Yale is in an unfamiliar spot in the Ivy League: At the top, looking down

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When you think of the Ivy League, Yale isn’t the first program that comes to mind.

These days, it’s Harvard, as the Crimson went out and hired Tommy Amaker, who formerly coached at Michigan Seton Hall, while turning top 25 recruiting classes into league titles and, in 2013, an upset win over No. 3 seed New Mexico. Before that, it was Cornell, whose run to the 2011 Sweet 16 landed Steve Donahue the head coaching job at Boston College. All that comes before we mention the league’s two-most storied programs in Penn and Princeton, who dominated the conference for decades.

The Ivy League is unique in that it’s the only conference that does not have a conference tournament, meaning that if you don’t win the league’s regular season title, you don’t go dancing. Yale has won exactly one league title in the last 50 years, and that came in 2002, the first time there was ever a three-way tie atop the conference. The Bulldogs eventually lost to Penn in the playoff, meaning that they were bound for the NIT.

When you think of Yale, you think of their law school or their medical school. You think of their proximity to Sally’s and Pepe’s. Hell, you even think of their hockey teams.

You don’t, however, think of their basketball program.

“I tell people back home I play in the Ivy League, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you guys play Harvard’, or ‘Did Princeton win this year? Did Penn win this year?'” Justin Sears told NBCSports.com in a phone interview this week. A New Jersey native, the 6-foot-8 sophomore forward leads Yale averaging 15.3 points, 7.1 boards and 1.8 blocks. “It’s a little bit frustrating, especially because people think we’re a hockey school. I think the guys, we just wanted to change the culture here.”

“We just needed to start winning games.”

And that’s started to happen.

Yale has won four straight games heading into this weekend’s showdowns with Penn and Princeton in New Haven, the biggest being last Saturday. The Bulldogs went into Lavietes Pavilion and knocked off Harvard, putting themselves into a first-place tie with the Crimson. For Yale, beating Harvard is always going to be a big win, regardless of the sport. That’s just how the rivalry between those two schools works. But with the increased attention that has been given to the Crimson in recent years, it was especially sweet.

Harvard gets more national attention than every other program in the Ivy League combined. They’ve become the marked man in the conference. Being the reason that every college hoops scribe has to tweet about Harvard losing certainly makes the win feel just that much better.

“Over the summer one of the Harvard assistant coaches tweeted how their 10 players could start at anyone of the other seven schools in the league, how they should sweep the all-conference selections,” Sears, who finished with 21 points, 11 boards and two blocks, said. Sears chose Yale over, among others, Stanford, but he was offered by every school in the Ivy League. Except Harvard. He didn’t forget.

“It’s just more bulletin board material,” he said. “Harvard this, Harvard that. Each team is going to give Harvard their best shot.”

The Elis are lining themselves up on the inside track to a league title. Six of Harvard’s last eight games are on the road, including March 7th’s trip to New Haven for the season’s final weekend. In other words, Yale controls their own destiny when it comes to winning the conference and making the NCAA tournament, but that’s precisely the kind of forward thinking that head coach James Jones wants him team to avoid.

When a single loss can put a quick end to those tourney dreams, looking any further down the schedule than the next opponents is dangerous. Jones is proud of how hard his team has worked, and he wants the kids to get the credit they deserve, but “you want your guys to stay focused,” he said. “Flying under the radar’s not a bad thing.”

The good news for Jones is that he’s built a team whose success depends almost entirely on the one thing that they can control: their effort. This group is going to be bigger and more athletic than anyone they’ll face in the Ivy League. Their perimeter stands 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-7. Sears may only be 6-foot-8, but he’s as tough and aggressive as any big in the mid-major ranks. Where many Ivy League teams will field a lineup with a perimeter-oriented four-man, the Bulldogs use two bigs. They’re relentless going to the glass.

“We’ve got a lot of size and a lot of length,” Jones said. “That’s a strength of our team and if we’re going to be good we have to utilize it.”

So long as they stay atop the league standings, Yale is now going to be one of the biggest games of the year for every team they face.

It’s quite a change of pace for a team that’s been to no NCAA tournaments and exactly one NIT since 1962.

“High school rankings, it’s not the biggest thing. It’s the coaching, the effort you put forth,” Sears said. “When we just go out and give our best effort, it doesn’t matter how many shots we hit. All that matters is if we play defense, make our free throws and rebound the ball. We do that every night.”

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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

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

Joe Rondone/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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.