The notion that freshmen can’t win a title is wrong

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All week long, the folks over at Grantland are running a series featuring writers pen 4,000 word arguments as to why their favorite team will win the national title.

Matt Jones, the brains and the brawn behind Kentucky Sports Radio and the leader of the cult known as Big Blue Nation, was picked to provide a homer’s view of why Kentucky hang their eighth banner this year. And while much of the article reads like the sermon given at a Big Blue pep rally, Jones does make a crucial and important point, one that he will — and should — make many times throughout the year: winning a national title with elite freshmen is not only possible, its been done before.

In the last two decades, there have been five years were one team was able to land a powerful recruiting class that included at least three of the top 15 high school players in the country — Michigan in 1991 (the Fab Five), Ohio State in 2006, and Kentucky in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

  • In 1991, Michigan started five freshmen — Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson — and while they struggled during the regular season, earning a six seed, the Wolverines clicked during the NCAA Tournament. The Fab Five made it all the way to the national title game, where they lost by 20 to Duke.
  • In 2006, Thad Matta brought in Mike Conley, Greg Oden, Daequan Cook and David Lighty. Despite Oden battling injuries throughout the first half of the season, the Buckeyes were still able to earn a No. 1 seed in the tournament and a trip to the national title game.
  • In 2009, Kentucky’s recruiting class was so good that four players — including one kid that couldn’t get off the bench — were picked in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft. But as talented as John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins were, they couldn’t get past West Virginia in the Elite 8.
  • Last season, Kentucky played with blue-chip freshmen in Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb — Enes Kanter was the best recruit of the group, but he never got cleared to play. Regardless, even without Kanter, Kentucky was able to play their way to the Final Four, upsetting Ohio State (who started a freshmen at point guard and center) and North Carolina (who started a freshman at point guard and small forward) along the way.

In the previous four instances where a team has relied heavily on a vaunted freshmen class, there have been two No. 1 seeds, a trip to the Elite 8, a trip to the Final Four and two appearances in the National Title game. That’s impressive. And that’s successful. The worst case scenario in this (extremely) small sample is winning both SEC titles, earning a No. 1 seed and making a trip to the Elite 8.

What coach in the country wouldn’t take that?

But there’s more.

In 2002, Syracuse brought in a well-regarded recruiting class that was headlined by one uber-recruit named Carmelo Anthony. Anthony went on to have one of the best freshman seasons in the history of the NCAA, averaging 22.1 ppg and 10.0 rpg while being named a second-team all-american and leading Syracuse to the national title. Joining him in the starting lineup that year? Freshmen Gerry McNamara and Billy Edelin. McNamara averaged 35.3 mpg, which was second only to Anthony’s 36.4 mpg. That group of freshmen accounted for three of the Orange’s top five scorers in 2002-2003. Of their top seven scorers, three more were sophomores, meaning that of Syracuse’s seven-man, title-winning rotation, six were freshmen and sophomores.

There’s an even more recent example. Last season, Kemba Walker took over March. He led UConn on a five-games-in-five-days run through the Big East Tournament. After six more wins in the NCAA Tournament, UConn went back to Storrs with a national title. He was a junior, which means most people will ignore UConn on this list. But the Huskies need to be on here. Last season, five different freshmen started a total of 104 games for the Huskies. The freshmen averaged an even 100 out of a possible 200 minutes per game. In the national title game against Butler, UConn got 111 minutes out of freshmen. Freshman Jeremy Lamb became the team’s clear-cut No. 2 scoring option, the biggest reason teams were unable to double team Kemba. Freshman Shabazz Napier matured enough to hold down the point guard position, allowing Kemba free-reign to be a scorer. Alex Oriakhi, UConn’s enforcer inside and the guy that allowed a team that started (freshman) Tyler Olander or Charles Okwandu to dominate the offensive glass, was only a sophomore. In total, almost three-quarters of the minutes played by UConn Huskies last season were provided by freshmen and sophomores.

The UConn example is all the more reassuring for Kentucky fans because there is a good chance the Wildcat’s first two options offensively won’t be freshmen. John Calipari is notorious for using his words in the media to manipulate, but he said over the summer that Doron Lamb would be the best player on this team. Terrence Jones was the best player on the team last year before he lost his confidence. There’s a legitimate possibility that these hyped freshmen end up being the most highly-recruited role players in the country.

No one said that winning a national title with a roster chock full of talented underclassmen would be easy.

But winning a national title isn’t easy, period.

The best way to win it is by putting as much talent as possible on the floor. If you can’t compete with the blue bloods for top 20 recruits, than you have to build your program around development and upperclassmen. If you can compete for the best high school players in the country, then, by all means, recruit them and hope that things break your way during the season.

Because, eventually, Calipari is going to break through and win a national title. And when he does, this silly notion that experience is the only way to succeed in March will finally be thrown out the window.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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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

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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.