Mississippi State rides for the SEC

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NEW YORK – Within the first week of the college basketball season, we saw three of the SEC’s top five teams lose.

Mississippi State and Vanderbilt were dropped at home by Akron and Cleveland State, respectively. Florida went on the road and ran into the buzzsaw known as the Ohio State Buckeyes. The initial reaction was, naturally, that the SEC is once again down this season.

Don’t worry. I won’t hold it against you if you did. I jumped to the same conclusion. After the way that the SEC has struggled over recent seasons, it made too much sense.

Dig a little deeper, however, and the answer isn’t so simple.

Vanderbilt is playing without Festus Ezeli, whose knee injury essentially extended the six game suspension he is currently serving through December. During their loss to Cleveland State, John Jenkins injured his ankle, and while he kept playing, it was bad enough that he didn’t suit up against Bucknell. I’ve been as harsh on Vandy as anyone, but even I can admit that judging them too harshly before they play at 100% is a bit unfair.

Florida’s loss to Ohio State is about as far from a bad loss as you can get. Road games are difficult regardless of opponent. Hanging within seven of a top three team on their home court in mid-November is a promising performance.

Which brings us to Mississippi State. The Bulldogs completed their run to the Coaches vs. Cancer Championship with a 67-57 win over Arizona on Friday night, all but erasing the doubts created by the memories of that loss to Akron.

But for the second straight night, this was more than simply a win for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs never trailed Arizona. Hell, the score was only tied once, at 23. The Bulldogs jumped out to leads of 7-0 and 21-11, over-powering the Wildcats on the interior. Arizona did battle back to tie the game and only trailed by one at the half, but the Bulldogs once again got off to a quick start in the second half. Arizona wasn’t blown out by any means — the lead didn’t hit double digits for the half — but it never felt like Mississippi State ever lost control of the game.

“I am proud of our team,” Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury said after the game. “And I am proud from this standpoint: I think when the game was on the line in the second half, we survived. … Our team dug in defensively and the stats back it up. We held them to eight field goals in the second half and we had a plus-nine rebound margin. Those are winning plays.”

Arnett Moultrie led the way, finishing with 19 points (on 8-9 shooting), 10 boards and the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. Moultrie isn’t always going to be a big scorer like this, but the threat of having two big men capable of putting up 20 points and 10 boards is part of what makes Mississippi State so dangerous.

The other part of what makes the Bulldogs dangerous is there back court, and not simply Dee Bost. Stansbury’s star senior shot just 3-12 from the field, finishing with eight points and six assists to along with three turnovers. And while Stansbury will disagree with my assessment of how Bost played — he called me out during the press conference, saying that the effort and leadership that Bost played with is what they need from him — the bottom line is that the Bulldog’s best scorer wasn’t scoring well.

And Mississippi State still won.

A big part of that was due to the play of DeVille Smith, a diminutive freshman point guard. For the second straight night, Smith came into the game and created a spark. Smith, who was the third-leading scorer for the Bulldogs during their trip to Europe, had seven points and a pair of assists, scoring six points and handing out an assist in a five minute stretch of the second half in which the Bulldogs pushed the lead from one to nine.

“[Being a spark plug] is something that coach wants me to do, but its also something that I want to do. I’ll do whatever it takes to win the game,” Smith said.

Smith isn’t the only role player that stepped up for the Bulldogs. Wendell Lewis had six points and seven boards off the bench. Rodney Hood had nine points and hit a couple of big jumpers. Brian Bryant add six points and helped keep Arizona’s slew of perimeter players in check.

“We have a lot of different guys on different nights,” Stansbury said. “We have people on different nights who can step up and do big things for us.”

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.