Mid-Majors that will crash the dance in March

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It’s always fun to root for the little guy.

When March Madness rolls around next spring, there will be a number of conferences with one bid to cheer for against bigger, power conference opponents. What makes this year’s mid-major crop particularly intriguing is the number of returning NCAA tournament teams who have almost full teams coming back.

In an era where smaller schools are getting hit harder with transfers each offseason, seeing NCAA tournament teams like Liberty, Vermont, New Mexico State, Colgate and North Dakota State stay together should be a fun storyline to follow as they are some of a handful of mid-major teams to keep tabs on this season.

A programming note: We did not include schools from the Atlantic 10 or the Mountain West while Saint Mary’s and BYU were left off the list as well. It’s not that those programs aren’t good or worth talking about, but at this point I think we all know schools like VCU and Utah State are going to be pretty good. 



LIBERTY (Atlantic Sun)

Making the Round of 32 and knocking out Mississippi State last season, Liberty has another chance to do damage in the NCAA tournament with four returning starters. Two fifth-year seniors have a chance to earn Atlantic Sun Player of the Year honors as wing Caleb Homesley and forward Scottie James are standout players. Homesley lit up the Bulldogs for 30 in the first-round NCAA upset while James is a three-year starter and double-double threat. Senior guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz and junior guard Elijah Cuffee both started every game and logged heavy minutes for a 29-win team last season as the Flames have a ton of returning talent and experience. With six neutral site games and road games at Vanderbilt and LSU, Liberty will also test themselves in non-conference play.

VERMONT (America East)

Putting a scare into Florida State in the first round last season, Vermont could easily win multiple games in the NCAA tournament with many key players returning. Once America East Player of the Year Anthony Lamb pulled his name out of the NBA Draft the senior became the league’s best returning player. The last three years, the Catamounts are a ridiculous 45-3 in the America East with 83 overall wins. This could be the season they finally break through. Lamb will have significant help on the interior with grad transfer big man Daniel Giddens. The former four-star recruit spent time at Ohio State and Alabama and adds instant experience and credibility inside that the Catamounts lacked.

Junior Stef Smith is another returning double-figure scorer to keep tabs on, and, of course, there are two more Duncans still at Vermont after Ernie Duncan moved on from a prolific four-year career. Robin Duncan was an All-Rookie Team selection in the conference while Everett Duncan is a noted floor spacer with some starts in his career. Vermont has early road tests at St. Bonaventure, St. John’s, Virginia, Yale and Cincinnati.

NEW MEXICO STATE (WAC)

Before Auburn made a surprising Final Four run last season they were nearly ousted by the Aggies in the first round in a one-point game. Although New Mexico State loses experienced rebounding ace Eli Chuha from that group, they return 10 of their 13 rotation players — including eight seniors. A deep and balanced team coming off of a 30-win season, New Mexico State has continued to dominate the WAC under head coach Chris Jans. Terrell Brown and AJ Harris are the top scorers to return as they form a great backcourt along with productive forward Ivan Aurrecoechea and WAC Tournament MVP Trevelin Queen. With a top 40 offense on KenPom, this group gets it done a number of different ways on offense while wearing you down with the deepest rotation in the country (per KenPom) last season.

HARVARD (Ivy)

The Ivy League’s most experienced team combines the conference’s top recruiting class to form a very dangerous team. The Crimson have two Ivy Player of the Year candidates in point guard Bryce Aiken and forward Seth Towns — who missed all of last season due to injury. Aiken is capable of scoring outbursts on any night while having Towns back will be huge for Harvard’s frontcourt. Even without Towns playing last season, Harvard managed an NIT appearance and win over Georgetown. Now, all five starters from last season, Towns and a recruiting class led by four-star forward Chris Ledlum have their sights set on an Ivy title and possibly more. Head coach Tommy Amaker has had plenty of talented teams at Harvard but this group will have some of the highest expectations in recent years.

