2019 NCAA Tournament: The case against the title contenders

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All that you are going to hear about this week is how good this team is, why that team can make a Final Four and how those guys are going to win a national title.

That’s not what this space is for.

Here, we’re going to spend some time discussing the other side of the coin. 

This is the case against the national title contenders.

REGIONS: East | South | Midwest | West

DUKE

As weird as it sounds, Duke is the heavy favorite to win this year’s national title the same way that Villanova was the heavy favorite to win last year’s title, but the Blue Devils are also the easiest team to project out a loss for. That’s because they are, frankly, a horrible jump-shooting team. Duke ranks 338th nationally in three-point percentage, making a measly 30.2 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. Cam Reddish is supposed to be their floor-spacer and he’s shooting 32.7 percent from beyond the arc, which is actually the highest number of all the freshmen on the roster. Tre Jones is under 25 percent from three. Jack White, an alleged shooter who missed 28 straight threes at one point this season, is at 28.4 percent. There are just two players on the roster that make more than a third of their threes: Alex O’Connell, who has not even shot 75 threes this season because of how limited his minutes end up being, and Justin Robinson, a walk-on that doesn’t play.

Now, to be clear, keeping Duke from getting to the basket whenever they want is a lot easier said than done, and part of what makes them so dangerous is that they are absolutely lethal in transition. They don’t need to be effective running halfcourt offense because they get so many points on the break and on second-chance points. But they are eventually going to run into someone that isn’t going to turn the ball over, that can keep them out of transition and does just enough defensively to force the Blue Devils to rely on the three-ball.

Who that is, I don’t know. But the 2010 Kentucky team that featured John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson shot 33.1 percent from three, and we all thought that team has major issues from beyond the arc. They lost in the Elite 8 on a night they went 4-for-32 from three. Will that happen to Duke too?

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: A healthy Virginia Tech is dangerous, but I think a matchup with Texas Tech in the Final Four does Duke in.

NORTH CAROLINA

The biggest thing standing between North Carolina and a run to the Final Four is the region that they were put in. The Midwest is a tough play to be. If seeds hold — which is no guarantee — they will be playing Kansas in Kansas City in the Sweet 16. They also have to travel twice as far to get to the Sprint Center as No. 2 seed Kentucky or No. 3 seed Houston, and Iowa State fans already consider that building to be Hilton Coliseum South.

So that’s not ideal.

But that, to me, is not the biggest concern that I have with the Tar Heels. It’s the inconsistency of Coby White. North Carolina’s offense is so heavily based on the way that a point guard can play, especially in a year where they don’t really have a guy that can be a creator outside of him. White is a freshman and a volume scorer, meaning that everything about him is inherently streaky. So while that gives them a ceiling to be just about anyone in the field on the right night, it allows means that an Auburn team whose press is working or a North Carolina team that can harass White and run Cam Johnson off the three-point line will have a real shot at a win.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Whoever they get in the Elite 8 — Kentucky, Houston or Iowa State — is going to be dangerous.

VIRGINIA

I’m just going to get this out of the way now: Yes, I think what happened last season might have some lasting effects on Virginia mentally. No, I don’t think they’re going to lose in the first round of the tournament again, but I do wonder how they are going to be able to handle someone making a run on them with five minutes left in the game.

Beyond that, there are two real concerns with this group. Let’s start with the pace of play. They average the fewest number of possessions in the sport which opens them up to upsets. Think about it like doing a study with a small sample size. There’s a reason that scientists want to get to a certain number when doing an experiment or that pollsters need a certain amount of people to get a correct feel for public opinion. That’s because variance can skew things in a small sample size. The same happens in basketball. It’s easier to hang with Virginia in a 60 possession game than it is to hang with Duke, or UNC, or Gonzaga in an 80 possession game.

I’m also worried about the athleticism factor, and it’s not because of Kyle Guy or Ty Jerome. Those guys tend are usually just fine against bigger and more athletic defenders. I know they lost to Florida State in the ACC tournament semifinals, but they also humiliated Florida State in a game earlier this season. Jerome didn’t seem to have any problem carving up Duke in either of the two games they have played this year. The concern for me is Tony Bennett’s infatuation with Kihei Clark. The fact that he is playing 25 minutes a night is concerning to me. He’s not good enough defensively — yes, he’s a pest on the ball, but he’s also 5-foot-7 — to make up for the lack of an impact he has offensively.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: I can see Virginia losing to Tennessee in the Elite 8, but watch out for that Sweet 16 matchup with Oregon, too.

