College Basketball’s Breakout Stars: Who will be this year’s most improved players?

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One of my favorite things to do heading into a season is to put together a list of the season’s Breakout Stars. 

Sometimes, the picks are just too obvious – think De’Andre Hunter, or P.J. Washington, or Nickeil Alexander-Walker. 

Sometimes, those obvious picks just don’t pan out – like Herb Jones, or M.J. Walker, or Cane Broome.

Sometimes, a guy needs to be on the list for a couple years before he actually reaches said breakout – hi Jermaine Samuels!

Some people have strictly-defined parameters for putting together a list like this. I do not, beyond the basic principle that the player will be going from playing a role to being a star, whether that means he was a starter that will become an all-american or a bit-player slated to be a key cog on a potential Final Four team matters not.

Anyway, here are the 17 players that will be household names by the end of the year:



JERMAINE SAMUELS, Villanova

There’s an argument to make that Samuels’ breakout already happened.

It happened on February 28th of last season. Samuels popped off for a career-high 29 points, hitting five threes, as Villanova snapped a three-game losing streak by knocking off Marquette at home. During that three-game losing streak, Samuels had gone scoreless while attempting just two shots. Over the final seven games of the season, he averaged 11.0 points, cracked double-figures five times and helped lead the Wildcats to their fifth Big East regular season title and fourth Big East tournament title in the last six years.

And now the Wildcats are entering a season without Phil Booth and Eric Paschall to carry the offense while Bryan Antoine, their five-star freshman guard, is out with a shoulder injury. Someone needs to provide Villanova with some scoring. Samuels is a former top 40 recruit that picked Villanova over Duke and Kansas, that has proven the ability to put up big numbers and is a perfect fit for what Villanova’s offense has been over the course of the last half-decade. He’s a junior now. This is the year that players make the leap on the Main Line, and I’ll be ready for it.

ANDREW NEMBHARD, Florida

Everyone wants to talk about Kerry Blackshear and what his arrival will mean for Florida. What people seem to be forgetting is that Andrew Nembhard is a former five-star recruits that averaged 8.0 points and 5.4 assists as a freshman for the Gators and will be helping to fill the “role” vacated by uber-inefficient gunners Jalen Hudson and Kevaughn Allen. I think Blackshear ends up being the best player on the Gators this season, but Nembhard may end up being their MVP and their leader. On a team that projects to finish in the top ten and contend for SEC titles and the Final Four, that’s going to put him in the All-American conversation. That, to me, counts as a breakout star.

TRE JONES, Duke

This all hinges on what Jones becomes as a shooter this season. We’ve talked about this ad nauseum. I put together an entire video about it. Jones may just be the most influential player in all of college basketball this season.

TYRESE HALIBURTON, Iowa State

I’m torn about having Haliburton on this list because I’m not exactly sure how much better he can play than he did over the first three months of last season. That said, Iowa State is going to be one of the better teams in the Big 12 this season, and after a terrific performance playing for Team USA in the U-19 World Cup, Haliburton returns to Ames to play for an Iowa State team that lost pretty much everyone in front of him in the offensive pecking order.

The thing to note here is that I am not expecting Haliburton to suddenly become a guy that averages 18 points. That’s not who he is or how he plays. But I do think that there is a chance that he puts up a stat line that is somewhere around 12 points, six boards, six assists and two steals while shooting better than 40 percent from three. Put another way, we’re going to know that he is a star without having to look at the counting numbers to confirm it.

JAY HUFF, Virginia

We have talked plenty about Jay Huff and Virginia’s big guys in this space, but I think that he is in line for a massive jump this season. On the one hand, he’s actually going to be playing. Huff was in the same recruiting class as Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy. He redshirted his first year in Charlottesville, he played just twelve games as a freshman and managed to see the floor for roughly 10 minutes a night last year. With so much of Virginia’s frontcourt depth gone, he is going to be getting 30-35 minutes a night this year.

But as we talked about in the video below, it’s not just the added minutes that changes things. It’s how good Huff is as the big guy in ball-screen actions and the fact that Virginia ran a more ball-screen heavy offense last season. Huff is a 7-foot-1 rim-running, lob-catching, shot-blocking menace that also shoots threes at a 45 percent clip while being able to put the ball on the floor. He’s going to have a massive year.

ISAIAH LIVERS, Michigan

With Iggy Brazdeikis gone after his one-and-done season, Livers is going to be the guy that steps up for the Wolverines. A hyper-athletic, 6-foot-7 combo-forward, Livers is a good, versatile defensive weapon that shot 42.6 percent from three last year. Someone is going to have to step up and fill the scoring void that has been vacated by the departures, and Livers seems to be the obvious fit. I would not be shocked to see Livers showing up in NBA mock drafts at some point during this season.

