Rankings the Positions: The Centers

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Outlook: The center position is probably the most balanced spot on the floor in this tournament. It certainly isn’t a weak spot for any of the Final Four teams, and it can be considered a strength for all but Butler. Like the small forwards, the centers are going to be an x-factor. Who stays out of foul trouble? Who is effective on the glass? Who is hitting their free throws? Things like that may end up determining some of these outcomes.

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Ranking the Cs:

1) Jamie Skeen, VCU: Skeen may not be the best center out of this group. Hell, he may not even technically be a center. But when VCU has their best lineup on the floor, it is Skeen that makes them so dangerous. At 6’8″ and 235 lb, Skeen has the size to matchup up inside with just about any college big man. He can defend on the block, he can rebound the ball, and he also has a solid back-to-the-basket game. But where he is valuable for the Rams in on the perimeter. He is a very good three point shooter, which means that when he is on the floor with four guards, VCU can really spread the floor. It creates driving lanes and space in the paint when Skeen’s man covers him, but if Skeen’s man doesn’t come out, he’ll knock down threes the entire game.

2) Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu, UConn: Oriakhi can be a dominating interior presence. When he is playing well, he’s a monster on the offensive glass. At 6’9″ and 240 lbs of solid muscle, Oriakhi just carves out space. His back-to-the-basket game is essentially limited to a drop step and a lefty jump hook that he can hit at a pretty consistent rate. On the offensive glass, he not only comes up with a lot of rebounds, but he keeps so many balls alive by tipping them back out to UConn’s guards. The problem? Oriakhi can disappear at times. Sometimes its due to foul trouble, but sometimes its simply just a lack of effort or focus. Okwandu is a legitimate seven footer, but he doesn’t provide much more than the occasional block, offensive rebound, and layup.

3) Josh Harrellson, Kentucky: The Kentucky center has been a revelation this season. Prior to this year, Harrellson played spot minutes for the Wildcats, spending as much time in the doghouse as he did on the court. The only reason he saw minutes early on this season was because Enes Kanter was not given eligibility by the NCAA. The only reason he is in shape is that John Calipari opted to run him through half hour conditioning sessions instead of kicking him off the team as the result of an inappropriate tweet earlier in the season. And through all of that, Harrellson has thrived. He’s scoring, he’s rebounding the ball, he’s beating people down the floor in transition. Harrellson is not that talented or athletic, but he works as hard as any big man in the country.

4) Andrew Smith, Butler: Smith came out of no where last season during Butler’s run to the title game when he played a number of crucial minutes against Kansas State. This year he has emerged as a solid low post threat and someone that can matchup, size wise, with bigger front lines. Smith will be at a bit of a disadvantage when Butler plays VCU — he won’t be able to matchup with Skeen on the perimeter — but if Butler advances to face UConn or Kentucky, Smith will be a crucial piece.

Future Pros: Alex Oriakhi appears to be the best prospect of this group. He’s the biggest, he’s the most athletic, and he has the most upside. He probably isn’t even going to be a lottery pick and may never go in the first round of the draft, but Oriakhi could one day end up playing a role similar to that of a Paul Millsap or a Brandon Bass.

Josh Harrellson and Jamie Skeen, both seniors, have an outside shot of latching on with an NBA team, but it will be a longshot. Harrellson has the size of an NBA center, but he is no where near athletic enough and does not have the kind of back to the basket game you look for. Skeen lacks some size and athleticism as well, but his ability to shoot is intriguing.

Essential to winning a title?: The center spot is going to be quite important to winning a title. Like I said earlier, this may end up being the x-factor position. Alex Oriakhi and Josh Harrellson can be difference makers for their respective teams. Jamie Skeen is the guy that makes VCU’s offense that dangerous. Andrew Smith’s size will be important, especially if Butler makes the final.

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.