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Alabama’s ongoing Brandon Miller saga, Fran McCaffery’s bad look and more

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Alabama’s ongoing Brandon Miller saga, Fran McCaffery’s bad look and more thumbnail

Jamea Jonae Harris should be dropping her son off at school this morning. She should be going to work, having lunch with friends, making plans for the future. That is not happening, because early on the morning of Jan. 15, Harris was shot and killed inside a vehicle after what police called “a minor altercation” near the University of Alabama campus. So first and foremost, let us never lose sight of the real victim.

In the wake of this tragedy, Alabama must manage a matter that would be difficult even under normal circumstances. That its men’s basketball team is in the midst of a historic season has magnified every development and amplified every misjudgment — and there have been many. In less than two weeks, Alabama will likely be installed as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. That would be an amazing accomplishment, but Alabama will pursue a national championship under a dark cloud.

Alabama junior reserve forward Darius Miles, 21, was charged with capital murder for allegedly giving his gun to his friend, Michael Davis, 20, who allegedly used it to kill Harris, 23. We now know, via police testimony, that two other Alabama players, freshmen Brandon Miller and Jaden Bradley, were present that night, and that Miller drove the car that brought Miles’ gun to the scene. While Miles was dismissed from the team and university the day of his arrest, Alabama has had multiple opportunities to suspend the other players but chose not to. In my view, this was the wrong call, but make no mistake: Whatever decision Alabama made, the school would be criticized. If it suspended the players for a couple of games, as many have called for, then whenever the players got back on the court, a similar firestorm would ensue.

It would be nice if we could just “stick to hoops,” but this is an important conversation, and we need to have it. I would just caution two things. First, let’s be sure to stick with the facts as we know them. Second, we should acknowledge that this is a complicated situation, and that on certain questions reasonable minds can differ.

According to police testimony, Miller was driving his car the night that Harris was killed. Bradley and Miles were passengers, and Miles brought a gun into the vehicle. When they arrived at the Twelve25 Sports Bar in downtown Tuscaloosa, Bradley and Miles went inside, but Miller did not because the line was too long, police say. Later in the evening, Miller went to pick up Miles, who allegedly retrieved his gun from the backseat and gave it to the man who killed Harris.

Alabama knew right away that Miller and Bradley were at the scene. The public did not. Alabama officials understood it was only a matter of time before the public learned this fact, according to a university official briefed on the matter but not authorized to speak publicly, but they did not release the information because, they say, they believed that was law enforcement’s decision to make. This was a mistake, in my view, but it is not an indefensible position. Even if Alabama had tried to suspend the players at the outset with a vague explanation like “violation of team rules,” it likely would have been a matter of hours until the real reason would have been revealed, which might not have been what law enforcement wanted at that point.

This leads to another important fact: Alabama has not conducted any investigation of its own, according to the official. School officials have not interviewed Miller or Bradley about what happened. They are not trying to gather any information. This is entirely proper. If the school did these things, they would be rightly denounced for interfering with a murder investigation.

Instead, Alabama has acted on whatever information law enforcement has provided. And from the very beginning, law enforcement has told Alabama that Miller and Bradley were not suspects. They were characterized as cooperating witnesses. So it is not fair to criticize Alabama for not sitting the players during the investigation, because as far as the players are concerned, the investigation is over.

The public finally learned of Miller and Bradley’s involvement Tuesday during a preliminary hearing. That proceeding also revealed something Alabama did not know, according to Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne — that at 1:40 a.m., Miles sent Miller a text message that read “I need my joint.” Prosecutors said the word “joint” referred to Miles’ gun. A few minutes after Miles sent that text, Miller and the gun showed up outside Twelve25.

Coming a day before Alabama’s game at South Carolina, the revelation sent the school scrambling as it sought to learn more context. Whether through information from law enforcement or Miller’s attorney or both, Alabama officials learned enough to decide that Miller could continue to play.

On Wednesday, Miller’s lawyer, Jim Standridge, said in a statement that Miller “never touched the gun” and “never knew that illegal activity involving the gun would occur.”

Did Miller read the text message? Did he send a reply? Did he understand what Miles meant? Did he comprehend what was happening? Or was he simply on his way to pick up Miles and head back to campus? We don’t know those answers. What we do know is that if law enforcement had any reason to believe that Miller delivered the weapon with the knowledge of what it was going to be used for, then he would be the subject of a criminal investigation. He is not.

Should Alabama have sat Miller on Wednesday in light of the new information? Again, I think it should have. But I acknowledge that doing so would have assigned Miller an appearance of guilt that law enforcement has said he should not have. Would that have been fair to Miller? What about his rights?

