m. vs. No. 6 Drexel

16. CHARLES BASSEY, Western Kentucky

Bassey is a former five-star recruit and a future NBA draft pick. He hasn’t quite lived up to expectations playing for WKU this year, but he’s still averaging 15.1 points and 10.6 boards. He’ll be the big body that will allow the Hilltoppers to matchup with the frontline of whatever power conference team they face off with in the NCAA tournament.

WHEN HE PLAYS: The CUSA tournament starts on 3/13

17. JAKEENAN GANT, Louisiana

The former Missouri forward is currently averaging 20.8 points, 8.7 boards and 2.7 blocks, the only player in Division I to post a line like that. The Sun Belt regular season hasn’t come to an end yet, but the Ragin’ Cajuns are currently sitting at .500 with two games left. They likely aren’t destined for the NCAA tournament, but you never know.

WHEN HE PLAYS: The Sun Belt tournament starts 3/12

18. JAYLIN WALKER, Kent State

Walker has finally moved his way into the starting lineup, but the 6-foot-3 senior spent much of the year averaging 21.6 points off the bench for the Golden Flashes. Kent State is going to have to beat out Buffalo for the MAC automatic bid if they are going to be dancing.

WHEN HE PLAYS: The MAC tournament starts 3/11

19. D’MARCUS SIMONDS, Georgia State

Simonds had a bunch of NBA hype heading into his sophomore season, but the jump shot never came around. He’s still not shooting it great this year, but he is averaging 18.9 points, 4.9 boards and 3.7 assists for a team that is tied for first in the Sun Belt right now.

WHEN HE PLAYS: The Sun Belt tournament starts 3/12

20. LAMINE DIANE, Cal St.-Northridge

If Pickett isn’t the best freshman you’ve never heard of, Diane is. He’s the Big West Zion Williamson, averaging 24.2 points, 10.8 boards, 2.2 blocks, 1.9 assists and 1.4 steals. I know this is going to shock you, but Diane is putting up these numbers for a team coached by Mark Gottfried that is currently sitting at 7-7 in the Big West.

WHEN HE PLAYS: The Big West tournament starts 3/14

21. MATT RAFFERTY, Furman

Furman’s star has as well-rounded of a stat line as you’ll find: 17.4 points, 9.2 boards, 4.2 assists, 2.6 steals, 1.1 blocks, 62.8% FG, 36.4% 3PT. That’s how you upset Villanova on the road, I guess.

WHEN HE PLAYS: 3/9, 8:30 p.m. vs. No. 6 Mercer

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.