Conference Catchups: Kansas doesn’t lack for challengers in Big 12

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College basketball is now almost two months old. League play will be kicking off in the next week. Let’s get you caught up on all you need to know with some of the country’s best conferences. 

To read through the rest of our Conference Catchups, click here.

Midseason Player of the Year: Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State)

The preseason pick to win Big 12 Player of the Year, Smart has done little to dispel that notion through 12 games. The sophomore’s raised his scoring average from a season ago to 18.0 points per game in 2013-14, and he’s shooting a higher percentage from the field (46.3%) as well. The three-point shooting (32.3%) could use a boost, but given all the other things that Smart does it’s difficult to argue against him at this point.

All-Big 12 First Team:

  • Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
  • DeAndre Kane, Iowa State
  • Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
  • Cameron Clark, Oklahoma
  • Melvin Ejim, Iowa State

Midseason Coach of the Year: Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State)

Lon Kruger (Oklahoma) would have a good argument as well, but the pick is the head coach of the league’s lone remaining undefeated team. Thanks to Hoiberg transfers DeAndre Kane and Dustin Hogue have slid right into the Iowa State rotation, and the presence of veterans Melvin Ejim and Georges Niang has helped matters as well. Can Iowa State win the Big 12? Rebounding will have a lot to do with that, but don’t ever underestimate “The Mayor.”

Favorite: Kansas Jayhawks

A team that has three losses remains the favorite to win the league? Yes, and there are two reasons why. First, Bill Self’s young Jayhawks have been tested more than any team in the country to date, as according to the computers they’ve faced the toughest schedule in the country. Secondly, as this group dominated by freshmen and sophomores get more comfortable with each other and what Self wants done they’re only going to get better (especially Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins). Kansas’ hands will be full given how tough the Big 12 is, but how can you bet against the program that has won at least a share of the last nine regular season conference titles?

And three more contenders:

  • That Oklahoma State of Smart, Markel Brown and Le’Bryan Nash is darn good, and in Phil Forte III they’ve got a very good marksman coming off the bench. But keep an eye on forwards Michael Cobbins and Kamari Murphy. If Oklahoma State’s to make a run at the Big 12 title, those two will need to come up big against the league’s best interior presences.
  • Iowa State will be heard from as well, with a couple reasons why stated above. Also of importance for Iowa State will be their perimeter shooting, with underclassmen Naz Long and Matt Thomas being two keys in that regard. And if DeAndre Kane can knock down threes at a consistent rate, opponents won’t be so willing to give him five feet of space on the perimeter.
  • Baylor’s right there with Kansas when it comes to picking out who has the deepest/most talented front court in the Big 12, with Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin leading the way. And Kenny Chery’s done a good job at the point through 11 games. But in order for the Bears to win the Big 12, Austin has to look to dominate.

Most Surprising Team: Texas Longhorns

Let’s be honest: a lot of us had Rick Barnes on his way out before practices even began. Well his young Longhorns have proven to be far more formidable than most people expected, with Jonathan Holmes being a tough front court leader and Javan Felix, Demarcus Holland and Cameron Ridley all showing signs of improvement. Not sure how much of a factor Texas can be in the Big 12 title chase, but it’s clear that this group isn’t going to simply lie down.

Most Disappointing Team: Kansas Jayhawks

This one’s tough, especially when considering just how tough of a schedule the Jayhawks have played to this point. But there have been issues, most notably the question mark at point guard. It looks as if Naadir Tharpe’s taken the strides needed to lead the way for the Jayhawks in Big 12 play, and if that remains the case the Jayhawks will be better for it. Another key for Kansas moving forward: Tarik Black has to snap out of his three-plus year habit of landing in foul trouble. He avoided that against Georgetown, and his presence on the floor made a big difference.

Most Important Player (in league play): PG Naadir Tharpe (Kansas)

Oklahoma State has Marcus Smart, Iowa State had DeAndre Kane and Baylor has Kenny Chery. Those are three strong point guards to contend with when looking to win the Big 12, which means that Tharpe will need to continue to take steps in the right direction. Over his last three games the junior has 18 assists and eight turnovers, and if he can get that ratio closer to 3-to-1 Kansas will be better for it.

Who will slide?: Texas

The Longhorns are off to a surprising 10-2 start, but it’s difficult to see them continuing that pace when league play begins. Texas is shooting just 43.9% from the field this season, and their offensive rebounding (grabbing nearly 38% of their misses) has helped the Longhorns make up for that issue. But will they be able to do so against the bigger teams in the Big 12?

Who is the sleeper?: Oklahoma

The Sooners have been without the services of sophomore guard Je’lon Hornbeak, who’s expected back at some point in January after breaking a bone in his foot a couple weeks ago. His return will give Oklahoma another scoring option on the perimeter, and with Clark and Ryan Spangler in the front court they’ve got two players to rely on inside. If the bigs can hold up in league play, Oklahoma has the potential to be the sleeper team in the Big 12.

New Power Rankings

1. Kansas
2. Oklahoma State
3. Iowa State
4. Baylor
5. Oklahoma
6. Kansas State
7. Texas
8. West Virginia
9. Texas Tech
10. TCU

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.