Conference Catchups: Mason best of shrinking CAA

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Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our CAA Conference Catchup:

Favorite: George Mason

The more things change, the more they stay the same in the CAA. As the league’s power base of Virginia schools has been gradually eroded by realignment — most notably the absence of VCU in this year’s schedule — the time seemed ripe for a geographical shift. Drexel and Delaware were atop our preseason preview list, with Mason coming in third.

Well, here we are again, with the Patriots standing tall. They started the season with an upset win over Virginia, came within a point of knocking off New Mexico at the Pit, and drained a three to beat Richmond in the Spiders’ hometown. The Patriots have lost a few games they should have won, but that’s been an epidemic in the CAA this season, so they’re still the best of the bunch right now. Mason has one particular stat to hang their stocking caps on: their 91.6 Kenpom defensive efficiency number reflects a staunch inside presence led by Erik Copes that gives them a great chance night in and night out. If the Patriots can just get some offensive help for sharpshooting Sherrod Wright, they’ll be so much tougher to beat.

Contenders: Drexel is still the league’s most dangerous offensive team, even without senior Chris Fouch, who broke his ankle and will miss the rest of the season. Most bafflingly, the Dragons can’t stop anybody, so they’ve lost to good teams (St. Mary’s, Xavier, St. Joe’s) and mediocre teams (Rider, Tennessee State) alike.

William & Mary has played a pretty weak schedule, but they’ve won the games they should win, and that’s more than the rest of the league can say after non-conference season. Signs of life for the star-crossed Tribe include 1) excellent shooting (53.9%) inside the arc, 2) excellent defense on the perimeter and 3) unlike half of the league, they are eligible to win the auto-bid this season. Heartache is a familiar feeling for Tribe fans, who have never had an NCAA tourney team, but this could be their year.

Biggest Surprise: Jerelle Benimon, Towson

Benimon was a bench-riding afterthought at Georgetown. Granted, the Big East is a tough gig, but Benimon has been flat crushing it in his first post-transfer season as a Tiger. His 20 point, 21 rebound effort in last week’s upset of Oregon State put him on the national radar, but he put up 30 points in 40 minutes in an earlier loss to Temple, and 29 in a road win over Vermont. The Tigers as a team aren’t much of a threat just yet, but the 6’8″, 245-lb. Benimon is as scary as they come.

Biggest Disappointment: Drexel

Nobody in the CAA — possibly the nation — has been screwed over by the NCAA at-large process more than Bruiser Flint. His strongest teams have been thrown over in favor of dubious power-conference teams far too often. Flint knows as well as anyone that the only sure way to make the Dance is to get the league’s auto-bid, but a slew of uninspired non-conference losses has made certain that the committee’s folder on the Dragons is thin indeed.

Player of the Year: Sherrod Wright, George Mason

Other players score more points than Wright, but they’re making use of the volume-shooting method. Wright has a mighty fine 17.5 points per game average, but his shot selection and accuracy blow everyone else in the league away, easy. Wright is shooting 54% overall, and a stunning 45% from deep. Devon Saddler (Delaware) and Damion Lee (Drexel) might make up ground before it’s all said and done, but right now, I’ll take Sherrod.

Best Freshman: R.J. Hunter, Georgia State

The coach’s kid is no joke. The 6’5″ swingman is averaging 15.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. He can stroke it from deep and leads the team in free-throw percentage. He’s one of the team’s better defensive players, as well, and you’d better believe that Ron Hunter wouldn’t play anybody, including his own son, who didn’t put in the effort on defense. It’s a shame this team is on its way out of the league, with such bright days ahead.

Three Predictions

  • The CAA is a one-bid league. With VCU gone, the lowering tide was taking all ships down with it anyway, but the league’s decision to hold Old Dominion and Georgia State out of the postseason to punish them for leaving, and APR problems dinging UNCW and Towson, the league’s auto-bid won’t even be worth the paper it’s printed on. To top that off, the league’s non-conference record this season is atrocious – there will be zero thought given to an at-large bid this year.
  • An ineligible team will embarrass a contender. Some of the league’s best individual players (Keith Rendleman, R.J. Hunter, Jerelle Benimon) are on teams that can’t play in March. One or more of them will make the rest of the league feel his pain.
  • Drexel will rally. This team’s slump is really difficult to explain. And I’d rather drink muddy water and sleep out in a hollow log than go to practice every day and disappoint Bruiser Flint. I suspect his players feel the same. The Dragons will find their rhythm, as they did with last season’s 19-game win streak. But timing is everything. A simple three-win streak in March is all anyone is looking for.

Power Rankings (* = ineligible for CAA tournament):

1. George Mason
2. Drexel
3. William & Mary
4. James Madison
5. Delaware
6. Towson*
7. Northeastern
8. Georgia State*
9. UNCW*
10. Old Dominion*
11. Hofstra

Eric Angevine is an Old Dominion grad, which no doubt led to his controversial decision to rank his alma mater 10th instead of dead last in the league.

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.