Sweet 16 preview: East Region’s top players, champ

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The details: The East region is the toughest region left in the bracket. And that isn’t strictly a result of the Ohio State Buckeyes residing as the East’s No. 1 seed, but that does play a part. (Click here for a Southwest Regional preview.)

OSU is the best team in the country. But Kentucky, the team the Buckeyes face in the Sweet 16, may be the most talented left in the region. There aren’t many schools that can boast the 1-2-3 of Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight, and Doron Lamb.

That said, North Carolina is dangerous. The Tar Heels have found their groove. Kendall Marshall is a quarterback leading the break, and with the way that John Henson and Tyler Zeller run the floor, there may not be a team in the country that can neutralize the force that is Jared Sullinger like North Carolina.

Matchups

No. 2 UNC (28-7) vs. No. 11 Marquette (22-14)
Time: 7:15 p.m. ET on CBS

No. 1 Ohio State (34-2) vs. No. 4 Kentucky (27-8)
Time: 9:45 p.m. ET on CBS

Team to beat: Ohio State Buckeyes

Like I said, Ohio State is the best team in the country. When they are playing their best basketball, they simply are not going to lose. To anyone. They aren’t the most talented — there is an argument to be made that they aren’t even the most talented team in their Sweet 16 matchup — but they are the best team. Their pieces fit together perfectly. The seniors have no problem allowing Jared Sullinger to be the focal point of the offense, while Sullinger understands not only how to hold a seal in the post and score with his back to the basket, he is willing and able to pass out of a double team to give one of the Buckeye’s numerous shooters an open look. This is a talented, experienced group that understands their roles and plays them to perfection. That’s a tough combination to beat.

Team with nothing to lose: Marquette Golden Eagles

Marquette isn’t supposed to be here. They are an 11 seed. They have 14 losses on the season. They have a coach that never played basketball and worked his way up through the JuCo ranks to get to the Division I level. They have a roster full of under recruited players and JuCo transfers. They are, by far, the least talented team left in the region. This is a blue-collar team that plays as hard and scrappy as anyone in the country. This is a team playing with house money, and that is always dangerous.

Players to watch:

  • Terrence Jones, Kentucky: Brandon Knight and Josh Harrellson have been carrying the Wildcats through the first two games of the tournament, but Jones is the most talented player on this roster. I’m not sure there is anyone on Ohio State capable of matching up with him.
  • Kendall Marshall, North Carolina: Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes, and John Henson are the talent, the guys that put up the numbers in the first weekend. But Marshall is the quarterback. He’s the guy that makes the Tar Heels capable of running the floor. His 24 assists last weekend prove it.
  • David Lighty, Ohio State: Lighty is the glue guy. He’s the leader. He’s the player that keeps the Ohio State together. He does whatever is necessary for this team to win. He’s their best defender, capable of guarding point guards and post players. But he’s also a scorer when need be, as evidenced by the 25 points he had against George Mason.
  • Jimmy Butler, Marquette: Butler is the matchup nightmare that Buzz Williams has at his disposal this season. A 6-8 combo-forward, Butler can hit threes, he can get to the rim, and he can defend in the post, meaning that Williams can use him at the four. Butler also has a penchant for hitting big shots.

Coach under pressure: John Calipari

No one in the country has embraced the concept of coaching one and done players the way that John Calipari has. He’s an elite recruiter, bringing in all-american after all-american to spend their year lay over in Lexington before heading to the league. The problem? There is a large contingent that believes it is impossible to win games playing just freshmen. Can Calipari prove them wrong, or will he be eliminated in the Sweet 16 with three first round picks on the roster?

Outcome: Both Kentucky and North Carolina matchup well with Ohio State. The Wildcats have a matchup night mare in Terrence Jones and a big-bodied center that can, at the very least, get in Jared Sullinger’s way. North Carolina, should they both advance, doesn’t have the muscle to matchup with Sullinger in the paint, but with the ability of Tyler Zeller and John Henson to run the floor in transition, Sullinger’s strength inside can be used against him.

That said, no one is beating Ohio State if they come to play. And I fully expect Ohio State to come to play.

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.