Blogger Spotlight: George Mason’s rolling — is it ’06 all over again?

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From Sports Illustrated to ESPN, it seems everyone’s talking about George Mason basketball.

The Patriots have the nation’s longest winning streak (12), are close to wrapping up the Colonial Athletic Association crown and have a team capable of making another run through the NCAA tournament. Maybe even the Final Four again. They could make it 13 with a win Saturday against Northern Iowa in this year’s BracketBuster weekend.

How are the Patriots doing it? For that, I turned to Ryan Kish of georgemasonbasketball.blogspot for this week’s Blogger Spotlight. We talked about this year’s Mason squad, ’06 and more.

BONUS Blogger Spotlight! BracketBusters weekend seemed like a good time to amp up the non-BCS coverage, so come back in an hour when I post today’s second spotlight featuring Kyle Whelliston of The Mid-Majority.

Q: George Mason has won 12 straight games, he last two coming against a rival and the CAA’s second-place team. To say things are going well would be a massive understatement, right?

A: That would be correct Mike. Not only are things going well for Jim Larranaga and the Patriots but they are making their case nationally as one of the better teams not just among mid-majors but among the country. This 12 game streak is a new school record and they averaged over a 17 point margin of victory during it, something no other team in the country could boast about. They are executing to near perfection on both ends of the court on a nightly basis and it’s beginning to get them national recognition.

Q: Life’s good for the CAA in general right now as well. George Mason’s thriving, VCU and ODU are usually mentioned as NCAA tourney contenders and it seems Charles Jenkins does something ridiculous every other game. How would you rate the conference’s overall play and chances to win a few ncaa tourney games?

A: Hands down this is one of the best years we have seen from the CAA and that includes the 2006 season. As a whole they have done their work in the out of conference games and collectively done better than a few of the major conferences. Here’s an example from UNCW beat writer Brian Mull: “James Madison, the sixth place team in the CAA has 6 wins vs. the RPI top 100. Arizona, the first place team in the Pac 10, has 5“. Can they translate that into NCAA tournament wins? I think so because they have been creating havoc in the brackets almost on a yearly basis now between George Mason’s run in ’06, VCU taking down Duke in ’07, and ODU knocking off Notre Dame last year. Certainly it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the CAA get some NCAA tournament wins and I think if they get two squads in this year there is a very good chance one of them could reach the Sweet 16.

Q: The Patriots are no stranger to March wins, either. For those who haven’t seen this year’s team yet — or haven’t watched he hilarious video produced by the athletic department, describe this season’s mason team.

A: This year’s squad is very balanced, versatile and efficient. Jim Larranaga preaches team defense first and foremost however it took awhile for this younger group to buy into it. What we are seeing now is the resulting affects of the team coming together and making the consistent efforts on defense. It can be suffocating at times and they are excellent in forcing other teams into taking shots they are not comfortable with. Offensively they were always a strong group but not since Larranaga set a per-game goal of 16 assists per contest did things really start to take off. When they record 16 or more assists in a game they are 12-0 this season. Their sharing of the ball and their balance is what makes them so dangerous and difficult to defend. On any given night you could have one out of 5 or 6 guys score 15-20 points on you.

Q: Given that Mason’s 2006 Final Four team essentially played five guys, that depth and overall balance might come as a shock to some. But that’s been Larranaga’s style the last few years, hasn’t it? He can rely on Cam Long, Ryan Pearson or Luke Hancock for a chunk of minutes but he doesn’t have to.

A: Larranaga has some really capable guys on the bench but you are correct that he relies heavily on his starters this season like did in 2006. In the beginning of the season he did state publically that he didn’t have much faith in some of the reserve player’s efforts on defense. They all were effective scorers but they weren’t quite buying into the team defensive comcept that he preaches. Even when they are playing better on defense you will often see Larranaga continue to leave in his starters late in the game. It can be puzzling to fans at times but like you said it’s just his style.

