Missouri’s rolling this season, but the Tigers aren’t satisfied

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COLUMBIA, Mo. – No team in the country has had to deal with more turmoil over the last year than the Missouri Tigers.

Think about this: after a disappointing finish to the 2011 season — one that saw the Tigers end up 8-8 in Big 12 play and back in CoMo after the first round of the NCAA Tournament — Mizzou had not one, but two long and drawn out coaching decisions. After Mike Anderson finally stopped leading Missouri on by accepting the Arkansas job, Matt Painter wavered on his decision before ultimately staying put at Purdue.

Then came the Frank Haith hire and the subsequent barrage of criticism, followed by the flirtation of a couple players with the NBA Draft before, ultimately, July appeared to finally bring the Tigers some continuity.

Or so we thought.

Between the non-stop conference realignment chatter, which eventually culminated in a move to the SEC by Missouri, and the news that Frank Haith may have been involved with Nevin Shapiro, the rogue booster for Miami’s football team, Missouri just couldn’t seem to stay out of the news. And then, in mid-September, senior forward Laurence Bowers tore his acl, leaving Missouri with just three (and now two, after Kadeem Green’s transfer in December) big men on the roster.

Put it all together, and it was just too easy to write the Tigers off.

Yet here they are, sitting at fifth in the country with a 17-1 record after a 70-51 win over Texas A&M on Monday afternoon.

“To a man we all did say were not going to have a senior season like the second half of last season,” senior forward Kim English said. “And to this point we aren’t. We’re really focusing in on one game at a time and thats all that matters.”

At this point in the season, the news cycle is focused almost entirely on the on-court happenings. Discussion about the move to the SEC has been pushed to the backburner, right next to the talk about a potential NCAA investigation into the accusations levied against Haith by Shapiro.

But that doesn’t change the fact that, while they were in the thick of it, distraction was aplenty. When I asked English how many texts and phone calls he got from reporters during that stretch, his answer was simple and telling: “a lot”.

“We preach to these guys we’re about things we can control,” Haith said. “We’re preparing ourselves to go out and play every day, because those things we can control. It’s not about worrying about [stuff in the news], because that’s stuff that they can’t control, the stuff people say and if people talk about you. All you can control is the stuff you do on the court and how you prepare yourself to be on the court.”

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Part of what makes Missouri’s situation so unique is that, while they have a new head coach, this is a veteran team. Of the seven players in Missouri’s rotation, five are seniors and one is a junior while Phil Pressey, a sophomore, is the baby of the group. Bowers is also a senior, as is Jarrett Sutton, a fan favorite who thrives in garbage time.

Taking over a team with that many veterans can be a blessing. You don’t need to teach veterans the value of hard work and dedication. You don’t need to develop their skills the way you would a raw-but-talented freshman. Most of these guys will realize just how close they are to finishing up their college degrees and will already know the importance of balancing school work and court time.

But it can also be a curse. Is their loyalty to their former coach? Do these guys have one style of play ingrained in them? Are they willing to adapt to a new system and a new coaching style?

“Its feast or famine,” Haith said after the game. “It can go one of two ways: They had success, so they can either fight you because they are used to doing things a certain way, or they buy in. These guys have bought in to what we’ve done.”

According to Haith, the key for Missouri has been the leadership of English and Marcus Denmon. They set the tone for this team, and getting them on the same page as the coaching staff was the first priority when Haith took over.

“I think its all about leadership. You’ve gotta have great leadership,” he said. “For us to come in and change the mindset of what we want to do with these guys, it had to be Marcus Denmon and Kim English buying in. Because if they don’t, than it can be tough. These guys have bought in, and its because the leadership of those two.”

But Haith had to buy in to his players just as much as they had to buy in to him. Because this isn’t the same Frank Haith that we saw coach Miami. As much as this Missouri team has adapted to his coaching style, he’s adapted his game plan and the system that he wants to run to Missouri’s playing style.

Gone is the 40 Minutes of Hell defense, but Missouri still is a tenacious defensive team, a group that can put stifling pressure on the ball. The Tigers are not a team that spends the entire game running up and down the court anymore, but they are still a dangerous team when they are able to get out in transition. The Tigers may be a group that thrives on executing their offense in the half court, but they also have enough individual talent that they are able to break off a set if they find themselves in a situation where they can get by their man.

“We needed a coach to coach us the right way,” English said. “We needed to have some structure we needed to be held accountable, and we needed to buy in and we did that.”

As much credit as Haith deserves for getting this team to perform in his first season in Columbia, its not hard to read between those lines.

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Missouri’s goal this season wasn’t — and isn’t — to be a top ten team.

The ranking is nice, and its a testament to the hard work they put in this summer and the terrific basketball they have played this season, but back in October, no one in the Tiger locker had the goal of being ranked fifth in the nation on January 17th.

“I wasn’t like ‘let’s get in the top ten’. The goal was to get in the postseason,” Haith said. “I never really put a lot of thought into anything other than trying to get these guys better.”

And they aren’t done getting better.

Against Texas A&M, Missouri played far from their best game. They didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, they turned it over far too frequently and if it wasn’t for the spark that Dixon provided coming off the bench midway through the first half, the outcome of this game could have been very different. This comes of the heels of a trip to Ames, IA, where Missouri was able to steal a win from the Cyclones despite hitting just 5-21 from three and seeing two players foul out of the game.

As the saying goes, good teams are able to win games when they don’t play their best basketball, especially on the road. So is that a good sign for Missouri?

“Yeah, it is,” said English, who is not shy about his goal of winning a national title.

“But we haven’t done anything yet.”

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.