Blogger Spotlight: The Big Lead on Kentucky, the Big East vs. the Big Ten and some Final Four picks

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The Big Lead covers everything sports, and then some. NFL, NBA, MLB, MMA, fantasy sports, sports gossip, babes, statistical analysis, you name it. It’s there.

With NFL season over, expect even more college hoops to surface on the site as it reflects the nation’s annual rising interest in the sport. But if it seems as though it has a few more college basketball stories than anything else, that’s probably because the site’s founder and editor-in-chief, Jason McIntyre, is a hoophead.

(This SI.com profile makes for good background reading if you don’t read the site, though this story’s a bit more recent.)

All of which makes him an ideal subject for the latest Blogger Spotlight. We covered hoops’ post-Super Bowl attention, if it needs a Jimmer, Kentucky’s insane fan base and even a little CAA hoops. Who does he think will be in the Final Four and who will probably make the Final Four? Read on.

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Q: Super Bowl’s over, which usually means college basketball gets a slight attention boost from casual fans (who weren’t watching before) and media outlets that couldn’t fit in games like St. Mary’s-Gonzaga for time/space limitations. Do you find this to be true? Does The Big Lead’s coverage change? Do you guys push college hoops more?

A: I’m a college hoops junkie, so I follow the sport from the Maui Classic through the title game. I thought Kentucky/UNC in December was better than 97 percent of worthless bowl games. It almost seems as if college hoops timed it perfectly this year – the Super Bowl, quickly followed by a slew of marvelous games this week.

I think you’re right – nationally, college hoops will be getting significantly more coverage now that football is over. Weekends won’t be consumed by football, but rather college basketball. On the site, yes, we’ll certainly be doing much more college hoops.

I’m just glad the Colts are going to cut Peyton Manning soon instead of waiting until March and infringing on March Madness, which is the greatest sports event every year (except when the World Cup happens every four years).

Q: Does college basketball need a Jimmer-type player every year to boost overall interest? Or is it better when Kentucky, Carolina, Duke and other marquee schools are dominating the game? Seems like the ideal for national attention is when Duke has a star like J.J. Redick and is great, but …

A: It’s funny – the NBA basically has two Jimmer-type players this year in Ricky Rubio and emerging Jeremy Lin and college hoops doesn’t have one. I think college basketball certainly misses Jimmer, but I don’t think the sport is hurting without him, not with a ridiculously loaded Kentucky team and at least 8-9 really, really good lottery picks dominating the sport.

College football is better when traditional powers like Notre Dame are very good; baseball generates better ratings when the Yankees are in the World Series. The NBA is star-driven. College basketball seems like a different animal. Duke and Butler in the National title game generated the best Championship rating in over a decade.

This year, we could be looking at a Final 4 better than 2008, when all the No. 1 seeds advanced. How much interest would there be in a Kentucky-Kansas-North Carolina-Syracuse Final Four? (Syracuse for the coveted “Northeast” market.) Or would fans tune in for an “underdog” like Missouri or Baylor? (I’m using underdog in the sense that neither school ever makes the Final 4.)

Q: Not that you’ve been ignoring college hoops. You love this stuff. Where does college hoops rank in your sports hierarchy? Prefer it over NBA?

A: Of the 17 NFL Sundays last season, i was able to sit at home for 16 of them watching Red Zone for hours on end. (Don’t ask how I pulled this off with a baby at home who is now 10 months old.) That being said, yes, my favorite sport is college basketball. In college, I joined a nerdy college hoops fantasy league and became obsessed with sport. I’d be willing to go up against anyone in college basketball Jeopardy from 1995-2002.

Gun-to-head, I’d rank em like this: College basketball, NFL, NBA, college football. In truth, it’s 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B.

Q: Do you get to many games in person? Or is that appeal even there? When I’m work, it’s far more useful to have TVs on and ESPN3 running so I can monitor several games. Going to games is fun, but it’s like everything else in sports right now – TV is often a superior viewing experience. (Not to mention the kid factor. Who has the time to work, go to a game and see their family?)

A: Haven’t been to a college basketball game in years. For site coverage purposes, it makes significantly more sense to be at home – the ability to pull video, for instance, and get it online 10 minutes later. The value in going to the game and getting quotes/talking to people/networking works for longer pieces and developing contacts, though. Then you’ve got to weigh the hassle of travel, and as you said, being away from your family constantly. I don’t know how the beat guys do it. I traveled plenty for work in my 20s, but it’s not nearly as appealing now.

As for March Madness, the best seat, without question, is a computer chair with two TVs going. (True story: Last year, during the 2nd day of the tournament, my wife was giving birth and I had the tournament on mute. Only for a bit though. Once labor began, I had to shut it down.) I actually feel that way about all sports. Give me Red Zone on NFL Sundays over going to a game. When you factor in all the TV timeouts, the prices for parking, food, dealing with drunk knuckleheads, etc … the game experience is vastly overrated, in my opinion.

Q: Earlier this season, you tapped the Big East as the best conference. Still feel that way? And where’s the ACC rank nowadays? I might take the Mountain West over it in an ACC/MWC Challenge.

source: APA: I’ve been trying to find a moment to sit down and really delve into the Big East vs. Big Ten. Perhaps this weekend. I’m aware that virtually all the numbers point to the Big Ten. Yes, the Big East is obviously down this year, but of course you’re going to go down after getting a record 11 teams into the tournament. Check out last year’s  all-Big East teams. Of the top 16 players, how many are playing right now? Three. Of course a drop-off was to be expected. That being said, let’s look at strength of schedule.

