Kevin Stallings won’t use Festus Ezeli as an excuse for weak defense

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EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – Postgame press conferences are usually filled with generalities and cliches.

Coaches and players — especially those of the losing team — see them as a necessary evil. The quotes that are given are rarely enlightening, as the interviewees all too often talk to the questioners as if explaining basketball to a ten year old. Answering questions from a room full of reporters is not what the teams want to be doing immediately after winning or losing a big game.

Every once in a while you’ll run into a coach who, for whatever reason, decides to provide the media with a moment of clarity regarding his team. Kevin Stallings did just that after Vanderbilt’s 86-79 win over NC State on Saturday night.

And he wasn’t happy.

“We have to play better defensively,” he said. “We’re a pretty good offensive team, but we suck on defense. Until we get better defensively, it doesn’t matter who we put out there. We’ve got to get better defensively. Period.”

He’s right. The Commodores are not a very good defensive team. But they also are not a complete basketball team right now, and they won’t be complete until Festus Ezeli is back in the lineup. Ezeli was supposed to miss the first six games of the season after the NCAA ruled that he had received improper benefits, but that suspension was nullified when he sprained his knee in late October. the injury is bad enough that it could keep him out of the lineup until the calender changes.

Its no wonder that Vanderbilt isn’t complete. You take a first round draft pick off of any team and there is going to be a negative impact.

“Festus is a load for anybody,” Jeff Taylor said after the game. “He’s 6’11”, 270 lb, so obviously its a big hole that we all collectively need to fill.”

Stallings strongly emphasized that Vandy cannot sit back and complain about the missing piece, saying “we’re foolish if we’re sitting around and waiting for Festus to all of a sudden show up and cure our problems. We have problems that have nothing to do with Festus and nothing to do with the fact he’s not here.”

Frankly, he’s right.

Vanderbilt got torched defensively. CJ Leslie scored 18 of his 20 points in the first half while Richard Howell finished with 16 points and nine boards inside. Vandy allowed the Wolfpack to shot 50% from the floor for the game (they shot a crisp 60% in the first half) and gave up 45 first half points to a team expected to finish near the bottom of the ACC. That’s not good.

“We did what we do a lot,” Stallings said. “Letting players get their head up and get in their comfort zone. As soon as someone becomes confident, they become a lot harder to guard.”

That’s where Festus Ezeli makes a difference for this team. He’s an eraser around the rim. He wouldn’t have been matched up with Leslie man-to-man, but he would have been hanging around the rim to challenge some of those shots that Leslie got. He would have provided a much tougher matchup for Howell, who carried NC State for stretches during the second half.

By no means is this meant to be a knock of Steve Tchiengang, Ezeli’s replacement at the center spot. He actually played pretty well in his 34 minutes. He finished with 11 rebounds, three on the offensive end of the floor, and chipped in six points. Lance Goulbourne, who starts at the four for Vandy, had his best offensive game of the season, scoring 15 points and adding five rebounds.

But neither of them provide that presence in the paint that Ezeli does. John Jenkins had Vanderbilt’s only block. He’s a 6’4″ shooting guard.

“He cleans up a lot of stuff back there, he’s a big presence,” Goulbourne said. “Offensively, we can throw it in to him anytime and he can score the ball.”

Ezeli will make a big difference for this team when he finally does get healthy and back onto the court, but its unclear when that is going to be. Vanderbilt still has plenty of games to play in the meantime, and while pontificating about how good this team will end up being defensively with Ezeli in the lineup is worthwhile for us, thinking about a player that won’t be on the court will only be a distraction for the Commodores.

“Festus ain’t here,” Stallings said. “He ain’t gonna be here Monday. He’s not going to be playing Friday or the following Monday. He’s not going to be playing, so if our guys are — and I’m not suggesting that they are because I don’t think they are and I hope they’re not — if they’re sitting around and waiting for him to come back, then we got more problems than just our defense.”

“Festus will help that a little bit when and if he gets back, but we better get help before that or we’re going to have a bunch of numbers that go in that right hand column that we’re not very excited about.”

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.