2019 NCAA Tournament: Which NBA draft prospects helped themselves the most?

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MFIONDU KABENGELE, Florida State

It’s frustrating watching Kabengele coming off the bench, because he has been such a valuable weapon for the Seminoles when he is on the floor.

At 6-foot-10, he has the length and athleticism to project as a five in the NBA. He can block shots, he can move his feet on the perimeter and his ability to switch is one of the biggest reasons that Florida State is able to switch 1-through-5 on the defensive end of the floor. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Kabengele as a prospect is that he is a really, really good shooter that can knockdown threes in pick-and-pop actions as well as showing an ability to step into a shot in transition.

He doesn’t start for the Seminoles, but I’m starting to believe that he will be worth a late first round pick come June’s draft.

LOUIS KING, Oregon

King has really come on down the stretch of the season. He’s up to 12.9 ppg on the season and is shooting 37.9 percent from three as a 6-foot-9 forward with the physical tools to play the wing in the NBA. Over the course of the last five games, he’s averaging 17.2 points, and he was really, really good in Oregon’s two games in the first weekend of the tournament.

And on Thursday night in the Sweet 16, he will draw a matchup with De’Andre Hunter, the best defender at that position in all of college basketball. King is trending towards early second round, late first round territory, and a big performance against the Wahoos could end up being the difference-maker.

JA MORANT, Murray State

Morant was terrific in the two games that he played in the NCAA tournament. He passing ability and high IQ approached to the game was fully on display against Marquette, while he knocked down his first five threes against Florida State in the second round.

Morant is already a guy that will be a top three pick in this year’s draft, but after what he did this first weekend, there has been some hype for him to be the No. 1 overall pick. That’s silly. On the one hand, what he did against Marquette was not all that different from what he has been doing all season long. It was one of his best performances of the season, don’t get me wrong, but anyone that had been watching Morant play and not simply watching the highlights knew he could pass like that.

Then there was the shooting display from the second round. While I do believe that Morant is getting better as a shooter, overreacting to one game where he hit five in a row is not a great idea. That was just the second time in 65 career games that Morant made five or more threes and the fourth time he’s hit four threes in a game. We know he can make that shot — it’s one of the biggest reasons he’s gone from being a guy projected in the top 10 to someone that could go No. 2 — but we also know he’s streaky.

NASSIR LITTLE, North Carolina

With 39 points in the first two games of the NCAA tournament, Nassir Little put together the best back-to-back performances of his freshman season on the biggest stage. He was aggressive, he found himself in the right spots on the floor and his physical tools and motor were on full display. The problem, if there is one, is that these games were played against teams where Little’s skill-set will always thrive.

Iona was one of the worst defensive teams in the field. Their uptempo brand of basketball combined with the fact that they just didn’t have the size or athleticism to deal with Little let him flourish. The success he had against Washington was similarly matchup-based, as that 2-3 zone was ripe for the picking; the Huskies had no answer for anyone in the paint, not just little.

I’m not sure how much there is to takeaway either way from the first weekend, but Friday’s matchup with Auburn will be an interesting one for NBA scouts. Auburn plays five-out offensively, using modern, perimeter-oriented bigs in Chuma Okeke and Anfernee McLemore at the four and the five. That will put little into a situation where he is being asked to defend NBA-caliber fours in a role that is similar to the one he projects to play in the NBA.

JALEN SMITH, Maryland

There were two plays in the tournament that really stood out for Smith. The first was the murder he committed against Belmont’s Dylan Windler:

The second was the corner three that he buried to tie the game up with LSU in the final seconds:

Smith hasn’t had the most consistent season. He’s shown a good motor on the offensive glass, he’s blocked some shots and we all know he likes to shoot threes, but he’s done all of those things in flashes. These are the kinds of plays that entice NBA scouts with potential Overall, those plays were too few and far between during Smith’s freshman season, but seeing him make them in this moment might be enough to convince him he should leave.

DYLAN WINDLER, Belmont

Windler finally had a blow-up game against one of the high-major teams that Belmont plays. He disappeared against Purdue, UCLA, Murray State in the OVC title game and both matchups with Lipscomb this season. The reason for that is that Windler is essentially built to be a role player, he just has the physical tools to be able to do that in the NBA. He’s 6-foot-7, he’s athletic, he gets to the glass, he can guard, he’s a knockdown shooter that takes shots within the flow of an offense.

All of that stuff would make him a very useful piece in the NBA, and the fact that he is bigger and more athletic than most of the people he faced at Belmont made him really tough to stop. The question was whether or not he could get all that done when the competition stepped up. Against a Maryland team with some bigger wings, he did, popping off for 35 points and seven threes as he lit up Maryland’s defense running off of off-ball screens.

AUBREY DAWKINS, UCF

Aubrey Dawkins will turn 24 years old in May, which is probably the most limiting factor in his potential at the next level. But what is clear right now is that the redshirt junior has NBA athleticism as a two-guard, he stands 6-foot-6 and he just put together the game of his life against one of college basketball’s best defensive teams. He cooked R.J. Barrett as he buried threes, mid-range pullups and finished at the rim.

His decision may depend on where his dad is coaching next season, but I don’t think it’s crazy to say that the younger Dawkins played his way into getting drafted with that game against Duke.

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.