Recruiting rundown: Chris Thomas on unconventional path

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It’s not hyperbole to say that 6-5 guard Chris Thomas is one of the largest basketball talents to come out of Denver, Colo., in at least a decade. The lengthy athlete has unbelievable bounce, a flair for making a remarkable play, and a defense-stretching long-range shooting ability. Thomas is all but unstoppable in transition due to his fiery burst. All of those traits put Thomas, a high school junior as of last week, as comfortably among the top-10 most talented players in the 2013 class.

The flip side of Thomas was that he never actually showcased his talents in the Mile High City as a high schooler, as he attended but never played at Montbello (Colo.) as the first of several stops prior to his recent decision. His route, in terms of schools attended, includes stops in Maryland and Arizona, until he arrived at South Kent School (Conn.) at the start of this school year. Also, Thomas may have led last summer’s circuit in technical fouls and verbal outbursts during games, if such statistics were ever kept.

After reports went out last week that Thomas had left South Kent School, he was expected to turn up at a prep school in North Carolina. That didn’t happen, and now Thomas has left high school basketball and enrolled at Chipola JC (Fla.), a strong junior college basketball program. Thomas was a member of the 2012 class prior to reclassifying to the 2013 class, so the move isn’t as drastic as it may sound. Then again, with a mid-year enrollee, Jarnell Stokes, excelling for Tennessee, this has clearly been an interesting and in some ways unprecedented time in the world of college basketball recruiting.

Recent NCAA crackdowns on prep schools and fly-by-night basketball academies have closed some past loopholes that a well-traveled player like Thomas potentially could have exploited, and the chance of student-athletes making up for lost time in the classroom has greatly diminished from what could have occurred in the past.

After trying a variety of academic options, junior college seems unconventional but a potentially good option for a player who faced significant eligibility challenges. Thomas is expected to be solely a student for this term at Chipola JC, and begin as a member of the basketball team for the 2012-2013 season. New NCAA rules require posting a 2.5 GPA in order to be eligible as a junior college transfer, according to legislation passed in October.

There is another option to monitor, though.

Assuming Thomas can harness his massive talent level, he would be one year removed from the graduation date of his original high school class after his first season at Chipola JC. At that point, he could potentially consider the option of professional basketball. Chris Thomas has the game and physical gifts of an NBA shooting guard, but other departments of his development lag far behind. If he can get it together at Chipola, Thomas may eventually harness his world of potential. For what it’s worth, Thomas was at one time considered a lock to go to Arizona, and later considered schools such as Kentucky, Xavier, and others.

Amile Jefferson decision coming soon, is Duke making up lost ground?
Amile Jefferson of Friends Central (Penn.) is one of only a few prizes left among frontcourt stars in the 2012 class. A college decision could come in the next week or so, according to his father, Malcolm Musgrove, who told Adam Zagoria of ZagsBlog.com that regarding his son’s decision, “I’m thinking by the end of January he will know.”

While on the surface, the top-25 prospect’s list includes Duke, NC State, Ohio State, Kentucky and Villanova, it is Duke that is gaining the most buzz among prognosticators. The Blue Devils are trying to add a quality frontline player alongside their sole early signing period score, Texas shooting guard Rasheed Sulaimon.

At this point, the 6-8 forward seems to be most strongly considering Triangle rivals Duke and NC State, and would be a welcome addition for either program. Duke is putting on the full court pressure, with Coach K making an appearance at a recent game. Still, it remains to be seen if NC State can break through for an amazing fourth top-100 player in coach Mark Gottfried’s first recruiting class at the school.

Expected 2013 pledge Derek Willis comes through for Kentucky
In this space last week, the “smart money” was placed on 6-9 power forward Derek Willis, a high school junior from Bullitt East (Ky.) committing to the Wildcats as their first pledge in the 2013 class, and that came through, as expected.

While Kentucky is far from done in the 2012 recruiting cycle, and is expected to land multiple prospects going forward, Willis is a solid start to the 2013 class as a top-50 prospect in his own right. He’s a one-time Purdue recruit that was said to have seriously considered the Boilermakers the second time around, before going with Kentucky.

During his press conference, Willis cited a “great relationship” with Kentucky coach John Calipari as a reason for picking the Wildcats. He’s a face up power forward that can shoot and stretch defenses. His skill level is solid, but he needs physical maturation to make an impact as a freshman in two years.

DePaul adds “Nugget” as third recruit for next year
After a weekend official visit to campus, multiple outlets are reporting that Green Valley (Nev.) guard Durrell “Nugget” McDonald has committed to join the Blue Demons for next year. McDonald is a high-scoring, slender backcourt prospect capable of playing in either guard slot. McDonald hails from the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, Nev., so he’ll have to adapt to a climate change in college.

McDonald is the third member of DePaul’s recruiting class for next season. He joins undersized, but effective, forward DeJuan Marrero and shooting specialist wing Jodan Price. Given the late stage in the recruiting cycle, McDonald could be a solid addition for DePaul. His athleticism and versatility gives DePaul hopes for solid upside.

Kellon Hassenstab runs Hoopniks.com. Follow him on Twitter @hoopniks.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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

Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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

Joe Rondone/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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.