Blogger Spotlight: Incredible guards? A sharp-dressed coach? Must be Villanova time

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On any other weekend, a Top 10 showdown between No. 4 Pitt and No. 9 Villanova would be the game of the day. But it’ll have to share top billing with No. 1 Ohio State playing at No. 13 Wisconsin.

That’s kind of how it goes for Villanova.

One of the nation’s most underrated hoops programs – Syracuse, Georgetown and UConn all get more attention – is a small school in Philly that thrives thanks to its continually impressive fleet of guards. In recent years, it’s been Randy Foye, Allan Ray or Scottie Reynolds turning heads. This year’s no different.

Behind Corey Fisher, Maalik Wayns and Corey Stokes, the Wildcats are 19-5 overall and 7-4 in the Big East and working on yet another impressive finish and NCAA tournament seed. So I turned to die-hard Villanova fan Brian Ewart (a contributor to the outstanding VUHoops blog and can be found on Twitter @brianisawesome) )for this week’s Blogger Spotlight – but my timing could’ve been better.

Most of this Q&A was done after Villanova was stunned by Rutgers Wednesday night thanks to a last-second four-point play. Sorry, ‘Nova. Even when it’s your turn in the spotlight, the timing stinks.

Q: How’s the year been without Scottie Reynolds? It must be what North Carolina fans felt after Tyler Hansbrough graduated or Syracuse when Gerry McNamara was gone. They were faces of their programs.

A: Scottie was the rare player who can be a star for four years and it is always tough to lose a player that the program has leaned on for so long. That said, on the court, the team really hasn’t suffered, and Villanova has Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Antonio Pena to thank for that.

So maybe it takes a few guys to replace Scottie Reynolds, but it seems that they have.

Q: So has that talented roster lived up to your expectations thus far? What are they missing?

A: No. Right now Villanova probably has one of the most talented rosters of the Jay Wright era. Maybe the 2005 roster could take that crown, but even so, there are McDonalds All-Americans sitting on the bench during any play of a game. Talent is great, but you have to execute.

This team, especially the younger players, is lacking experience. The sophomores are all adjusting to bigger roles this year and sometimes it shows.

Q: Last season Villanova fouled way too much. This season they don’t force as many turnovers. Did Jay Wright tell the guys to be less aggressive?

A: I don’t think so. If you watch closely you can still see that they are trying to force turnovers, and against Rutgers, Fisher had five steals to show for that effort. The press that Jay Wright has been using this year, however, has seemed to generate more easy baskets for opponents than turnovers. This isn’t the most aggressive Villanova team I have seen, but they do appear to be trying to force turnovers.

I think last year’s fouling issue was the result of trying to get a lot of new players used to the defensive scheme as well as the speed of the game. There were a lot of missed assignments on the defensive end, and fouls resulted when the ‘Cats tried to compensate. You still see a little of that this season, but it happens far less often.

Q: After a loss like that Rutgers,  maybe this isn’t the best time to ask, but I will anyway–are you convinced playing in the nation’s toughest league helps prepare ‘Nova for the NCAA tournament?

A: It certainly has its benefits. If you can win in the Big East consistently, you should be able to beat anybody. Moreso than that, though, the Big East exposes teams to different looks. Until this year, Villanova was almost exclusively man-defense, while Syracuse rarely departs from their 2-3 zone. Offensively, some teams will beat you up in the paint and others will try to beat you from outside.

You really can’t use the same game-plan twice in this conference, and that is a great way to prepare for the NCAA tournament, where you have a quick turnaround between games and can be matched up with almost anyone.

Even more than that though, getting battered a little bit in-conference might just make the NCAA tournament seem like a breather for a Big East team.

Villanova rarely makes a splash in the Big East tournament, but they have performed well in the NCAA tournament during Jay Wright’s tenure, so maybe that says something.

Q:Wwho’s the go-to guy in tight games? Fisher or whomever Wayns makes a play for?

