Pitino back in the NCAA Tournament with MAAC champs Iona

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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Rick Pitino ended an Iona team photo, a championship trophy as the centerpiece, by pointing toward a ladder and telling the Gaels to clip the nets.

He knows the way.

From coaching perennial powers to exile to the New York suburbs, Pitino has navigated a vagabond career bathed in scandal and success the only way he can: by winning.

Asante Gist scored 18 points and Pitino took his record-tying fifth school to the NCAA Tournament with Iona’s 60-51 victory over Fairfield on Saturday in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament championship.

Next stop, the all-Indiana NCAA Tournament.

“I told them I was packing eight suits,” Pitino said. “We have a lot of dirty laundry, and we’re heading to Indianapolis.”

The 68-year-old Pitino was already the first coach to win national titles at two schools (Kentucky, Louisville) and the first to take three schools (Providence) to the Final Four. He led Boston University to the tournament in 1983.

Pitino was hired at Iona (12-5) last March to – yes, to keep the Gaels among the perennial favorites to come out of the MAAC in March – but in large part to rehabilitate his image after an ignominious end at Louisville.

Pitino had a trying first season trying to orchestrate a tourney bid through a pandemic. He contracted coronavirus and the Gaels were forced to stop four times this season because of virus issues – including a 51-day hiatus that sidelined them longer than any team in the country.

Led by the backcourt of Gist and Isaiah Ross, the ninth-seeded Gaels used a 10-0 run to close the first half at Boardwalk Hall. Ross made the postgame walk through the empty seats and kissed his 10-month-old daughter, Averie.

Pitino, his mask on his chin all game, shuffled side-to-side as if in a perpetual defensive drill, yelled instruction, harangued the officials and somehow in the roll of papers he gripped all game had the formula that showed why in stops ranging from Kentucky to New Rochelle, New York, he landed in the Hall of Fame. Well-traveled – with baggage.

“We’ve been the No. 1 of No. 1 overall seeds, but with the treatment by the NCAA of me, we might get an 18 seed,” Pitino said.

Caleb Green buried a 3 for the Stags (10-17) that brought them to 20-18 in the first half before they faded over the final four minutes. Gist hit consecutive jumpers to kickstart the run and send the Gaels into the half with a 30-18 lead.

The championship game sprinkled mostly family and friends inside the boardwalk venue to liven the atmosphere and there was a nice round of applause when Gist needed help to the bench with an apparent knee injury. With Gist out, Fairfield’s Jake Wojcik made a 3 in the second half that made it a four-point game. Gist’s absence was short-lived and he hit a 3 in his return to send the Gaels on their way to their fifth straight NCAA Tournament.

“I don’t think everybody knows what it’s like when we take that pause,” Gist said of the start-and-stop challenges.

Pitino took over a program used to playing in March. Iona had completed a good run under Tim Cluess, who made six NCAA Tournament appearances and won five MAAC Tournament titles in nine seasons before stepping down for health reasons, when it hired Pitino. Pitino gave a postgame shoutout to Cluess.

Iona, an eight-point favorite, didn’t necessarily need Pitino. Pitino had coached at Louisville from 2001-17 before being fired in a pay-for-play scandal and had been coaching in Greece.

“Louisville is a great program. Unfortunately, some people in life did some things wrong and a lot of innocent people have suffered,” Pitino said. “Not only me, but a lot of innocent people that are behind the program and that’s disappointing. But I’m the leader of this ship. I said it over and over. I deserved to be fired because if somebody under me did the wrong things, I deserve it.”

Iona President Seamus Carey, who met with Pitino in Spain, and athletic director Matt Glovaski ignored the sex scandals and FBI investigations at Louisville and got their man.

“They’ve benefited from having him in the league and we’ve benefited from the PR,” MAAC Commissioner Rich Ensor said. “Now, there was some controversy, but that was a hiring decision. Once they’re hired, I work with whoever’s there.”

Pitino said he intended to finish his career at Iona, calling it “a great way to end a very long career.” But there’s little doubt the majors will call him again, and that vow of a final stop could instead be simply a stepping-stone toward the next job.

Iona is a school where coaches usually start their careers, not end them.

The Gaels only cared about the final snapshot – Pitino waving the net and draping it around his neck, one more for the championship collection.

BIG PICTURE

Iona: Pitino joined Lon Kruger and Tubby Smith as the only coaches to take five programs to the NCAA Tournament. Ensor credited Pitino for the inspiration behind the MAAC’s “Time Out for Black Lives” reading program that focused on Black culture. Pitino selected “A Nation’s Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis.”

“For the young coaches that we typically have in our league, he provides a learning experience they would rarely get,” Ensor said. “Rick come to us at the pinnacle of his career. He’s had all the accolades. Now you have all these coaches with the opportunity to watch him. Sometimes I wish they wouldn’t watch him in action. He can be kind of animated on the sidelines and can work the officials like a Hall of Famer.”

Fairfield: The seventh-seeded Stags defeated Manhattan, Monmouth and Saint Peter’s to reach the final.

“If we keep doing what we’re doing, showing up every day putting the work in, we’ll be back in this game with a different result,” coach Jay Young said.

BACK AT BOARDWALK

The MAAC has one more year left on its contract to play in Atlantic City and Ensor hoped the conference will remain in New Jersey. Ensor said even in a pandemic the conference met its commitment in hotel rooms.

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.