GONZAGA

With Killian Tillie back in the rotation and, seemingly, healthy, I’m not super-worried about the depth of their frontcourt or whether or not they will be able to space the floor. I’m also not all that worried about some of the issues that the Zags have on the defensive end of the floor. Brandon Clarke makes a lot of mistakes disappear, and you only have to be so good defensively when you score the way Gonzaga scores. For context, in 2009, North Carolina, like this Gonzaga team, was No. 1 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and they entered the tournament 39th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Gonzaga is 16th. They’re fine.

My concern is Josh Perkins. He has been terrific this season, and there are smart people that will tell you that he has been Gonzaga’s most important player this year. The reason that is a concern for me is that he has not proven to be 100 percent reliable, and we saw that come to fruition in the WCC title game against Saint Mary’s. Perkins had arguably his worst game of the season, and the Zags had inarguably their worst performance of the year.

When your most important player is a guy that has proven to have off-nights the way Josh Perkins has off-nights, you are just one game away from flaming out of the NCAA tournament.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: I think potential matchups with Syracuse and Florida State are just awful draws for the Zags.

MICHIGAN STATE

I have no idea how Tom Izzo is doing it, but he just took a team that starts Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins as the No. 2 and No. 3 offensive options to a Big Ten regular season title, tournament title and No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

And look, I love Cassius Winston. He is a sensational player that can take over games and a joy to watch if you appreciate someone that can run a pick-and-roll. But the burden that he is going to carry for this team is heavy, and the way the bracket unfolded, the Spartans seem fairly likely to see teams they’ve played this season in the second round and in the Sweet 16. You have to think that at some point Winston’s load will become too much to bear.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Can you see Cassius Winston beating Duke?

TENNESSEE

When we recorded the ‘Why Your Team Sucks’ podcast above last month, the concern that both Brian Snow and I had with Tennessee was whether or not their guards were good enough to win big games. Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner have proven that they can be OK against some of the biggest games of the season.

I’m not worried about the Vols offensively.

I’m worried about them defensively.

They’ve been lit up by Auburn twice in the last eight days. They couldn’t guard LSU in a loss in which the Tigers did not have Tremont Waters available. Kentucky has done whatever they wanted offensive against Tennessee in two of the three games they’ve played. This is basically the same team that was a top ten defense last year. What happened?

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Tennessee’s offense is built around making two-pointers, and Virginia’s defense is designed to take that away.

KENTUCKY

The big question for me with this Kentucky team is pretty simple: Are they good enough?

I know, I know, I know. Let me talk this through. Kentucky turned into a top seven team in January when P.J. Washington turned into a superhuman, and as he came back to earth, so did Kentucky. Can he put together a three-week stretch where he is that guy in March? And if he doesn’t, who picks up the slack? Reid Travis has been useful in certain matchups and has looked like a guy that put up massive numbers against a bunch of soft Pac-12 frontlines in others. Tyler Herro has looked like a first round pick at times, and so had Keldon Johnson. They’ve also looked like freshmen in some big games and big moments. And while Ashton Hagans is a terrific player with a bright future, he’s also a point guard that gambles a bit too much defensively and cannot shoot on the offensive end of the floor.

Put another way, Kentucky has a ceiling when their best players are all playing at their best. But more than any of the other top six teams — Duke, UNC, Gonzaga, UVA and Tennessee — I can see the Wildcats having a floor-game at the wrong time.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: They’ve already lost to Seton Hall once this year, but the dangerous matchup to be is a potential showdown with Iowa State in the Sweet 16.

MICHIGAN

The Wolverines just have too many players that are liabilities offensively. Zavier Simpson does not have to be guarded all that tightly. Jon Teske has his moments, but he goes through stretches where he isn’t really a threat. Charles Matthews was really good last year in the NCAA tournament, but that came at a time when he was playing the four in a lineup that featured knockdown jump-shooters at three spots on the floor, including at the five.

That spacing isn’t there this year, and that is why the Wolverines can see their offense get bogged down for long stretches. If that happens in the NCAA tournament against someone like Texas Tech, they could be in real trouble.

WHEN THEY’LL LOSE: Texas Tech is a dangerous team for Michigan to draw in the Sweet 16.

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.