Given the bombshell revelation of Tuesday’s hearing, it is unfathomable that no one at Alabama informed coach Nate Oats before he spoke to the media after practice to let him know what happened and how he should respond. He responded extremely poorly, saying Miller was in “the wrong spot at the wrong time.” It didn’t just make Oats look bad, it caused even more pain for Harris’ family. Oats apologized later, but as is often the case, the initial words have a lot more traction than the apology. The gross misstep also fed the narrative that Alabama has been not just irresponsible in addressing this matter, but downright callous. So when Miller participates in a pregame ritual, which he has done all season and did again on Saturday, where a teammate mimics a pat-down, it pours more gasoline on an already blazing inferno.

Oats’ poorly chosen words underscored why coaches should not have any role in gathering information or making decisions in these situations. That should be handled at the highest levels of the university, which in this case includes Alabama president Stuart Bell and the school’s legal counsel. If people want to criticize Alabama for continuing to play Miller and/or Bradley in light of all these facts, have at it. But it is not Oats’ call, nor should it be.

This is what happens when an institution confronts a difficult situation and makes it worse through carelessness and lack of foresight. So, yeah, it’s uncomfortable to talk about, but it’s important, too, because of the tragedy that lies at the center of it all. As much as Alabama might want this story to go away, it will linger for as long as this team is playing. And the way the Crimson Tide is playing, that could be for a long while.

Other Hoop Thoughts

• I spoke with Gonzaga senior forward Drew Timme shortly after the Zags’ win over Saint Mary’s Saturday night. Because of the extra year the NCAA gave all college athletes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Timme can play a fifth season at Gonzaga next year if he wants to. He has said over the last few weeks that he does not, but I thought he might be wavering after the excitement of the win. No dice.

“I’ve done my four years,” Timme told me. “I’m a senior, and I’m moving on.”

Drew Timme insists this is his last ride with Gonzaga. (James Snook / USA Today)

Timme maintained that position even when I raised the prospect of the NIL money he could make by coming back. I asked him if there was a number that could make him change his mind. “Hmmm,” he paused. “Why don’t we say $100 million?” That aside, Timme acknowledged to me that he and his teammates have heard all the chatter that this Zags team is not quite as good as the most recent editions. He didn’t even argue with that premise. “We’re not the 2017 team or the 2021 team, but we keep fighting and clawing because we know that’s what it’s gonna take,” he said.

I mentioned to Timme that his team seems to be motivated by anger, both in eviscerating Loyola Marymount after the Lions ended Gonzaga’s homecourt win streak, and by dominating the Gaels after they beat the Zags in overtime in Spokane. “You’re right, but we’ve got to get that consistency back,” he said. “Tonight was huge, and now we need to hold onto that and carry it forward.”

As our chat ended, I asked Timme what he planned to do to celebrate the big win. “I don’t know if I can tell you in an interview,” he replied, “but I’m gonna have a good time.”

Man, I’m going miss that guy.

• To no one’s surprise, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery went viral again over the weekend for his behavior toward a referee. In this case, it wasn’t the way McCaffery argued a call, it was the menacing staredown he deployed towards Kelly Pfeifer, a Big Ten official. Pfeifer had just whistled McCaffery for a technical towards the end of a very tense home game against Michigan State. I’m not sure why Pfeifer didn’t give McCaffrey a second T, which would have warranted an automatic ejection, but he should have. As such, I hope the Big Ten office fines or reprimands McCaffery for what he did. This wasn’t just arguing a call, this was an act of intimidation, and it clearly crossed the line of acceptability.

This Fran McCaffery stare-down 💀 pic.twitter.com/BX5x7jBOv3

— CBS Sports College Basketball 🏀 (@CBSSportsCBB) February 25, 2023

Look, I like McCaffery. He’s a heck of a basketball coach, as evidenced by the Hawkeyes’ incredible comeback win. And as Iowa fans love to point out, McCaffery is far from the only coach who engages in egregious behavior towards referees. Which is exactly the problem. The behavior from college basketball coaches towards referees has been too awful for too long. NBA coaches don’t act this way. A huge part of the problem is that coaches have a lot of sway with league supervisors as to who gets assigned games, so refs understandably feel that their ability to garner plum assigments is dependent on currying favor the coaches. So all but a few are reluctant to take appropriate action when the coaches get out of hand.

My hope, then, is that when the NCAA men’s basketball rules committee gathers for its annual summer meeting, it issues a very clear point of emphasis that instructs referees to be a lot quicker when it comes to calling technical fouls on coaches. When coaches wanted the hook-and-hold move taken out of the game, the committee made it a flagrant foul, and now we hardly ever see it anymore. There’s a place for a dialogue between coaches and officials, and I understand that things can get a little heated. But this has gone on for too long, and it needs to stop.