A: Right now it’s Fisher. I hope that somewhere down the line, Mouph Yarou or another big can develop into a go-to type player, but that may be wishful thinking. Villanova basketball is about the guards even when there are three forwards on the court.

Of the guards, Fisher is the most reliable option. Stokes has been great as well at times, and he had a tremendous run, but when defenses want to take him out of the game, it gets tough to find him a shot. Wayns, meanwhile, can be an absolutely electric player, but he also has to develop some maturity and learn to make better decisions.

Q: What’s it gonna take to beat Pitt on Saturday? I think they’re the Big East ‘s best team but you can try to convince me otherwise.

A: If I knew that, I think I’d be sitting next to Jay Wright in a really expensive suit.

I think Pitt probably is the best team in the Big East right now, but they are also a team that Villanova has played well against.

With Ashton Gibbs out on Saturday, the most important match-up is probably going to be Yarou and McGhee.The ‘Cats can’t let McGhee beat them on the boards, and they have to play tighter defense than they have in a couple recent close games. Pitt is going to score points, but Villanova needs to make that as difficult as possible.

I like that Coach Wright has been starting Isaiah Armwood recently, but Maalik Wayns is still getting minutes and when the ball is in his hands, he needs to make better decisions. Wayns has developed a tendency to stand around and dribble near mid-court until there is about 10 seconds left on the shot-clock and then rush a shot or a pass. Sometimes it works and the ‘Cats score, but ball-movement is a better strategy.

If the ‘Cats make good decisions and get back to playing better on defense, they can probably win on Saturday. As Rutgers and Providence have proven: it doesn’t matter who the better team is on-paper in this conference.

Q: Sharper dresser: Jay Wright or Rick Pitino?

A: This is easily one of the most-debated topics in the basketball universe. Forget whether to foul up three at the end of the game (and ‘Nova should have done that against Rutgers), this one comes up way more often. On any given day it’s possible that Pitino could out-dress Wright, but have you ever seen Jay Wright in a white suit?

Case closed. Jay Wright has a sartorially-sound wardrobe that is free of errors, and for that, he takes the edge.

Q: This may sound like an odd question to non-Philadelphia people, but do you enjoy the Big 5 games more than the Big East showdowns?

A: Personally, I love the history, tradition and rivalry of the Big 5, and though the games are sometimes mismatches, the Philly schools play hard against Villanova.

That said, there are a couple of Big East match-ups that I absolutely prefer to the Big 5. I wouldn’t say that I’d pick Villanova/DePaul over the Holy War, but I might take a match-up with Georgetown or Syracuse over Villanova/La Salle in most years.

I would never want to see the end of the Big 5, but there are definitely some Big East games that the city schools can’t match.

Q: Who’s all-time favorite Villanova team?

A: Some of those teams in the 1960s and 70s under Jack Kraft won games at an insane clip, but I really never got to see those teams in person. I also never saw the 1985 team other than in replays of that Final Four on ESPN Classic.

Picking from my era, I’d have to pick the 2004-2005 team (you know, the one that would have went to the Final Four instead of eventual-national-champ UNC had the refs been able to count properly). Easily the best combination of offensive and defensive ability I have seen that year, and until Curtis Sumpter’s injury, it was undoubtedly the most talented team Jay Wright has put on the court.

Q: Non-hoops question – Would ‘Nova win the Big East in football?

A: Tough to really tell. I assume you mean in the 2010 season and without the 22 additional scholarships? I’ll go ahead and say no. They would have won more games than most Big East coaches would probably like to admit though.

Q: How’d you get involved in blogging and how long do you see yourself doing it?

A: I got involved with VU Hoops by commenting on the blog regularly. Eventually Mike (who started the site) emailed me and asked if I wanted to write. I decided to give it a try.

I’ve been involved ever since and I assume I’ll be involved until I run out of things to say or somebody makes me stop.

Want more? I’m also on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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

Joe Rondone/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.