Can a down year in the Pac-12 open the door for Stanford?

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NEW YORK – It’s now well into Feast Week, which means we are officially in the midst of the college hoops season. And while it’s still early, it’s not too early to begin making judgements on the outcome of the handful of games that have been played.

A consensus opinion is a rarity in March, so you can imagine how difficult it is, in the age of social media and message board journalism, to get everyone on the same page as early as Thanksgiving. But if there is a consensus opinion to be had about this young season, it’s that the Pac-12 stinks. That’s not to say that by March the league is still going to stink, because there is some talent among their ranks. But as of today — November 24th — the Pac-12 stinks.

I’m sorry.

Believe me, it’s not personal.

But the Pac-12 stinks.

Let me sit back and count the ways:

– Arizona was the league’s highest ranked team coming into the season, finding its way into the top 20. But already, the Wildcats have had two players — including star freshman point guard Josiah Turner — suspended and struggle through the early part of their schedule, posting unimpressive wins over mid-major teams and losing to both Mississippi State and San Diego State.

– Cal, one of the league favorites coming into the season, got drubbed by 39 points against Missouri.

– Washington, another one of the league favorites, was handed a 13-point loss by St. Louis in a game it trailed by as much as 30 during the second half.

– Where do we start with UCLA? Josh Smith is too fat, Reeves Nelson doesn’t care, its guards aren’t good enough. Worst of all, its losses to Michigan and Kansas in the Maui Invitational were being called moral victories. It makes sense, I guess, because the Bruins have yet to earn a win this year against a Division I team.

– And then there are the personnel issues. Oregon just had Jabari Brown, its best freshman and probably its most-talented player, leave the team. Arizona State is playing without Jahii Carson, who may never end up getting cleared, and lost to Pepperdine at home. USC has too many injuries to count, which is probably why it’s able to give up 42 points to Cal Poly and lose.

Oregon State has been the league’s one bright spot this season. Jared Cunningham is playing like a superstar and a first-round draft pick while Craig Robinson has a couple of young big guys with very bright futures. But the Beavers aren’t exactly a top 25 team right now. One of their four wins came against a Div. II program, and their banner victory is against a Texas team in a down year that blew an 18-point lead against North Carolina State.

So when we say that Oregon State is a surprising team, it means that it has a shot of making the NCAA tournament, not that it is a lock for the Sweet 16.

In fact, as of Thanksgiving, the Pac-12 has just one undefeated team left: the Stanford Cardinal.

And you know what else?

This Cardinal team has a shot to be pretty good.

Stanford came into tonight’s Preseason NIT semifinal against Oklahoma State with the standard, mediocre schedule that you see out of high-major schools that are trying to rebuild. The Pokes aren’t exactly a powerhouse, but they aren’t exactly a bottom-feeder in the Big 12, either, which is why Stanford’s 82-67 win over the Cowboys raised a few eyebrows.

“I think we’re scoring the ball better than I thought we would early on,” head coach Johnny Dawkins said after the game. “We lost our leading scorer last season. He averaged 17 ppg, a first team all Pac-12 player. Where are our points going to come from?”

Senior forward Josh Brown led the way for the Cardinal with 21 points, scoring 13 of their first 15 and knocking down his first nine shots. He scored in the paint, he finished dump-offs and, on back-to-back possessions in the first half, he jumped a passing lane and went in for a dunk. This performance was all-the-more special for Owens. He missed the entire 2009-2010 season with an undisclosed medical issue.

“I’ve never played here before,” Owens said. “Usually when I come to 34th and 7th, it’s to get to Penn Station to catch the train to New Jersey. It was a great experience.”

While Owens was providing a punch in the paint, Stanford’s backcourt was lighting it up on the perimeter. Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright combined for 32 points on 11-of-18 shooting, 6-of-11 from beyond the arc, and five assists. Bright did the majority of his damage in the first half while Randle caught fire as Stanford pushed its 11-point halftime lead up into the mid-20s.

As a duo, Bright and Randle provide an intriguing back court. Neither is really a true point guard, but both are capable of scoring the ball and running the point. Bright, a sophomore, has really come on this season. He’s leading the team in scoring and hitting 51.9 percent of his threes. While Randle is a bit bigger than Bright, he’s more of a playmaker. But Randle is still a freshman and is still plagued by freshman mistakes. He’ll only get better as he cuts down his turnovers and improves his shot selection. Wednesday may have been the start; he was 5-of-9 from the floor and only turned over the ball twice.

“We tell out guys to always stay in character,” Dawkins said. “You know the shots you’re capable of making. Be ready for those shots when they present themselves. That’s all we ask our guys to do.”

Andrew Zimmermann and Josh Huestis have played well alongside Owens in the front court for the early part of the season, but the X-factor this season is going to be Dwight Powell. Powell, who was a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, has gotten off to a slow start in his sophomore year thanks to an ankle injury he suffered earlier this month.

If he can become the shot-blocker and interior presence that he was expected to be coming out of high school, Stanford may be able to play its way into the NCAA tournament.

Who knows, maybe a down year for the conference could end up providing an avenue for a banner year in Palo Alto.

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.