College Basketball Talk’s Top 20 Most Improved Players

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Prior to the season, every pundit for every outlet across the country will put together his or her list of players with the potential to have a breakout season.

Which freshmen will have big sophomore seasons? Which seniors will finally get the chance to step into a starring role? What transfers spent their redshirt year transforming their body and perfecting their weaknesses? 

Sometimes, we’re spot on. Other times, we completely whiff. One month into the season, here is a look at this year’s Breakout Stars:

TOP 20 MOST IMPROVED PLAYERS

J.J. Avila, Colorado State: Avila, a transfer from Navy, has been the biggest reason that the Rams haven’t dropped off much this season. He’s averaging 19.5 points and 6.3 boards. Jon Octeus and Daniel Bejarano also could be listed here.

Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico: A solid role player for three years, Bairstow has turned into one of the nation’s best big men. He’s averaging 19.8 points, 7.1 boards and 2.8 assists.

Ron Baker, Wichita State: Ron Baker was a key role player for the Shockers last season. He’s turned into arguably their best player this year, a 6-foot-4 combo-guard averaging 15.3 points, 4.6 boards and 3.6 assists. Scouts that go to watch Cleanthony Early leave raving about Baker.

Cameron Clark and Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Many predicted Buddy Hield to develop into a star this season. He has, but the bigger surprise has been Clark. A top 30 recruit coming out of high school, Clark has turned into an all-Big 12 caliber wing.

Trevor Cooney, Syracuse: Amazing what a bit of confidence will do. Cooney’s averaging 15.3 points, shooting 48.4% from three and averaging 2.8 steals this season after playing last year as a liability.

Kellen Dunham, Butler: Dunham is doing his best to make Butler fans forget about Rotnei Clarke (and Ro Jones and Brad Stevens), averaging 19.1 points and shooting 46.4% from three while taking more than seven-per-game.

Perry Ellis, Kansas: Ellis has been the most consistent offensive option for Kansas this season, leading the team at 14.5 points while grabbing 6.8 boards per game.

source:  Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: Ferrell has become the leader that he needs to be for the Hoosiers to be competitive this season, averaging 17.0 points and 4.0 assists. His numbers take a bit of a hit because of the lack of scorers that Indiana has.

Shaq Goodwin, Memphis: On a team with a stable of perimeter weapons, Goodwin’s emergence has a presence on the block is key for the Tigers. He’s averaging 13.1 points and 6.1 boards as a sophomore this season.

Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: It happens every year. Bo Ryan somehow manages to turn a guy that’s spent a couple years as a big stiff into an all-Big Ten caliber post with three-point range. Kaminsky is averaging 14.6 points, 5.9 boards, 2.1 blocks and shooting 41.1% from three. He went for 43 points in a game earlier this year.

Cady Lalanne, UMass: Lalanne is finally living up to his talent this season, averaging 15.0 points and 10.4 boards as the Minutemen’s best interior presence. His emergence is a major reason why UMass will compete for the Atlantic 10 title.

Jake Layman, Maryland: Layman’s improvement will get lost in the shuffle in Maryland keeps sputtering, but he’s a 6-foot-8 wing that’s averaging 14.4 points and shooting 44.4% from three.

Caris LeVert and Nik Stauskas, Michigan: LeVert will get a lot of attention, going from a guy that saw limited minutes to a wing that averages 13.9 points. But Stauskas has made the real jump. He was a spot-up shooter last year. He’s one of the 20 best all-around offensive weapons in college basketball this season.

Codi Miller-McIntyre, Wake Forest: Miller-McIntyre still isn’t as consistent as he’d like to be from the perimeter, but it’s hard to nitpick a kid averaging 17.9 points, 4.4 assists and just 1.5 turnovers.

Marcus Paige, North Carolina: As good as North Carolina’s big men have been in wins over Louisville and Michigan State, it’s been Paige’s emergence as a star — 18.8 ppg, 4.5 apg, 39.2% 3PT — that has kept the Tar Heels afloat without P.J. Hairston.

Lamar Patterson, Pitt: Pitt will compete for the ACC title this year, and Patterson’s improvement in the biggest reason why. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 5.o boards, 5.1 assists and 1.8 steals this year.

Casey Prather, Florida: After three seasons of being a defensive stopper and a glue guy, Prather has turned into a big-time scorer this season, averaging 19.1 points. Yeah, I don’t get it either.

Xavier Thames, San Diego State: No Jamaal Franklin? No Chase Tapley? No problem. Thames has taken over the role of SDSU’s big-shot maker this year.

Other names considered: Devon Collier, Maurice Creek, Justin Jackson, Naz Long, Cameron Wright

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.