Growth of supplemental guards key for Florida, UConn

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Saturday’s national semifinal between No. 1 Florida (36-2) and No. 7 UConn (30-8) will be a rematch of a game played back on December 2, with the Huskies winning 65-64 on a Shabazz Napier foul line jumper as time expired. But how much can be drawn from a game played four months ago, with both teams being much different outfits than they were on that Monday night? If anything it’s better to focus on how much the two teams have changed since that game, especially a Florida team that played the game at less than full strength.

Billy Donovan’s Gators were without backup point guard Kasey Hill, with the UConn contest being the fourth he would miss due to a sprained ankle. Add in the fact that fellow freshman Chris Walker had yet to be cleared by the NCAA, and Florida was without two players who have become solid reserves (to varying degrees) as the season’s worn on.

Obviously losing starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin late in that game due to a sprained ankle didn’t help the Gators’ chances of leaving Gampel Pavilion with the win either. Wilbekin played 35 minutes in that contest, which underlines the difference between the Florida team that left Storrs with a loss and the one that enters this weekend the prohibitive favorite to win the national title.

RELATED: CBTs preview of No. 1 Florida vs. No. 7 UConn

The Gators lacked depth, with Dorian Finney-Smith essentially being their lone option off the bench. Now they’re up to an eight-man rotation, and it can be argued that of the three reserves it’s Hill whose impact is the most important even with his averaging just 5.5 points per game. Hill’s presence has allowed Wilbekin to do more work off the ball within the Gator offense. Averaging 35 minutes per game in the NCAA tournament, those moments off the ball can prove valuable to Wilbekin as he has been Florida’s best offensive weapon.

Hill also opens things up for his teammates due to his quickness with the basketball, and in Florida’s Sweet 16 win over UCLA as he racked up ten assists.

“I think Kasey in the tournament, and even going back to the SEC has come on.  He’s played better,” Donovan said earlier this week. “He’s improved. He makes our team faster when he’s out there. I thought what he did in the UCLA game really helped us.  He manufactured a lot of easy baskets for us by getting down the lane. So him being available to play I think helps our team.”

With Hill, Finney-Smith, who accounted for three points and six rebounds in the first meeting with UConn, and Walker firmly entrenched in the rotation Florida now has the depth it did not enjoy back in December.

As for UConn they’ve made some changes to the rotation since December, most notably Omar Calhoun going from starter to seldom-used reserve. Niels Giffey, the top three-point shooter in the American Athletic Conference, and Lasan Kromah have both strengthened their respective grips on spots in the rotation and even Terrence Samuel has earned an increase in minutes due to his ability on the defensive end of the floor.

But if there’s one player to focus on when it comes to the difference between UConn now and what they were in December, it would be junior guard Ryan Boatright.

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Shabazz Napier’s sidekick, Boatright’s made strides in areas that aren’t always visible in the box score. His defense against Michigan State’s guards in Sunday’s East Region final was one reason why the Spartans spent the majority of their time hoisting up jumpers instead of committing to working the ball inside. Boatright’s shooting just 38.5% from the field in the NCAA tournament, which is actually better than his percentage on the season as a whole, but he’s contributed in other areas to make up for that. And while Napier’s leadership gets the headlines, Boatright has been important as well.

“He’s meant a lot. Ryan is growing up,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said on Monday. “Ryan is allowing us to coach him now.  He’s opening up. He’s trusting us more.  That’s always difficult for young kids sometimes, the trust issue. Maybe I should not take this shot. Maybe I should pass this good shot up for Amida to have a great shot. He’s started to do that.”

December’s matchup between Florida and UConn produced one of the best endings of the college basketball season, with a Shabazz Napier shot off of a loose ball being the difference. The Gators haven’t lost since, getting healthier and solidifying their rotation while winning 30 straight games. As for UConn the road to Arlington was tougher, but they’ve gotten hot at just the right time.

Scottie Wilbekin and Shabazz Napier will receive much of the attention, and rightfully so, but the development of their respective sidekicks (Hill and Boatright) is what sticks out when looking back on the first meeting.

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.