Scouting Final Four teams: How to beat Auburn

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NBC Sports spoke with a dozen coaches in the last two days to put together a scouting report for each of the teams in the Final Four. 

The coaches were granted anonymity in exchange for honesty. 

We started with Virginia. Up next, we have Auburn.

‘THEY WANT TO HOOP’

There may not be a team in the country that looks like they are playing a sloppier brand of basketball than Auburn, but that’s their wheelhouse. They practice that. They want to ugly-it-up because they know they can survive playing that way. 

“Auburn wants to run, defense into offense. We picked our spots with them, and we felt like we could go in transition, but off makes or if it got ragged, slow it down. F— with them. The more it’s like a pickup game for Auburn, the better it is. They thrive in that. Their kids, they just want to hoop.”

“There are three keys to beating Auburn: 1. No live-ball turnovers. 2. Defensive rebound, send four to the glass. 3. Guard the three point guard. The dilemma for us, we’re a good offensive rebounding team. We didn’t send two back all year long, that’s what we do. We take the risk crashing the glass, it was good for us.”

“For the first time all year, we sent two back. That’s because of the respect we had for them spraying that thing shooting it so well. [Jared] Harper and [Bryce] Brown, it’s buddy ball. [Harper] looks for [Brown] every time, and [Brown] is so dangerous catching and shooting in transition.”

“The transition game is lethal. They have multiple guys that can lead the break. Harper, Brown, [Samir] Daughty, [J’Von] McCormick all can lead the break. Anytime you don’t have to rely on one guy to lead the break that’s difficult to defend. They all can pull up in transition, and they are a really good one-pass-into-a-three team in transition.”

“Whoever is guarding Brown, he always needs to get back. Finding him is a big deal, whoever is guarding him, find him as quick as he can. You need to shadow him in transition, because it’s hard to put a shadow on the ball-handler with them because you don’t know who it’s going to be.”

“The key is that you must do is try and meet them early. When they get to halfcourt, be there. Get them to stop their momentum. If you’re just sitting back at the three point line, they’re going to put it on you, driving and forcing one guy to help and start moving it around.”

“They’re so dangerous because they create rotations when there is no rotation to be had. Between McCormick and Harper, they just feel the slightest sense of a defender helping. They know where to make passes, and they’re pinpoint passes, and they get the defense spinning. Once the defense is spinning, boom, boom, they get a three, then it’s a turnover and suddenly they’re on a run and you’re dead.”

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THE ULTIMATE GREEN LIGHT

Part of the reason that Pearl is able to get his guys to play as hard as they do is that they don’t get chewed out for taking bad shots or missing shots.

“Their players play with a great amount of confidence to be able to shoot it. Bruce [Pearl] doesn’t believe in bad shots. Every time they shoot he wants them to feel like they’re going in. He really encourages his guys to shoot, shoot, shoot. Even bad shots, there’s no hesitation, just fire. That puts a great amount of stress on the defense.”

“Anytime there are four or five guys that can shoot, it’s hard to defend. Even Horace Spencer. He’s a non-shooter and he’s shooting threes. At any point, they have five guys that will play with a heavy green-light to shoot the three-ball, and that’s just hard to defend.”

“They’re just so explosive, and they feed off of that energy.”

THE PRESS IS UNIQUE

Auburn actually leads the nation in defensive turnover percentage and steal percentage, and since they press, in your head you’re probably picturing Shaka Smart’s ‘Havoc’ or Bob Huggins’ ‘Press Virginia’, but that’s not what Auburn does.

“They’re known for turning you over, but when you break down the film, I’ve never seen anything like it. The press is a token press. Low risk, high reward. It drains the shot clock, it controls tempo, it gives a different look, but they’re just trying to capitalize on silly mistakes. Don’t be dumb, be organized and you’re fine.”

“But they are so quick, so athletic and have a unique ability to deny quite a few passes in the halfcourt. They can really deny and push you out. Then when the ball is dribbled, they have such quick hands. They scrape the ball when people drive, they really get into those driving lanes and you know they’re going to rake at it.”

“This is when they’re the best in transition. Off turnovers. They’re good off misses, they run off makes, they control tempo because they know when to push, they have multiple handlers, anyone can take the ball out. But when they turn you over? That’s when they make you pay.”

“They do a great job of switching, of playing with active hands and of post defense. They’re not huge, but they do a really good job of keeping posts out of the paint. There was a clip late in the Kentucky game, [Horace] Spencer was fronting P.J. [Washington] and they called a foul on Auburn, but P.J. was posting two-feet inside the three-point line. That’s how far out they push you.”

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LOSING OKEKE IS ENORMOUS

Chuma Okeke tore his ACL late in Auburn’s Sweet 16 win over North Carolina.

“Harper and Brown, that’s as good of a backcourt as you’re going to find in the country, but Okeke is their best player. He is extremely talented and a dominant player. Inside, outside, he was dominating games down the stretch of the season. He could run isos at the elbow. He could play on the wing. He could play in the post.”

“Teams inevitably have to think about switching vs. Auburn because of how they shoot, and Okeke could take advantage of that with post sets. Bruce runs flex motion, and they have plays to get Okeke the ball in the post, and they don’t get that with [Danjel] Purifoy or [Malik] Dunbar. [Austin] Wiley softens the blow a bit inside, but he’s a different player, and you aren’t switching with him or Spencer. [Anfernee] McLemore, he ain’t the same.”

“If I’m playing right now, I’m making Purifoy and Dunbar and McLemore beat me. I’m throwing everything at Harper and Brown and making it as tough as possible with those guys. They’re so cool. Harper is never, ever going to get rattled. He doesn’t have a weakness. He can shoot it, drive both directions, handsy defender. And Brown is such a momentum guy, he’s dancing with the ball and if he makes a couple, you’re dead. They can still beat anyone if they get it going.”

“But now you can focus more on Brown and Harper. Maybe you can take one of them away, face-guarding or whatever. Not as easy to do that when Okeke is out there. The other guys – Dunbar, Doughty, Purifoy – we were begging them to shoot a bunch of threes instead of the guards.”

THE BEST MATCHUP IS? AND THE WORST MATCHUP IS?

“Virginia is the worst. I have so much respect for how Tony plays. I know Texas Tech’s numbers are off the chart defensively, but UVA is so systematic. They’re not going to get wild, they stay true to who they are, to themselves more than anyone will.”

“The thing about Auburn is they make you matchup with them. And they’re so explosive they can beat anyone.”

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.