Bracket Breakdown: Virginia, Tennessee to vie for South Region supremacy

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If you’re a program that is built on identifying under the radar prospects, developing those prospects over four years and then taking a dozen of them and turning them into a team capable of winning titles, the South is for you.

That’s where Virginia resides as the No. 1 seed.

That’s where Tennessee takes up residence as the No. 2 seed.

Purdue is the No. 3 seed, and they’ll likely get No. 6 seed Villanova in the second round. Wisconsin is in this region. I don’t know if Cincinnati and Kansas State truly belong in this conversation, but they are in the South as well.

The South is where you go to get old, it seems.

Let’s dive into the breakdown.

THREE STORYLINES

  1. VIRGINIA IS A NO. 1 SEED AGAIN … : It was a year ago that Virginia humiliated themselves and became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Wahoos are not the No. 1 overall seed this season, but they are a No. 1 seed again. I do not see Gardner-Webb getting it done this year, but I do wonder just how much this is going to play into the heads of this Wahoo team. Can they avoid the distractions that are going to come with the indignity they suffered last season? Because with De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy on the roster, this is the best team that Tony Bennett has ever had.
  2. THIS IS THE LOWEST SEED VILLANOVA HAS GOTTEN SINCE THE BIG EAST SPLIT: Since 2014, when Villanova returned to relevance and the first year that the old Big East turned into the new Big East, Villanova has been a No. 1 seed three times and a No. 2 seed twice. They’ve won two national titles in that time frame, and they’ve won nine of the 12 Big East titles in the last six years. This year, Villanova is younger and, frankly, not as good. That’s why they are the No. 6 seed despite winning the Big East regular season title and the Big East tournament title.
  3. CAN RICK BARNES WIN IN MARCH?: The former Texas coach is no stranger to having teams with some regular season success. But he has not been to the Final Four since T.J. Ford was on his roster in Austin. This will be his best shot. The Vols are absolutely loaded with under-recruited veterans that have a point to prove and an NBA future in front of them. There is no fight that they won’t win on a basketball court.

THE ELITE 8 MATCHUP IS … No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 2 Tennessee

Everyone is going to want to pick this Virginia team to get upset at some point before the Final Four because that is just what the Cavaliers do, and I get it to a point. The style that Virginia plays — limiting possessions as much as possible — makes it so that more things have to go right in order for them to win games against good teams. It makes sense. But it also makes sense that there just aren’t teams in the top half of their bracket that are going to be good enough to beat them.

That said, Tennessee definitely is good enough. I also don’t see them having too much of an issue getting to the Elite 8. Cincinnati is not a good matchup for a Tennessee team that no one is going to out-physical or push around, and Villanova — who I think gets past Purdue — relies on creating mismatches that they will not be able to create against Tennessee. Tennessee vs. UVA with a Final Four berth on the line would be a lot of fun.

THE FINAL FOUR SLEEPER IS … No. 6 seed Villanova

I honestly don’t think there is one in this bracket, at least not one that I love. Oregon has been playing really, really well lately, but they did it by beating up on bad Pac-12 teams. I don’t trust a Wisconsin team whose best player, Ethan Happ, can’t make free throws. Kansas State may or may not have Dean Wade, and even if they have him, I just cannot imagine the Wildcats trying to make shots against UVA. Carsen Edwards is good, but with the way he has been shooting of late, he is hurting Purdue more than he is helping them at times.

(Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

HERE ARE YOUR UPSETS

No. 6 VILLANOVA vs. No. 3 PURDUE: Here’s my logic on this game: Purdue gets a ton of their shots directly out of the offense that they run. It’s heavy in ball-screens, has a lot of dribble-handoffs and even more movement and screening. Villanova is going to switch all of that, and Purdue doesn’t have the dudes to be able to create.

No. 12 OREGON over No. 5 WISCONSIN: The Ducks are just loaded with talent and athleticism all over their roster, which is something that Wisconsin lacks a lot of. As good as Ethan Happ has been, I think that Kenny Wooten can take him away. Oregon’s big, athletic wings will be all over Wisconsin’s perimeter players. I have a feeling Oregon will be favored by the time this tips off.

No. 13 UC IRVINE over No. 4 KANSAS STATE: This is contingent upon the status of Dean Wade. If he’s out, keep an eye on Irvine, who is a really good mid-major program.

BUT DON’T PICK THIS UPSET

No. 11 SAINT MARY’S over No. 6 VILLANOVA: I am on the side of trusting Villanova in March, but even when I don’t trust Villanova in March, I do like them against teams that can be taken out of what they do offensively by switching.

THE STUDS

  • DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia: For my money, he is the second-best player in college basketball considering the way and who he can guard. And he also happens to be a 6-foot-7 wing that shoots 47 percent from three and can do things like score 26 points on 9-for-11 shooting.
  • GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee: He is just a monster that sets the tone for everything that Tennessee does on both ends of the floor. He’s one of the best post scorers in college hoops and a guy with real three-point range these days, too.
  • ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin: On the one hand, Happ is a college basketball legend in the state of Wisconsin. On the other, he is susceptible to the Hack-a-Happ strategy. That’s a real problem.
  • CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue: High-volume gunner that can pop off for 40 but has spent the last month playing wildly inefficient basketball.

THE STARS OF MARCH

  • JORDAN FORD, Saint Mary’s: The Gaels point guard is the second coming of Patty Mills. Maybe faster.
  • MAX HAZZARD, UC Irvine: Hazzard is the best player on the Anteaters, but he’ll have his hands full with a first round date with Barry Brown.

ONE GAME TO WATCH: No. 6 Villanova vs. No. 11 Saint Mary’s

Two well-coached teams that are really good in their league. Two teams that will play a slower brand of basketball but that also will take and can make a lot of threes. Should I remind everyone of Omar Samhan and what he did to Villanova in 2010, too?

ONE GAME THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN: No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 2 Tennessee

The Hoos and the Vols are both top five teams. They are both veteran and all-american laden. This is the game we need.

AND THE WINNER IS …

Virginia. They finally get the job done and get to the Final Four.

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.