Xavier: “I guess I got my swagger back”. Truth?

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CINCINNATI, OH – No team in the country has faced more scrutiny over the last month than Xavier has, and its all due to 9.4 seconds that everyone in Cincinnati wishes they could take back.

The Crosstown Punchout.

While the Bearcats used the fallout from the Brawl Seen ‘Round the World to discover that they were able to effectively play small-ball, Xavier struggled. Despite having their full roster available after just four games — and their talented back court back in the fold after just two — the Musketeers entered Atlantic 10 play having lost four of five and promptly dropped their league opener to La Salle in ugly fashion, needing a late rally to make the final score look closer than the game was.

They followed that up with a closer-than-it-should-have-been win over Fordham, which begged the question — what’s wrong with Xavier?

The answer was beautifully simple: the Musketeers lost their swagger.

As cliche as that sounds, its the truth. Xavier is a team built on toughness. They rely on their ability to make things difficult for their opponents on the defensive end of the floor and the confidence of Mark Lyons and Tu Holloway to use their immense ability to create scoring chances, either for themselves or for their teammates.

“We lost our swagger, our toughness, the confidence we had,” Tu Holloway told me after Xavier’s dominating 78-50 win over Duquesne at the Cintas Center. “We were worried about the referees calling games tough on us and things like that. It was in our heads, as much as I stay away from reading blogs and I don’t read my twitter, but its in your head. You hear people saying things, you even got your own family calling you asking you what’s going on so its tough.”

Winning is contagious, but losing is as well. Xavier dropped a couple of games in Maui and all of a sudden the aura of invincibility that surrounded that program this season was gone. Remember, this is the team that came back from 10 down at Vanderbilt and won. They erased a 19 point deficit against Purdue in the final 10 minutes. They won at Butler and absolutely destroyed Cincinnati.

But once the losses started piling up, a seed of doubt started creeping. Instead of believing that, regardless of the predicament that they found themselves in, they would win, Xavier’s mindset became that of the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox — how are we going to blow this one? What’s going to happen that costs us a win this time?

After Wednesday night’s performance, is it time for Xavier to start quoting Jay-Z: “I guess I got my swagger back“?

It may be too early to say.

But as far as Xavier is concerned, who they were in December is irrelevant.

“I’m not going to sit there and try to compare and contrast. We’re getting better,” Xavier head coach Chris Mack said. “I think we’ve taken a step forward these last couple of games. Guys are playing with renewed energy. We’re sharing the ball better than we did the first eight games. Who cares about comparisons? We’ve gotta worry about St. Bonaventure on Saturday.”

At this point, the past isn’t where Xavier’s focus lies, its the process. Its about taking the next step and building on the small successes that come out of every game.

That process?

It started on December 11th, the day after the fight.

“The first step was after that day,” Holloway said. “Every day has been a process of healing and getting back. The steps was when we started A-10 play.”

“Every game is a step from here on out.”

On Saturday at Fordham, the step that Xavier took was simply getting a win under their belt, proving to themselves that they weren’t the team that lost five of six games. The same way that a shooter tries to get to the foul line when he’s struggling because seeing the ball go through the hoop can flip that switch, Xavier simply needed to get one in the win column.

“That felt good. We needed that,” Lyons said after the win on Saturday. Mack followed that up by saying “it feels good to win. Mark hit the nail on the head.”

Wednesday was the next step. Xavier’s defense was impenetrable in the first half, as they held the Dukes to just 16 points on 6-23 shooting from the field while forcing seven turnovers. It wasn’t until Sean Johnson scored Duquesne’s 16th point on a backdoor layup with 1:45 left in the half that Xavier actually gave up a clean look at the rim. TJ McConnell, Duquesne’s star point guard, was completely shut down as Holloway held him to just four points and four assists.

It was more than just an individual performance, however. Xavier was finally focused and communicating on defense again.

“We were just more locked in and focused,” Andre Walker said. “We always know what we’re supposed to do but our minds wander. Tonight we made a concerted effort that we were going to be in the gaps and talking.”

“You just feel more confident when you’re guarding somebody and you hear tour teammate say they got your help. … It was just good to be out there with these guys and hearing everybody talk.”

Mack agreed.

“We need to be a disciplined team, one that pays attention to detail,” he said. “Anybody can see it on film, but being able to get your kids to execute is a different thing. I think we learned from the La Salle game and early on we got some stops to give our kids confidence we were doing it the right way.”

“Early on in the year, we defended that way and you saw the results. I think we took another step forward tonight to being that team.”

The other area that Xavier improved on Wednesday was in their front court. The Musketeer’s have a big, athletic front line and will rarely be at a size disadvantage when they step on the floor. The problem is that they have struggled capitalizing on that size advantage.

Duquesne isn’t a big team by any stretch of the imagination, but Xavier didn’t give the Dukes a chance. Kenny Frease and Jeff Robinson played as well as they have all season long, finishing with a combined 23 points and 12 boards, nine of which came on the offensive end of the floor, while shooting 9-11 from the field. The majority of that damage came early in the first half as Xavier asserted complete control over the game.

Think about this: for a team whose talent centers around their back court, Xavier finished with 54 of their 78 points in the paint.

And while that number is impressive, it all comes back to the play of Holloway and Lyons.

“It was all set by our guards being able to get into the lane,” Mack said. “Our guards are as good as anybody in the country when they are able to get into the lane and create help-up situations and drive and kick situations, times where box outs are out of position.”

Contrary to popular belief, Holloway is not the most talented player on this team. Lyons is. He’s a better shooter, he’s a better slasher and he’s more athletic. But Holloway is their most important, and he is at his best when the role he plays is as the facilitator offensively. He’s also the best perimeter defender that Mack has at his disposal.

Its no coincidence that on the night that Holloway has 11 assists, one turnover and completely shuts down the opponent’s star guard, Xavier has their most impressive performance since the brawl.

“It starts with defense for us,” Holloway said. “Its not about us scoring 70-some points the way we did tonight, its about stopping guys and being able to get runs.”

As good as the Musketeers looked tonight, beating Duquesne by 28 won’t define their season.

Its just another step in the right direction.

“We’re still on a long process getting back to where we were,” Holloway said. “Hopefully we can get back to that point.”

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

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.