South Dakota State’s Cody Larson thrives despite return home amidst unmet expectations

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Cody Larson (AP Photo)

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This story is about Cody Larson, the South Dakota State Jackrabbit, but in order to understand what it means for Larson to be finishing out his college career in The Mount Rushmore State, you first have to understand what high school basketball means there.

“It’s like a mini-Indiana,” said UNLV assistant coach Ryan Miller, and he would know. He played his high school ball at Mitchell High four years before current Cleveland Cavalier, two-time NBA champion and, for Ryan, little brother Mike Miller did. The state may not be churning out a ton of high major talent, but that doesn’t mean they can’t pack a few thousand fans into a gym on a frigid February night.

And while South Dakota may be large in terms of square mileage, it’s quite small when it comes to the basketball community. Everyone knows everyone, which means that when a soon-to-be 6-foot-9 athletic marvel from Sioux Falls, the state’s biggest city, is coming up through the middle and high school ranks, word spreads quickly.

The Black Hills are not immune to the power of the hype machine.

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Cody Larson was supposed to be the “Next Big Thing” to come out of South Dakota.

He was supposed to be the heir apparent to the state’s most famous athlete, and that speculation was only fueled when he followed in Miller’s footsteps, committing to play basketball at Florida. He enrolled at the school in the summer of 2010, but his time associated with the Gators only generated headlines for his off-court issues. He had plenty.

As a senior in high school, Larson was kicked off of the Roosevelt High team, in February of 2010, and barred from having any contact with them during their run through the state tournament. According to Larson, the suspension and resulting charge was a result of sharing hydrocodone leftover from his knee surgery a year prior with a teammate battling shin splints. He pleaded guilty that May to inhabiting a room where drugs are knowingly kept and used and was given a 120-day suspended sentence and two years’ probation.

He violated that probation a year later in a bizarre incident that took place in St. Augustine, Florida. Larson, who was redshirting that season, went out drinking with teammate Erik Murphy and a team manager. They ended up arrested and charged with felony burglary for allegedly breaking into a car, their mug shots and a recording of the players from the backseat of a police cruiser going viral. Larson avoided jailtime for the probation violation, getting his suspended sentence reinstated and an additional two years of probation tacked on.

Larson was reinstated to the team in October of 2011, seeing action in 25 games during the 2011-12 season, but after the season was over, Larson had his scholarship pulled by head coach Billy Donovan. He was allowed to remain on the roster as a walk-on, but he would have to prove that he was worthy of remaining on scholarship.

That didn’t last, as Larson made the decision to leave the program just a couple of weeks prior to the start of the season. “I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to play basketball anymore,” Larson told NBCSports.com in an interview earlier this month. He stayed in school in Florida, taking classes while he tried to figure out what the next step in his life would be.

“At the time, it was putting to much pressure on me,” he said. “I wasn’t making the best decisions.”

It didn’t take Larson long to realize that he missed basketball, and it took less time for him to decide that South Dakota State — located in Brookings, a 45 minute drive from his Sioux Falls home — was the place for him. He had played with or against a number of the kids on the roster, and he already had a relationship with the coaching staff, as SDSU targeted Larson’s AAU program, the Dakota Schoolers. His sister plays on the school’s volleyball team.

He visited the campus when he was home from Christmas break and committed to the Jackrabbits in May of 2013, receiving a waiver from the NCAA that allowed him to avoid having to sit out a year.

Larson would be playing college basketball during the 2013-14 season.

He would also be returning home as the homegrown prodigy that couldn’t cut it at one of the best programs in the country; the “Next Big Thing” who had spent more time on probation than on a college basketball roster.

That’s enough to hurt anyone’s pride.

“I’m not going to lie and say that there wasn’t times of disappointment,” Larson said. “But I’ve grown up a bunch, and I’ve learned to kind of channel my anxieties and my worries in healthier ways.”

There would be plenty of those anxieties and worries as Larson headed home to a community that was well aware of his history. The South Dakota State administration trusted head coach Scott Nagy’s decision when it came to bringing Larson into the program, but it wasn’t the administration’s opinion that Nagy was concerned about. It was the fanbase, the alumni and the boosters of the program. A “large contingent” of SDSU alums live down in Sioux Falls, and Larson’s name is well-known in that city.

“I think people had some preconceived notions based on what they were reading,” Nagy said. “It would have been easy for him to avoid coming back to South Dakota, just because of what everybody thought and because he may have been perceived as a failure and all these things. I think what he’s done is take on the challenge.”

To date, SDSU has had no problems with Larson. He’s been a straight-A student since he’s gotten to campus, and as one of two seniors on the roster this season, he’s grown into being a leader for this, a guy Nagy credits for being a great teammate that has helped developed camaraderie on a team that lost quite a bit to graduation last season.

That’s not necessarily something that people in Larson’s past would have seen coming, and it’s a testament to the work he’s put in on developing himself.

“I kind of realized that [basketball] was a big part of who I was,” Larson said. “There’s just so much that you can learn about life through the game of basketball that I took for granted when I was down in Florida. I realized that and I regretted that.”

He realized that he was lucky enough to get a second — and a third — chance. He also realized that, in addition to returning to a place where his failures would be scrutinized, he’d be coming back to a home where he had people that cared enough about him and his future to make sure his didn’t blow this final chance.

“The community has [been a lot more receptive] than I thought they would be,” Larson said. “I have a lot of friends and family up in this area. And the team, they just welcomed me with open arms.”

“The biggest thing is being responsible with my time. I’ve gotten so much better about that. I got into trouble down in Florida and up here when I’m not being responsible. It’s just maturing and channelling my anxieties and my worries in a healthy way. The staff up here has been great with that. If I have a problem, I can go straight to them. If they can’t help me, they find somebody who can.”

And while Larson, who averaged 13.1 points and 7.0 boards last season, is focused on finding a way to get this group through the Summit League and into the NCAA tournament, he’s also trying to figure out what he’s going to do with himself after the season. Play professionally? Go to med school? Become a psychiatrist?

He hasn’t decided yet, but he’s glad he’s got options.

“I’m just trying to get through practice and make sure my homework’s done on time.”

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.