Ignore the idiots whining about a watered-down tournament

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It’s been bitchin’ week in college hoops. Whether it’s whining about the NCAA tournament expansion to 68 teams, the ones who were included this season, the new First Four or moving the games to truTV, TNT, TBS as well as CBS, it’s been one thing after another.

For the next few days, can we enact a moratorium on the complaints and enjoy the games? (Unless you’re Clemson. Then feel free to hate on your schedule)

Should be easy enough — unless you’re Michael Wilbon. He has no interest in a tournament that could be more wide open than ever before. From his column at ESPN:

While that could very well make for overtimes and buzzer-beaters, a slew of upsets and charming Cinderella stories, it doesn’t mean that the quality of play is what it used to be. There’s not a team in the tournament as good as Memphis was three years ago. Fortunately for the carnival barkers, 80 percent of the folks in the office pool don’t know the difference between exciting and good.

He throws out the same old tired argument that the college game isn’t as good as it used to be because of the exodus of underclassmen who bolted early to the NBA. He admits the column is an old man’s rant “where the old man puts down his newspaper, peers over his readers and tells you people how much better this thing was in the old days, which is indisputable when it comes to March Madness,” but that’s just the lazy way of saying he doesn’t watch college hoops.

In case he missed it, Ohio State and Kansas have been excellent this season. Duke’s right behind, and could be even better during the Big Dance because of Kyrie Irving’s return. But maybe Wilbon thinks because Jay Bilas was on PTI talking about how “it’s the weakest field ever” is enough for a rant. Nevermind that Bilas – in the same interview – said the “it could be an even better tournament than we normally have because it’ll be volatile and it’ll be fun to watch.”

Apparently Wilbon is longing for an NCAA tournament that features some mystical field of 64 teams who were all capable of winning. Too bad that tournament never existed.

The Big Dance has always been about its unpredictability. That’s what makes it must-see TV. It’s not the great teams we remember, it’s the moments. It’s Bryce Drew hitting at the buzzer, it’s Chris Webber calling timeout, it’s George Mason reaching the Final Four, it’s U.S. Reed hitting a half-court buzzer-beater to beat the defending champs.

When the tournament includes classic games such as Duke beating UNLV in the 1991 Final Four, we remember those too. But those are the classic games because they don’t happen every year. Not every game is classic.

And to bemoan the lack of great teams is something that happens every season – until the season’s over and we all realize “Man. That was a great team.” Think ’07 Florida, any of the ’08 Final Four teams (1 seeds Kansas, Memphis, UNC and UCLA) or ’09 North Carolina weren’t great? Then you don’t know what great is. This isn’t to say this year’s field is spectacular. It’s not. But it’s not as bad as Wilbon would have you believe.

This all relates to memory. We artificially inflate our memories with images of what something seemed to be, rather than what it actually was. When Wilbon’s talking about how great the tournament used to be because players stayed, who’s he talking about? Michael Jordan left early. Magic Johnson left early. Isiah Thomas left early. Shaq left early. Hell, Wilt Chamberlain left early and that was in ’58 season.

But they don’t always leave, either. 

The mass exodus of players began about 15 years ago. Yet since then we’re had at least three dominant teams by almost nearly any measure: ’96 Kentucky, ’01 Duke and ’07 Florida. (’99 UConn, ’99 Duke, ’02 Maryland, ’05 North Carolina and ’05 Illinois shouldn’t be overlooked either.) If the game is poorer because of the number of guys leaving, how do you explain those teams? Players, come, players go. In case Wilbon hasn’t noticed, people would say the NBA isn’t as good as it used to be either.

We’re artificially inflating our memories of Jordan, Magic and Bird. That’s how it goes. It’s also an argument people will always win because you’re not arguing against facts. You’re arguing against a person’s idea of the facts.

Unfortunately, this turned into a rant about a rant. Ugh. There’s a shorter version of it here, written by John Gasaway, which includes a summation of the argument using free throws as an opt comparison:

 In 1948 D-I players were not very good at making free throws. Back then they shot just 59.8 percent at the line. Free throw shooting improved steadily over the following decade, however, and despite recurring laments that no one can shoot FTs “anymore” the accuracy has been more or less stable at right around 69 percent for the better part of 50 years.

I don’t suppose free throw accuracy translates seamlessly or even particularly well into the qualities that Wilbon finds in short supply: stars, formidable teams, and a high quality of play. But the serene knowledge that I could travel back in time to the Truman administration and kick my similarly-aged grandfather’s butt in a free throw contest has always made me provisionally skeptical of laments that things aren’t like they were in the good old days. Very often this lament is indeed correct, of course (I nominate movie stars and architecture), but it’s one we should always treat with some caution precisely on the grounds that it does come to our lips so easily.

Get over yourself Wilbon. Enjoy the tournament. You want better basketball, wait a few years. There’s always another dominant team around the corner.

You also can follow me 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.