Much at stake in Murray State’s potentially historic season

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source: AP

You may not know much about Murray State beyond its 20-0 start or its thrilling upset against Vandy in the 2010 NCAA tournament. (Maybe the Racers were in your bracket.)

But know this: Winning isn’t new to the Racers.

They’ve won the Ohio Valley 22 times (15 since 1988), been to the Big Dance 14 times and is in the middle of its 25 consecutive winning season. Only Syracuse, Arizona and Kansas have bested that.

It’s a place where coaches cultivate themselves into BCS names  – Mark Gottfried, Mick Cronin and Billy Kennedy all thrived there – and has a chance to do something only 1991 UNLV did in the last 30 years: enter the NCAA tournament unbeaten.

source: APTeams have come close (St. Joe’s came up three wins shy in 2004, losing in the A-10 tourney quarterfinals) and Murray State’s far from pulling it off. At least three games loom large before the Ohio Valley tournament begins, but the Racers remain one of the season’s best stories and will surely continue to be just that, even if they do lose a game or two.

So how have they done it?

When coach Steve Prohm took over for Billy Kennedy (now at Texas A&M) this season, he inherited an experienced team (three seniors, five juniors are regulars) and a star player in junior guard Isaiah Canaan who leads Murray State in scoring (18.7 ppg), assists and hits 47 percent of his 3s.

All that experience has paid off in crucial moments, too. Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis talked to Canaan and Prohm earlier this week, focusing on just that.

From Davis:

…  They needed two overtimes to beat Southern Miss in the finals of the Great Alaska Shootout over Thanksgiving. They faced a 12-point deficit midway through the second half at UAB on Nov. 20 but rallied to win by seven. They had Memphis down 11 points on the road on Dec. 11, but they withstood a furious Tigers comeback in the last two minutes to win by four. “We can pretty much say we’ve been through every situation,” Canaan said. “That’s part of being upperclassmen. We understand what to do in certain situations in a game, how things are supposed to happen. We really know what it takes to win.”

Still, they have never been through the situation they are in right now. Besides the media glare that is only going to get hotter (especially since they have no mid-week game this week), the Racers know that every road arena they play in will be filled to capacity with fans lusting to witness history. They will also be subject of rabid debate — Will they get an at-large? Where should they be ranked? Where should they be seeded? — as well as speculation over whether they can reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. “We know the target on our back just grew a lot bigger,” Canaan said. “Each game is going to be somebody’s championship game. They’re going to give us their best shot.”

Right now, that’s for certain. And when the NCAA tournament rolls around, Murray State will be a known commodity and won’t be sneaking up on any big-name teams, much like Butler was in 2010. The Bulldogs were a five seed when they made their first Final Four run and were evidently talented and reliable.

Murray State will be cast in the same light. With any luck, it’ll have a similar NCAA tourney run, too.

It’s no secret mid-majors schools don’t operate with the same financial resources as BCS schools. An NCAA tournament victory amounts to roughly $225,000 for a conference, which pays out to the schools over a period of six years. That means victories mean more than pleasing a fan base. They mean money. (Not to mention the overall value of a small school reaching the Final Four.)

Murray State could use that money to bolster various aspects of its athletic department, including men’s hoops. Though the Racers are getting a boost soon.

From the N.Y. Times:

Despite its sustained success, Murray State remains very far from the highest levels of Division I basketball. A lawn and garden show took over the Racers’ home arena recently while the team was on the road. But things are looking up, mainly because of $3.3 million the local bank CFSB paid for the naming rights to the arena. That money is being directed toward the planned construction of a practice facility, which would allow the basketball offices to be moved out of the football stadium.

“We need to make sure our commitment matches up with the expectations around here,” Athletic Director Allen Ward said.

It makes for a potentially historic and lucrative season in Murray, Kent. Think about that the next time the Racers are out on the court.

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You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

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.