The Patriot League in the post Mike Muscala and C.J. McCollum era

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All month long, CBT will be rolling out our 2013-2014 season preview. To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here.

It didn’t take long for Bucknell head coach Dave Paulsen to learn that the player he would build two NCAA Tournament teams around was a special player. Similarly, he knew midway through Bucknell’s first game against Lehigh during the 2009-10 season that the best player in Lehigh history should have been playing in a high-major conference.

Paulsen recalled watching Mike Muscala during the July recruiting period in 2008: “He’d catch the ball in traffic and finish with his left hand so seamlessly and effortlessly. Guys just don’t do that regularly. I remember thinking, ‘Man, he’s definitely going to get scooped up by a bigger program and they’ll have him redshirt,'” he told NBCSports.com by phone.

He knew that C.J. McCollum didn’t belong playing at the mid-major level, much less in the Patriot League.

“When C.J. made a move from the perimeter by going hard to the basket, stopped on a dime, and elevated and shot a pull-up jumper from three and made it, I thought, ‘Oh boy, he can make some plays that mid-major players just don’t make.’

Mike Muscala and C.J. McCollum placed their respective programs and the Patriot League in the national spotlight for the better part of their careers. Not since Bucknell and Holy Cross dominated the league from 2005-2007 had the Patriot League garnered as much attention nationally, and even then it was mostly just headlines during March, not throughout the entire season.

(CLICK HERE to read NBCSports.com’s Patriot League Preview)

To review just several of the accolades Muscala and McCollum combined to earn from 2010-2013 both for their schools and individually: Four Patriot League Championships, an NCAA Tournament win, an NIT appearance and win, an Academic All-American (Muscala), finalists for the Senior CLASS Awards and selections in the 2013 NBA Draft.

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It was unprecedented. The Patriot League simply doesn’t turn out players like Muscala and McCollum. Under-recruited, late bloomers, diamonds in the rough — call them whatever you’d like, but the fact is they had the talent to play for any team in America. Like any high-level player, though, they continued to refine their craft, Paulsen explained: “The thing with C.J. and Mike is that they came back every year with another weapon in their arsenal. Both of them were just so driven to be great. They didn’t rest on their laurels and get satisfied.”

Muscala and McCollum have moved onto the next chapter of their careers playing professionally — McCollum with the Portland Trailblazer and Muscala with the Atlanta Hawks, although he is currently playing in Spain — and the same goes for Patriot League basketball. While the league loses two of the best players to ever grace the eight quaint gyms in the league, Paulsen believes they have left their mark in such a way that will benefit the league down the road.

“I think the success they helped bring has enabled us to recruit a really good basketball player who happens to be a really good student that we may not have been in consideration for in the past,” Paulsen said. “In years past, it would have been harder for the player or their parents to think of going to Bucknell to further their basketball career, but now I don’t think there’s any of that; we can go toe-to-toe with anyone on the right kid.”

(CLICK HERE to read through the rest of NBCSports.com’s feature stories)

It isn’t just solely due to Muscala and McCollum. Paulsen looks at other strong academic schools who play at the mid-major level as other examples: “A lot of it also has to do going back to 2005 and 2006 with Bucknell beating Kansas and Arkansas, and then you have Cornell making a run and Davidson making a run, and Lehigh and Harvard winning games. If you just look at the last eight to ten years, you have wins from two different schools in the Patriot League and Ivy League. I don’t think ten years ago anyone thought that was a possibility.”

With Muscala and McCollum having graduated, one could argue that the influx of Boston University and Loyola (Maryland) help in taking the Patriot League to that next level. “I am sure our league RPI last year was as good as it’s ever been. But, over the next five years, I bet that the league will be much stronger with adding these two programs. It gives the league more exposure in adding two major markets in Boston and Baltimore,” Paulsen said.

Of course, the addition of Boston University and Loyola makes it that much more challenging to win the league. Selfishly, from a fan’s perspective, having a stronger league top to bottom improves its reputation from a national level, but for the ten coaches in the league it’s all about winning a league championship. “I bet you there’s not one coach in the league that would candidly tell you they’re thrilled to see them join, though. You go from having a one in eight chance to win the league, to a one in ten chance…Boston University and Loyola are very committed to their basketball programs.”

Reverting back to Muscala and McCollum, major programs missed out on these two in a big way, which speaks to the unpredictability of recruiting and how there are a myriad of talented players to play Division I basketball. The underlying message is that there’s no telling who the next Muscala or McCollum is, or where he will end up.

Perhaps he is a freshman at a school in the Patriot League this year.

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.