The Big East has three in the top six, and six in the top 18. The Big Ten has four in the Top 20. If you compare the top three teams in each league in SOS, it’s about even; the Big 10 (going by the current standings) has an edge in the next group of Michigan, Indiana, Illinois over Notre Dame, Louisville and Cincinnati. But then you’ve got the next trio where the Big East has an advantage because teams like West Virginia and UConn are down a bit.

For what it’s worth – last five years, five Big East squads have reached the Final Four (four different schools). Same time period: three Big Ten squads, (two different schools). I’m very curious to see how these conferences do in the NCAA tournament. Would you be surprised if each conference only had two schools in the Sweet 16 (Ohio State, Indiana; Syracuse, UConn)? I wouldn’t.

How wild has the ACC been? Florida State beating the hell out of UNC and winning at Duke? Virginia was on the uptick, but 18-4 good? I actually think UNC has underwhelmed a bit despite rolling through the ACC so far. I was expecting the loaded Tar Heels to pummel teams into submission, but that hasn’t totally happened. Problem is, after FSU, UVA, UNC and Duke, I’m not sold on Miami (which is better with Reggie Johnson) or NC State (which has a fat record by default because the dregs in the conference stink). I could see the same number of MWC teams reaching the Sweet 16 as the ACC.

Q: Most surprising aspect of the season thus far?

A: I knew the Pac-12 would be awful, but falling to a 1-bid league?

I think Dion Waiters of Syracuse went from reserve with potential to star in one off-season. I know a lot of folks like Kevin Jones as Big East player of the year, but Waiters is my pick.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was an elite high school player, but going to UK all anyone talked about was Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones. MKG has been phenomenal, and I think he’s become a Top 5 draft pick.

I’m shocked that Georgetown managed to improve (considerably) despite losing two all-conference stars in Wright and Freeman.

Gotta toss Missouri, Murray State and Michigan State into the “surprising” category as well.

Q: You tweeted some reservations about Kentucky as the game’s best/most dominant team despite a 20-point win against Florida. How much did BBN kill you for this? Few fan bases respond with more vigor and ferocity to perceived slights.

A: It’s undeniable: Kentucky is the best team in the country. Kentucky has the best talent in the country. Virtually all the stats point to Kentucky. My reservations are purely opinion-based: 1) Cal’s history of struggles in the NCAA tournament, 2) Freshman and sophomores choking in a big spot in a close game on the road, 3) Despite the growth of Marquis Teague, he’s still the weak link of that offense. That’s all I’ve got.

That being said, a No. 1 seed has won the title four of the last five years (UConn last year was a 3). I’ll probably fill out 10 pools again and have Kentucky winning in 6-7 of them.

Q: You’re a James Madison grad, right? As Shaka Smart says, great basketball in that state. But do you ever look at the rest of the Virginia-based CAA teams and think “Damn. Why can’t we break through just once?”

A: Can I play the, “we’re a football school?” card? They beat Penn and GW earlier this year and I thought maybe they could be dangerous in the CAA tournament. Now, they’ve lost six in a row. No shot. The last time they went dancing was in 1994, which was three years before I got there.

Q: We’re still a month away from Selection Sunday, but give me who you’d like to see in the Final Four and who you think will get there.  

source: APA: It’s all about the matchups. Take Syracuse. Like the Orange, root for the Orange, but what if they draw a strong 3-point shooting team in the 2nd round? I could easily see them getting bounced. Michigan and Virginia can be dangerous teams – if the matchups are right. That being said …

Who I’d like to see: Kentucky vs. Syracuse would be an exciting semifinal. Remember what Bob Huggins’ gimmick zone defense did to John Wall’s 2010 Kentucky team in the Final 4? UNC vs. Ohio State. I’d say those are probably the 4 best teams in the country. Craft vs. Marshall? Sullinger vs. Henson?

Who I think will get there: Kentucky and UNC seem to be the only sure bets (Duke finish notwithstanding), and two teams not currently in the top 15 (polls or Ken Pom), just for fun: Louisville, UNLV.

Q: Do you get much time for reflection for how The Big Lead’s grown? You’re obviously in this for the long haul, but how do you envision your role in a few years? Will you ever cede daily responsibilities to another editor and take a background role or even seek out another challenge and let the site evolve without you, kinda like what Will Leitch did?

A: I used to be the kind of guy who tried to map out my future long term, but then I started a website from scratch and that’s changed everything. No idea where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing in two years. But I enjoy running the site because it doesn’t have to be all sports, all the time. That’s why I left newspapers – it was basically sports 24/7 and that’s it. I much prefer the ability to drop in a movie/tv/culture post whenever, and having fun that way. I have started to slowly back away from the site for an hour here or an hour there because I need to for my sanity, but ultimately, I end up checking things out on my phone and talking with the writers that way.

There’s a weird parallel somewhere about the site being my little baby – awkward and fun and clumsy at first, and I had no clue what I was doing. As it has grown, the site has matured, and it’s constantly evolving and trying different things (such as the Colin Cowherd profile last month). Preliminary talks with the USA Today brass give me optimism for 2012 and beyond.

More of Jason’s writing can be found at The Big Lead. Follow him on Twitter @TheBigLead.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

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.