• The great “Foul Up Three” debate took center stage yet again on Sunday afternoon, when Wisconsin neglected to foul Michigan on two late-game possessions in their game in Ann Arbor. The tactic backfired when Wolverines center Hunter Dickinson drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the game in overtime, where Michigan prevailed 87-79.

WE’RE GOING TO OVERTIME. pic.twitter.com/Lvqq1Bd7WI

— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) February 26, 2023

As most of you know, I have long been a huge proponent of fouling up three in these situations. So is Wisconsin coach Greg Gard, by the way. He said after the game that he wanted his players to foul on the first possession, but they didn’t get the call. (If you watch the play, it doesn’t look like Badgers guard Kamari McGee, who was guarding the dribbler, made any effort to foul.) The real answer to the question of what to do in this situation is whatever you practice. As to what a team should practice, we do live in the analytics age, so we should be able to find some guidance in the numbers. What do they say?



Hunter Dickinson wants that March Madness energy

I’ve seen a bunch of studies done over the years, including Ken Pomeroy’s work in 2013. Unlike other studies done at that time, which argued that fouling up three was the preferred strategy, Ken’s findings were basically inconclusive. But last fall, Nicholas Canova of CBB Analytics published a study that was far more definitive. Canova’s conclusion: If a team fouls up three in the final seconds, it basically doubles its chances of avoiding overtime.

To collect his data, Canova studied more than 15,000 Division I men’s games over a four-year period. Here’s what he found:

  • 0-4 seconds: The game went to overtime 16.9 percent of the time when allowing a 3-point attempt, but only 8.7 percent when fouling
  • 4-8 seconds: Game went to OT 18.9 percent of the time when allowing a 3-point attempt versus 7.6 percent when fouling
  • 8-12 seconds: OT in 18.3 percent of the games when allowing a 3-point attempt versus 9.4 percent when fouling

Bottom line: If you foul up three, you double your chances of avoiding overtime.

That’s a pretty clear verdict, and it explains why the vast majority of coaches I talk to say they prefer to foul up three when there are under eight seconds to play. The strategy is not perfect, and a tactic is only as good as its execution. But if you want to go by the numbers, then fouling up three is the smart thing to do. Wisconsin’s failure to do it on Sunday could very well have cost the Badgers a chance to play for the NCAA Tournament.

Mid-major Top 10

1. Saint Mary’s (25-6). The Gaels lost at Gonzaga on Saturday, but they still won a share of the WCC regular season title and are ranked in the top 15 of all the major metrics. Last week: 1

2. San Diego State (23-5). The Aztecs won a dramatic 73-71 victory at New Mexico Saturday night on Lamont Butler’s buzzer beating 3-pointer to claim at least a share of the Mountain West regular season title. They need to beat either Boise State (road) or Wyoming (home) this week to earn the outright crown. LW: 2


(via @CBSSportsCBB)pic.twitter.com/31qwlYjWaR

— NCAA March Madness (@MarchMadnessMBB) February 26, 2023

3. Oral Roberts (27-4). The Golden Eagles finished off an undefeated regular season in the Summit League (the only perfect conference record in the country) and own the nation’s second-longest win streak at 14 games. LW: 3

4. Florida Atlantic (26-3). The Owls routed UTSA and UTEP at home to clinch at least a share of the Conference USA regular season title. A road win over either Rice or Louisiana Tech would win it outright. LW: 4

5. Liberty (24-7). The Flames beat Queens twice last week to finish 15-3 in the Atlantic Sun and share the regular season title with Kennesaw State. LW: 6

6. Nevada (22-7). The Wolf Pack beat San Jose State and Fresno State to remain two games back of San Diego State in the league standings. They have two winnable games this week against Wyoming (road) and UNLV (home). LW: 8

7. Boise State (22-7). The Broncos beat New Mexico at home but then lost at San Jose State in overtime on Saturday to fall two games behind San Diego State in the Mountain West standings. They get the Aztecs in Boise on Tuesday, but they will still need to win at Utah State on Saturday to have a chance at sharing the conference title. LW: 5

8. VCU (22-7). The Rams have won four in a row, and they enter the final week of the regular season owning a two-game lead over Dayton atop the Atlantic 10. LW: 9

9. Hofstra (23-8). The Pride have won 11 straight — the third-longest active streak in the nation — and though they shared the Colonial Athletic Association regular season title with Charleston, they won the only head-to-head meeting between the two teams and will thus be the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. LW: NR

10. Charleston (28-3). The Cougars once owned the nation’s longest win streak at 20 games, and they ended the regular season on a seven-game win streak. LW: 10

Dropped out: Kent State (7)

Ten games I’m psyched to see

Xavier at Providence, Wednesday, 6:30 p.m., FS1. In the first meeting between these teams in Cincinnati on Feb. 1, the Musketeers won 85-83, in overtime, in their first game without 6-9 senior forward Zach Freemantle, who injured his left foot. Xavier hopes Freemantle will be back for its weekend game against Butler, but he hasn’t practiced in four weeks and will almost certainly miss this game. Providence, which beat Georgetown by 20 on Sunday, and is undefeated at home this season..

