Sweet 16 Previews: Will Fab Melo’s absence matter vs. Wisconsin?

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Ed Isaacson of NBADraftBlog.com contributed to this post.

Just eight short days ago, the course of the season for the Syracuse Orange completely changed.

For the second time in the span of two months, Fab Melo, the Big East’s Defensive Player of the Year and the rock that had anchored the Syracuse zone, was ruled ineligible due to the same academic issue. Without him, the thinking went, Syracuse not only didn’t have a chance of winning the national title, but their hopes of making a deep run into the NCAA tournament were severely hurt.

It would be difficult to understate just what Melo meant to the Syracuse zone. Luke Winn of SI.com did an exhaustive study of the Syracuse defense, and what he determined was that Melo was “simultaneously the Orange’s most obvious defensive force (by blocking shots) and its secret weapon (by taking charges and creating turnovers).”

I wrote this back when Melo was ruled ineligible*:

That’s really all you need to know about Melo’s presence in the paint. He not only blocks 2.9 shots per game, he forces opponents that he’s engaged with to shoot just 29.1% from the field without fouling (his defensive free throw rate is 37.7%). That doesn’t even mention the fact that he gathers steals and takes charges as well as any big man in the country. Melo is not a good rebounder outside of his area, which is a major problem for a team that struggles on the defensive glass, but his ability to end possessions via the turnover and the number of missed shots he forces make up for it.

(The stats came from Winn’s study linked above.)

But Melo’s absence didn’t stop No. 1 seed Syracuse from advancing to the Sweet 16 with wins over No. 16 UNC-Asheville (with an assist from the refs) and No. 8 Kansas State (with a hat-tip to the NCAA).

Syracuse gets No. 4 Wisconsin on Thursday night. On paper, the Badgers look like an ideal team to go up against a zone and exploit the absence of Melo. They have a playmaking point guard in Jordan Taylor, they have shooters all over their perimeter and they have skilled big men that can knock down that foul line jumper and pass from the high-post.

So would you be surprised if I were to tell you that Wisconsin actually struggles against a zone?

It’s true.

Kenpom.com rates Wisconsin as the 20th-most efficient team in the country on the offensive end of the floor. On the season, they are averaging 1.082 points-per-possession (PPP). Against a zone, however, that number falls to 0.960 PPP, which is a significant difference. Wisconsin averages 58.8 possessions per game, meaning that in an average game where the Badgers face a zone the entire 40 minutes, they lose 7.1 ppg.

Those struggles were evident against Vanderbilt in the round of 32. The Badgers had opened up a nine point lead with 6:07 left on the clock when Kevin Stallings threw on a 2-3 zone that completely flummoxed Bo Ryan’s team. Wisconsin would manage just seven points the rest of the game, but their struggles went deeper than that.

Wisconsin essentially had eight full shot clocks in the final six minutes. (Technically, they had six possessions, but they were able to grab a couple of offensive rebounds.) They managed eight shots from the floor, every single one of them a three-pointer. In fact, there were only two times in the final 6:07 where Wisconsin actually got the ball inside the three-point line without grabbing an offensive rebound, and they came on the same possession. Jordan Taylor passed the ball to Jared Berggren at the high-post, and after Berggren (almost immediately) kicked the ball back out, Taylor drove right and got about a foot inside the three-point line before pulling the ball out.

Wisconsin was saved because Ben Brust hit a 26 foot three (he tried three of them) and Taylor hit a tough, contested three off the dribble.

This is what Wisconsin’s offense looked like down the stretch. Jordan Taylor doesn’t even look to initiate an offensive set until there are 25 seconds left on the shot clock:

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The first time he gets rid of the ball is with 20 seconds left on the shot clock. Wisconsin still hasn’t gotten the ball with 25 feet of the rim:

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To their credit, Wisconsin moves the ball around the perimeter quickly, but an offense is easy to defend in the zone when that happens:

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The first time Wisconsin is within 25 feet, it is with six seconds left on the shot clock and Ryan Evans is firing a three:

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This isn’t the only time that Wisconsin struggled with a zone. Iowa played a lot of zone in their two wins over the Badgers — in the second game, the Hawkeyes made their game-changing run in the second half while in a 2-3 zone — as did Michigan in their 18 point win in January.

The issue is that Wisconsin’s offense is predicated around milking the clock and, if no good shots arise out of Ryan’s Swing Offense, the Badgers either isolate Taylor or give him a ball-screen. When that happens against a zone, however, far too often Taylor is forced to try and create against two defenders.

You have to beat the zone with the pass and by attacking gaps off the dribble. Unless Wisconsin has figured that ou, the absence of Melo around the rim will not decide the outcome of this game.

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

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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.