Big East Tournament Preview

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For the last time ever, we will be watching the Big East Tournament as we know it.

Next season, West Virginia will be gone, headed to the Big 12. Pitt and Syracuse won’t be far behind them, replaced by powerhouse programs like SMU, Houston and UCF. Saying the league will be diluted is akin to saying “The OC” went downhill after Marisa shot Ryan’s brother at the end of season two. Stating the obvious.

The shame is that the Big East conference, as a whole, is on a downswing this season. Yes, they may get as many as ten teams into the NCAA Tournament if things break the right way this week, but four of those teams could also get relegated to the NIT. There is a lot of ‘meh’ in the league this season, epitomized by the fact that the four seed, Cincinnati, and the six seed, South Florida, are both currently sitting on the bubble despite going 12-6 in conference play.

That normally doesn’t happen in this conference.

But the foreshadowing that it provides is plain to see.

This tournament — any conference tournament, for that matter — is never not going to be fun to watch. I truly cannot imagine a better way to spend a day than sitting in a gym for 12 hours and watching the quarterfinal round of any tournament. But would you rather watch UConn play Pitt or SMU? Georgetown take on Syracuse or UCF? Even a game pitting USF and Rutgers is a tough sell in New York City.

The Big East Tournament used to the place to be the first week of March. And now its just like everywhere else.

The Bracket

Where: New York City

When: March 6th-March 10th

Final: March 10th, 9 p.m. ESPN

Favorite: Syracuse

Who else could you possibly pick here? The Orange had one loss the entire season and that came on the road against the team that finished in third place in the conference when they were missing Fab Melo, the most important piece in their zone. The Orane have become synonymous with early exits in March, but I think this group is different. With Scoop Jardine taking over the leadership role and Dion Waiters and Kris Joseph continuing to play up to their potential, the Orange have plenty of talent and experience on their roster. This group works well together.

And if they lose?: Marquette

I have been leading the Golden Eagle’s bandwagon since way back in November, and what stands out the most about this group is that they have combined the toughness we’ve come to expect from the program with a very talented group of kids. They are a dangerous team when they are able to pressure the ball and they are surgical in transition. I’ve been pumped Jae Crowder non-stop the past few days, but Darius Johnson-Odom is just as important to this team’s success.

Other contenders?: There are other teams capable of winning this tournament, but I am not sure if anyone else in the league is up around the level of these two. I just don’t see Notre Dame putting together the kind of winning streak they need and I am not yet ready to buy into South Florida or Cincinnati just yet.

Sleeper: Georgetown

It feels weird saying Georgetown is a sleeper in this tournament. They finished tied for fourth in the conference standings and, frankly, they are Georgetown. But as the fifth-seed, I think they qualify for the sleeper category. I just think that this group is so well-coached and so long, athletic and versatile defensively that they are going to be a nightmare matchup.

Deeper sleepers: Honestly, I think UConn has a shot to win this thing against. They have the talent. They have their coach back. Win a couple of games and get the confidence back? They’ve done it before, making the run to the title from the No. 9 seed last season. They’re in the same spot this season.

Studs:

Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette: The Golden Eagles have the luxury of playing with the league’s Player of the Year and a First Team All-Big East member. Crowder is the more important of the two thanks to his ability to play on the perimeter and defend the paint.

Kevin Jones, West Virginia: Jones is the leading scorer and the leading rebounder in the conference. That’s not easy to do.

Moe Harkless, St. John’s: If he lasts four years, he might end up being the Big East Player of the Year one day.

Vincent Council, Providence: The Friars didn’t win a lot of games, but Council had arguably the best year of any point guard in the conference: 16.2 ppg, 7.5 apg, and 4.0 rpg.

Dion Waiters, Syracuse: I truly believe Waiters is the best player on a very, very good Syracuse team.

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

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.