Q: Still. Is there one indispensible player?

A: As good as forward Ryan Pearson has been, I’d still have to say that senior guard Cam Long is the most indispensible play on this team. His ability to be a floor general has really helped this team remain poised no matter what situation they have found themselves in. Aside from his leadership Long makes the guys around him better whenever he is on court and although there is a lot of talent on his team you can’t say that about any of the others.

Q: Saturday’s game against Northern Iowa is a Cinderella showdown of sorts. The Panthers beat No. 1 seed Kansas in last year’s NCAA tournament, then lost in the Sweet 16. Yet that doesn’t compare to Mason’s ’06 run, right? Not only did you guys beat a 1 seed (UConn), you took down the reigning champs and another Final Four team in Michigan State.

A: You sound like a promo commercial for ESPN’s BracketBuster weekend. I think both runs by each team were great for college basketball and for each schools. It did end up getting both of them on the cover of Sports Illustrated and proved that the CAA and MVC can produce strong NCAA tournament teams. Although I think the whole BracketBusters idea is a bit of an insult to mid-major schools I still enjoy the idea of watching a “Battle of the Cinderellas” and another good CAA vs MVC match-up.

Q: I did come off as a bit of shill, didn’t I? Couldn’t be helped. Non-conference matchups like this don’t happen often because there’s often nothing to gain from it for a program like Mason. In that regard, it just reinforces how rigged the game is against the non-BCS schools, right?

A: Scheduling is one of the many hardships for non-BCS schools like George Mason and while ESPN Bracketbusters is a nice touch to get schools another non-conference game opponent but it’s still a broken system.  George Mason is in the area of two other prominent BCS schools in Maryland and Georgetown yet you won’t find them on past schedules due to the Patriot’s recent success.  I get why these schools don’t want to schedule the mid-majors but I just wish it wasn’t always their decision.

Q: Fondest memory of that ’06 Final Four run?

A: As a senior at George Mason that year I would have to say watching them take down UConn at the Verizon Center in DC and then running through the streets telling every homeless person the final score. I’ll never forget the atmosphere that day and the thought that our school was American’s team.

Q: Love your blog. How’d you get into it? Judging by your first post, the ’06 run had something to do with it.

A: I was a freshman at George Mason in 2002 and fell in love with the basketball team and the defensive-minded head coach in Jim Larranaga. Watching them take down Tennessee at the Patriot Center in 2004 NIT was one of my fondest memories of following the team. Even after that it was still rare to find people to talk to about the team or find articles online. But after the Final Four run in 2006 there was an influx of media, students, alumni, and other fans searching for reliable news and updates about the team. I wasn’t really happy with the athletic department website so I started a blog as just a place to discuss the team. I just loved sharing my views on the team and was excited that there was finally a larger and more interested fan base for the team.

Q: How has your blogging style changed through the years? You incorporate a little of everything, from Q&As, to videos, link roundups and graphs of the Four Factors. Has that always been the case?

A: My blogging has drastically evolved. I used to just write my thoughts after a game, now I try to post as much content I can about George Mason basketball whether it be about recruiting, scheduling or player news.  As the site got more popular I slowly started to integrate the things you listed.  New tools seem to pop up all the time for bloggers and always enjoy integrating new features. 

Q: Moment of truth: How do the Patriots finish this season?

A: It’s hard to bet against a team like this who is so hot right now. I think they have done enough to warrant an NCAA tournament bid regardless of what happens in the CAA tournament but the real question is whether their dominance in the CAA will translate into wins in March? Usually teams riding a hot streak do well in the tournament and I think the Patriots are more than capable of winning some games at the big dance this year. I think their balance and versatility will take them far and surprise a high seeded team. Anything can happen but I wouldn’t want to seeded in the same region as George Mason if I’m an opposing head coach.

You can find Ryan’s blog at georgemasonbasketball.blogspot.com and follow him on twitter @gmuhoops.

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

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.

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.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.