COLGATE (Patriot)

For only the third time in program history, Colgate made the NCAA tournament last season. Expectations are sky high this season after the Raiders gave Tennessee a solid game in the first round with four starters coming back. Patriot League Player of the Year Rapolas Ivanauskas returns as the solid-shooting forward is skilled and capable of big games. Dynamic point guard Jordan Burns is also back as he can get hot from the perimeter while also being a very good distributor. Senior forward Will Rayman also returns along with reigning Patriot Rookie of the Year Tucker Richardson at guard. The Raiders have star power from multiple spots and veteran shot makers at multiple positions. If Colgate plugs its hole from center and finds some bench pop they could roll through the Patriot once again.

WESTERN KENTUCKY (Conference USA)

Rick Stansbury could finally have the talent to take Western Kentucky back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013. With the return of potential All-American big man Charles Bassey, the Hilltoppers have four starters back as Taveion Hollingsworth, Josh Anderson and Jared Savage are three double-figure scorers around Bassey. Perimeter shooting, a major weakness for Western Kentucky a season ago, should also be improved with the addition of IUPUI transfer Camron Justice. Replacing Lamonte Bearden at point guard will be key to the Hilltoppers’ ceiling. If Lipscomb transfer Kenny Cooper is cleared right away by the NCAA then he’d help a ton while talented four-star freshman Jordan Rawls could also be called on. After falling in the Conference USA Tournament title game in back-to-back seasons, this could be the Western Kentucky team that makes a run.

NORTH DAKOTA STATE (Summit)

Winning a First Four battle against NC Central before losing to Duke in the NCAA tournament, the Bison return all five starters and most of a deep rotation from a 19-win team. A team that is designed to space the floor at multiple spots and limit turnovers, North Dakota State doesn’t have any individual star but they should be one of the deepest mid-major teams in the country. Senior guards Vinnie Shahid and Tyson Ward are the team’s leading scorers while vital role players return throughout the roster. As long as the Bison are knocking down three-pointers and improve on their No. 292 KenPom defense from last season and they’ll be in good position to make it back to the Dance.

EAST TENNESSEE STATE (SoCon)

Coming off of a 24-win campaign, the Bucs have six key players coming back as the return of double-double forward Jeromy Rodriguez was huge. A program that has averaged 25 wins per season in four years under head coach Steve Forbes, East Tennessee State has two very strong shooters in elite bench scorer Tray Boyd III and junior guard Patrick Good. All-conference guard Bo Hodges is also back for the Bucs along with emerging sophomore guard Daivien Williamson. For a program that is consistently competing for the the postseason, this could be the most talented team Forbes has had during his time with the Bucs.

BUFFALO (MAC)

Head coach Nate Oats (Alabama) and five seniors moved on from the Bulls but there is still plenty of talent back for a program looking to make the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in six seasons. Veteran coach Jim Whitesell takes over after four years as an Oats assistant. The former Loyola coach has returning talent at his disposal. Two starting guards return in junior Jayvon Graves and senior Davonta Jordan as they form a strong defensive backcourt who should score more. Sophomores Jeenathan Williams and Ronaldo Segu are also expected to contribute more with Williams being a potential breakout star. Transfers will also help as wing Gabe Grant (Houston) and guard Antwain Johnson (Middle Tennessee) are both eligible after sitting out last season. New pieces have to fit together under a new coach but Oats didn’t leave the roster bare when he left for the SEC. There is still plenty of talent for Buffalo to have another strong season.

BRADLEY (MVC)

Surprisingly winning the Missouri Valley tournament and giving Final Four team Michigan State a tough first-round matchup, the Braves return their three top scorers. Senior guard and first-team All-Valley guard Darrell Brown has nearly 100 starts under his belt as he’s a tough-minded two-way leader. Junior forward Elijah Childs, a third-team all-conference player, also showed flurries of elite play in becoming one of the league’s most improved players last season. And senior sharpshooter Nate Kennel can knock down shots from nearly anywhere on the floor. The Braves lose three vital senior glue guys but figure to replace those minutes with emerging sophomore Ja’Shon Henry and two bigs in Koch Bar and Ari Boya. LSU transfer guard Danya Kingsby is also a potential perimeter option to run alongside Brown.

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.