Previewing the Madness: The Big South

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The Big South is about as typical as it gets for a mid-major league.

They have a powerhouse program in UNC-Asheville that rose to the top of the league. The Bulldogs won the conference by a whopping four games, an impressive number for a league that actually is fairly balanced. The second place team — Coastal Carolina — finished the year four games out of first place and just four games ahead of Winthrop, who finished in ninth place.

Without question, UNCA is the heavy favorite to make a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, which was the cause for one of the prevailing story lines of the season. After the play-in rounds of the Big South Tournament, which take place Monday night on the campus of the higher seeds, the next two rounds will be hosted by UNCA in their brand new Kimmel Arena. But the title game will take place on the campus of the higher-seeded team. The problem? UNCA reached an agreement with the Southern Conference to host their women’s tournament which created a scheduling conflict with the Big South’s title games.

In other words, with neither side willing to budge, it looked, for a while, like UNCA would not be able to host the Big South’s title game. Luckily, about a month ago, cooler heads prevailed and the SoCon opted to reschedule their games should the need arise. It would have been a shame if UNCA hadn’t been able to defend their tournament title on their home floor.

The Bracket

Where: Campus sites for the first round, UNC Asheville’s Kimmel Arena for the second and third round, higher seed for the title game

When: Feb. 27th-Mar. 3rd

Final: March 3rd, 12 p.m., ESPN2

Favorite: UNC Asheville

The Bulldogs are clearly the favorite to win the automatic bid, just the way they were picked in the preseason. Not only did they tie a conference record with 16 wins, they did it in fairly dominating fashion, winning the conference by four games and becoming the first team to clinch their league title two weeks ago. UNCA is led by a dynamic back court of Matt Dickey and JP Primm and spread the floor using a starting lineup that doesn’t feature anyone taller than 6’5″. The Bulldogs can score, and when they are shooting the ball well, they are going to be tough to beat. Catch them on a bad night, however, and they are suspect enough defensively and on the glass that an upset can be had.

And if they lose?: Coastal Carolina

The Chanticleers struggled down the stretch of the season, at one point losing five out of six games. But they still managed to finish in second place in the league standings, which should give you an idea of where this team was prior to that losing streak. It should be noted that win CCU lost five of six, the one team they beat was UNC-Asheville. So there’s that.

Sleepers: Charleston Southern was the only other team in the conference to knock off UNC-Asheville, and they did it in Kimmel Arena back on January 19th. The Buccaneers, who won four of their last five games during the regular season, are the four-seed and would get UNC-Asheville in the semifinals. Campbell is another team to watch out for. The Fighting Camels have some size and athleticism that you don’t often see at this level, although they have lost three in a row and six of their last nine.

Studs

JP Primm and Matt Dickey, UNC-Asheville: Arguably the most dynamic mid-major back court in the country, these two combined to average 31.8 ppg and 8.7 apg on the year.

Nick Barbour and Shay Shine, High Point: High Point had the highest scoring back court tandem in the league, as Barbour and Shine combined to average 36.3 ppg.

Eric Griffin, Campbell: Griffin is probably the most athletic player in the conference, playing the same role for the Camels that Andre Roberson does for Colorado.

Anthony Raffa, Coastal Carolina: Raffa scored 20 in CCU’s win over UNCA.

Kelvin Martin, Charleston Southern: In his last six games, Martin is averaging 20.3 ppg and 10.8 rpg.

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

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.