DEJON JARREAU, Houston

This one is simple, really. Jarreau played just 18 minutes per game last season and still managed to put up 8.7 points and 3.3 assists despite sharing the backcourt with the likes of Corey Davis, Armoni Brooks and Galen Robinson. This year, those three are gone, which means that Jarreau is going to be the guy that the offense runs through. I think that he is up for the task, and considering Kelvin Sampson’s track record of finding a way to figure things out with his lead guards, all the dots connect.

NOJEL EASTERN, Purdue

Matt Painter has been as good as anyone in the country at finding ways to get his best players into positions where they can succeed, and I think that this year is the year that he figures out how to take advantage of the things that Eastern does well. He’s a skilled passer that has terrific size at the point and has proven the ability to take smaller guards into the post. I think that Aaron Wheeler and Trevion Williams are candidates for this list as well, but I tend to lean towards the veterans when it comes to Painter working his magic.

OCHAI AGBAJI, Kansas

This pick is not actually as easy as it may seem, and that’s because Agbaji’s emergence last season came after Udoka Azubuike went down with his wrist injury. So while Kansas is losing Dedric Lawson, among other, Azubuike is coming back and is going to demand a very large market share of the Jayhawks offense. Throw in Devon Dotson’s continued development, and the added opportunities for Agbaji may not be there. That said, I think that he is clearly the most talented perimeter player on the Jayhawks roster this season, and given his size, athleticism and ability from the perimeter, I think there is a real chance that he ends up playing major minutes as the four in this Kansas system.

Put another way, he’s definitely going to be better than he was when his redshirt was pulled midway through his first season in Lawrence, and he is definitely going to be a useful weapon for Bill Self, I just don’t see him emerging as a guy that scores 15 points per game.

COREY KISPERT and FILIP PETRUSEV, Gonzaga

These decisions somewhat hinge on whether or not Killian Tillie is back and fully healthy this season. If he is, then I think that Kispert is the guy that takes the biggest step forward for the Zags. He’s an underrated talent that has been hidden by the likes of Zach Norvell and Rui Hachimura, but he’s a guy that has the potential to be an all-WCC performer if given the opportunity. If Tillie ends up being banged up all season long, than Petrusev is the obvious pick. He’s a really talented big that will carry even more of the load without Tillie’s presence.

REGGIE PERRY, Mississippi State

After getting off to a relatively slow start to his freshman season, Perry was absolutely dominant for long stretches of SEC play. He averaged 11.2 points and 8.2 boards during conference play, posting eight double-doubles. After an offseason to develop, he should end up being the focal point of Ben Howland’s offense as a sophomore.

KIRA LEWIS, Alabama

The way that Nate Oats played at Buffalo, he gave his lead guards quite a bit of responsibility. Lewis is going to be his lead guard this season. As a 17-year old in the SEC, he averaged 13.5 points and 2.9 assists. He’s heading into his sophomore season at the same age as the kids in the Class of 2019 heading into their freshmen year.

JOE WIESKAMP, Iowa

As a freshman, Wieskamp was one of the best shooters in the Big Ten, averaging 11.1 points and shooting 42.4 percent from three. Then Iowa lost Tyler Cook to the draft and lost Isaiah Moss to transfer and look like they may have lost Jordan Bohannon for the season. Someone is going to have to score, and Wieskamp is certainly capable of that.

OSUN OSUNNIYI, St. Bonaventure

Osunniyi was one of the best defensive players in all of college basketball last season, averaging 2.7 blocks to go along with his 7.5 points and 7.6 boards. With three of the Bonnies’ top four scorers graduating, he is going to be asked to play a much bigger role this season.

NATE REUVERS, Wisconsin

There is always someone waiting in the wings in Wisconsin’s frontcourt, and this year it is Nate Reuvers. As a sophomore, playing on a team that ran their offense through Ethan Happ, Reuvers averaged 7.9 points, 3.9 boards and 1.8 blocks while shooting 38.1 percent from three. If the Badgers are going to get back to the NCAA tournament, they are going to need Reuvers to have a monster junior season.

JALEN HILL, UCLA

Hill is a bit of a reach, but someone is going to have to step up and be Mick Cronin’s frontcourt anchor, and Hill makes sense. He’s long and athletic, he can rebound and he can block shots, he can do all of the things that Cronin got out of his big men for the last 13 years in Cincinnati. There is more talent in Westwood than people realize. Hill is the perfect example of that.

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.