Final Four fans flock to dome in return of open practices

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW ORLEANS — Wearing Duke and North Carolina gear, a family with split loyalties lined up outside the Superdome a little after 9 a.m. Friday, nearly an hour before fans were allowed in the stadium for open practices at the Final Four.

The moment they entered the stadium, 14-year-old Brody Owen, wearing a white Tar Heels jersey, ran ahead into the concourse and down the long staircase of the court-level stands to the first few rows behind the bench, where he saved seats for other family members.

Before long, several thousand fans – many wearing gear from all four semifinal teams, and some in business attire who had strolled over from nearby office towers during lunch – filled the vast lower-level stands behind the benches.

The open practices, which were free and held without attendance restrictions, marked the beginning of full fan participation in Final Four activities for the first time since the 2019 NCAA Tournament – the last before the COVID-19 pandemic.

And this year’s open practices had an added curiosity factor; it was one of the last chances to see Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski – who’ll retire as the NCAA’s all-time leader in victories this season – directing the Blue Devils in person.

The practices didn’t begin until late morning, starting with Villanova, followed by Kansas, North Carolina and finally Duke. But Duke fans Denise and Steve Simpson, their daughter, Stephanie Owen (a UNC fan), and grandchildren Kylee Hartupee and Brody Owen were happy to sit through two practices before the teams they really came to see took the floor.

“We brought our granddaughter for her high school graduation; she’d never seen Coach K because of COVID,” said Denise Simpson, referring to Hartupee, 17, who was wearing a Duke jersey. “We decided this was as good as it was going to get.”

Steve and Denise Simpson are college basketball junkies from St. Louis who’ve long rooted for Missouri, but transformed into ardent Duke supporters when Chris Carrawell, who is also from St. Louis, played for the Blue Devils in the late 1990s.

But Stephanie, who played youth basketball, loved Michael Jordan. Although she was too young to remember his college career, he was the reason she developed an enduring affinity for the Tar Heels.

Her son followed suit, and Stephanie Owen said they were well aware that the Superdome was also the place where Jordan made a game-winning shot in the 1982 NCAA finals “that changed him from Mike to Michael.”

They all came to New Orleans without tickets because they knew that with pandemic restrictions being recently lifted in New Orleans, they’d at least get to see the open practice and check out the Fan Fest in the nearby convention center.

“It’s so fan friendly,” Denise Simpson said. “This is phenomenal. If you can’t get to a game, this is the very next best thing. You get to see them come out and shoot around and just have fun.”

An while they’d been waiting in line, they found tickets for Saturday night’s semifinals. They’ll be sitting together when Duke and UNC clash for the first time in an NCAA Tournament in the second semifinal game.

“I love them,” Denise Simpson said of Stephanie and Brody Owen, “Even if they have bad taste.”

HOMETOWN FAVORITE

Villanova guard Caleb Daniels grew up in New Orleans and is getting a lot of attention – and local support – as he tries to lead the Wildcats to a title in the stadium where his family came for Saints games or Bayou Classic festivities such as the “Battle of the Bands.”

For Daniels’ parents, Roland and Connie, this is a whole new way to enjoy the hulking, downtown stadium that’s been a regular part of their lives.

Now their son will be competing on the elevated court built at the center of 70,000-plus seats ringing the action on three levels.

“He’s on stage where he’s part of what’s going on,” Roland Daniels said after Villanova’s open practice in the dome. “To have everybody from New Orleans to support him. It’s a huge deal.”

Caleb Daniels played at St. Augustine High School, where NFL and former LSU stars Leonard Fournette and Tyrann Mathieu played football.

He started his college career at Tulane before transferring.

Growing up in New Orleans Daniels liked to eat local staples like red beans and rice, seafood gumbo, fried shrimp po’boys dressed and wedding cake-flavored snowballs.

Just not lately.

His parents noted their son is serious now about his goal to keep his body fat close to 5%. So, he hasn’t been eating any of that on this “business trip” home.

“Maybe when he comes back for Easter break, he might treat himself,” Connie Daniels said.

ALL-STAR GAME

Kentucky coach John Calipari was sitting near the sidelines during the college all-star game after attending the award ceremony for AP Player of the Year and Wildcats rebounding leader Oscar Tshiebwe.

Calipari was there to watch Kentucky guard Davion Mintz, who scored seven points for the West Squad that lost 115-103 in the National Association of Basketball Coaches Reese’s Division I All-Star game, held in the Superdome after the four open practices.

High-scorers in the game for the East squad were UConn guard Tyrese Martin with 22 points, Buffalo forward Jeenathan Williams with 18, George Mason forward D’Shawn Schwartz with 15, Richmond forward Grant Golden with 14 and UConn guard R.J. Cole with 13 points.

New Orleans guard Derek St. Hilaire led the West squad with 16 points, Michigan State forward Gabe Brown added 14 points, while West Virginia guard Taz Sherman, Kansas State guard Mark Smith and Cal State Fullerton forward E.J. Anosike each scored 13.

Smith also grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds.

Daniels’ parents were escorted down to the floor for practice and received hugs from Villanova players and coaches.

They said they’ve also been receiving many calls and messages from well-wishers from across the city and especially at Caleb Daniels’ high school, St. Augustine – the same school where NFL and former LSU stars Leonard Fournette and Tyrann Mathieu played football.

They’ve even heard from old acquaintances at Tulane, where Daniels played under former coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. before transferring.

“They’re excited for him,” Connie Daniels said. “The fan base was sorry to lose him, but they were still cheering for him.”

When Daniels was growing up in New Orleans, he liked to eat local staples like red beans and rice, seafood gumbo, fried shrimp po’boys dressed with hot sauce from Parran’s (a French Creole word for ‘godfather”), and snowballs, made of fine shaved ice infused with sweet liquid flavors, but softer and smoother than the snow cones found in much of America. He would get the wedding cake flavor with vanilla soft serve ice cream mixed in.

His parents noted, however, that Daniels is very serious now about his goal to keep his body fat close to 5%. So, he hasn’t been eating any of that on this “business trip” to his hometown.

“Maybe when he comes back for Easter break, he might treat himself,” Connie Daniels said.

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

Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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.