2013-2014 Season Preview: No. 22 New Mexico Lobos

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. Check back throughout the day, as we’ll be posting three or four preview items every day.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. The rest of our Top 25 Countdown can be found here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 29-6, 13-3 (1st MWC); Lost in the Round of 64 to Harvard

Head Coach: Craig ‘Noodles’ Neal (1st year at New Mexico)

Key Losses: Tony Snell, Demetrius Walker, Chad Adams, Steve Alford (coach)

Newcomers: Cullen Neal, Merv Lindsay, Obij Aget, Deshawn Delaney, Arthur Edwards, Devon Williams

Projected Lineup

G: Kendall Williams, Sr.
G: Hugh Greenwood, Jr.
G: Cullen Neal, Fr.
F: Cameron Bairstow, Sr.
C: Alex Kirk, Jr.
Bench: Merv Lindsay, So.; Cleveland Thomas, So.; Nick Banyard, So.

They’ll be good because …: New Mexico lost Tony Snell to the NBA Draft a year early and saw their head coach Steve Alford sign an extension and then a contract with UCLA in the same month. It may seem like a new era is beginning in Albuquerque, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. New head coach ‘Noodles’ Neal has been with the program for years, and with four of the team’s five starters returning — with Cullen Neal, the coach’s son — replacing Snell, there is a lot to like here. New Mexico went 29-6 last year, winning a very tough Mountain West by two full games and earning a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament. Yes, they (once again) lost far too early in the tournament, bowing out to No. 14 seed Harvard, but do’t overlook just how good the Lobos were last year.

Bottom-line? Reigning MWC Player of the Year Kendall Williams returns, as does all-conference center Alex Kirk. Throw in bruiser Cameron Bairstow and a pair of quality wings in Hugh Greenwood and Cullen Neal, and the Lobos have the pieces and the talent to play their trademark physical defense while opening things up more on the offensive end of the floor.

source: Getty Images

But they might disappoint because …: Losing Snell hurts for a couple of reasons. For starters, he was the team’s best perimeter defender thanks to his length and athleticism. New Mexico doesn’t have anyone that can replace that. But he was also the team’s best perimeter shooter, knocking down 39% of his threes a season ago. Neal is the guy expected to fill that void on the offensive end of the floor, but remember that he’s a freshman coming off of an appendectomy. There’s no guarantee he’s going to be able to contribute big numbers immediately, if at all.

The bigger issue may actually be New Mexico’s depth, especially in the front court. Kirk is one of the nation’s most underrated centers, and Bairstow is a land warrior that may never dunk in a game but is impossible to push out of position. Beyond that? Well, there’s seven-foot freshman Obij Aget. And Kansas transfer Merv Lindsay, who managed to see action in 12 games with the Jayhawks. And Nick Banyard, who was unproductive in 30 games last season. The MWC is as much of a grind as any league in the country, and if Neal cannot develop his bench, the Lobos could be worn down by the end of the season.

Outlook: New Mexico’s loss to Harvard in the NCAA tournament is going to end up being overplayed, and as a result the Lobos are likely going to be underranked heading into the season. Honestly, I think we probably underrated them at No. 22. The Mountain West has not had good NCAA tournament showings in recent years, but that doesn’t change the fact that the league is loaded and balanced, especially with Utah State joining the ranks this year. New Mexico went 5-3 on the road in MWC play, a feat that is almost as impressive as the fact that the Lobos won the league by two full games.

But until UNM — and the MWC as a whole — proves that they can compete on a national stage when the lights are the brightest, this team is going to perpetually start the season lower than they could be. Is this the year that they finally break through and get out of the first weekend?

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

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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.