Alabama at Texas A&M, Saturday, noon, CBS. The Aggies had been on a hot streak until their 69-62 loss at Mississippi State on Saturday. They got dominated 34-18 in the paint, so they’ll need to establish a tough presence against the Crimson Tide. Mostly, they’ll need to find some way to contain Miller, who followed up his 41-point performance in Wednesday’s OT win at South Carolina by scoring 24 points in Saturday’s 86-83 home win over Arkansas.

Tennessee at Auburn, Saturday, 2 p.m., ESPN. It’s not an overstatement to say that Auburn’s season could be on the line in this game. The Tigers only have two Quad 1 wins, and they were embarrassed by Kentucky in Rupp Arena on Saturday. They also have to play at Alabama on Wednesday. Tennessee, which lost at Texas A&M and beat South Carolina at home last week, also has to play Arkansas at home on Tuesday.

Kentucky at Arkansas, Saturday, 2 p.m., CBS. Kentucky’s late-season surge continued to swell last week with an eight-point win at Florida and a 32-point rout of Auburn in Rupp Arena on Saturday. Now they travel to Fayetteville to face a Razorbacks squad that has likewise taken dramatic steps forward now that freshman guard Nick Smith Jr. has returned. The Hogs couldn’t quite pull off the comeback at Alabama, but Smith scored a team-high 24 points after going for 26 in a home win over Georgia on Tuesday.

Kansas at Texas, Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN. The Longhorns lost a tough one on Saturday, when they jumped out to an 18-4 lead at Baylor but ended up losing, 81-72, even though the Bears played most of the game without their star freshman guard Keyonte George. That, combined with Kansas’ 76-74 win over West Virginia in Allen Fieldhouse, put Texas one game behind the Jayhawks in the Big 12 standings.

Pittsburgh at Miami, Saturday, 6 p.m., ACC Network. When March begins, Pittsburgh will be alone in first place in the ACC — just as everyone predicted! The Panthers are one of the oldest teams in the country (14th in experience, per KenPom), and they showed it again last week during home wins over Georgia Tech and Syracuse. They also beat Miami by three points at home on Jan. 28, but this game is in Coral Gables, and the Hurricanes will not be in a good mood after losing to Florida State on Saturday on Matthew Cleveland’s 30-foot buzzer beater.


Matthew Cleveland capped off a 25-point comeback by the Noles in epic [email protected] | @MCleveland35 | #ACCMBBpic.twitter.com/blxsL1d3Y8

— ACC Men’s Basketball (@accmbb) February 25, 2023

Duke at North Carolina, Saturday, 6:30 p.m., ESPN. Is North Carolina really showing signs of life? Or did the Tar Heels just beat a sinking Virginia team? The answer might be both, but we’ll believe more in this team if the Heels can avenge their 63-57 loss in Cameron on Feb. 4. The Blue Devils are clearly playing their best basketball of the season. They beat Virginia Tech at home on Saturday to notch their fourth straight win.

Arizona at UCLA, Saturday, 10 p.m., ESPN. It looked for a while like this game could decide the Pac-12 regular season title. But now the Bruins have clinched the outright league championship, courtesy of the Wildcats’ loss at home to Arizona State on Desmond Cambridge’s halfcourt heave and UCLA’s win at Colorado on Sunday.

Houston at Memphis, Sunday, Noon, CBS. Houston won the first meeting on Feb. 19, but Memphis’ leading scorer, Kendric Davis, was unavailable because of an ankle injury. Davis played in the Tigers’ win at Wichita State four days later, and on Sunday he scored 22 points in 37 minutes in a 76-73 win over Cincinnati. Houston also had an injury scare on Saturday when its leading scorer, Marcus Sasser, injured his ankle in the first half against East Carolina, but he returned to score 22 points in 34 minutes in a 76-57 win.

Illinois at Purdue, Sunday, 12:30 p.m., Fox. The Boilermakers were ranked No. 1 and riding high just a few weeks ago, but now they’ve lost four of their last six (two to Indiana) and are in dire need of some positive momentum. Illinois had a big comeback win over Northwestern on Thursday night but lost by 12 on Sunday to an  Ohio State team that had lost its previous nine games.

(Top photo of Alabama’s Nate Oats, left, and Brandon Miller: Wesley Hitt / Getty Images)

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