Chemistry the biggest factor in Arizona’s quest for a national title

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Arizona looks to establish a camaraderie similar to that of last season’s team (Getty Images)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | NBCSports Preseason Top 25 | Preview Schedule

After winning 27 games and reaching the Sweet 16 in 2012-13, big things were expected of the Arizona Wildcats in 2013-14 and Sean Miller’s team delivered. Despite having to replace three of their top four scorers the Wildcats won 33 games and a regular season Pac-12 title, reaching the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament as well. Arizona didn’t have the deepest rotation, especially after forward Brandon Ashley was lost for the season in early February with a foot injury, but they had talent, athleticism and a stingy half-court defense that was among the best in the country.

Even more is expected of the Wildcats in 2014-15, with Ashley back to full strength as he joins point guard T.J. McConnell and center Kaleb Tarczewski as the team’s returning starters. Add in the likes of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Gabe York, who were reserves a season ago, and one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, led by small forward Stanley Johnson, and on paper the depth issue that Arizona had to manage in 2013-14 isn’t expected to be an issue this season.

However, even with that being the case, and Arizona being considered to be one of the favorites to cut down the nets in Indianapolis, there are still questions to be answered. The biggest? How will Arizona account for the loss of starters Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon, with their intangibles being just as — if not more — important as the numbers they provided.

RELATED: NBCSports.com’s Pac-12 Preview

“One of the strengths of last year’s team was our team chemistry,” Miller said at the team’s media day last month. “We had a group of high-character players that were on a mission to have a successful season as a team. Obviously a year ago every one of them wanted to do well individually, but everybody understood that first and foremost we were going to do it as a team.

“And with that team success the individual accolades would follow, which is exactly what happened.”

There may have been no player who better fits into those words than Johnson, who averaged 16.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. The numbers were good but Johnson’s leadership was even better, ultimately resulting in his being named Pac-12 Player of the Year and a finalist for the Naismith national Player of the Year award. Johnson’s leadership impacted the program both on and off the court, with the camaraderie factoring into the team being able to go as far as it did without Ashley.

And in regard to Gordon, who accounted for 12.4 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game last season, the label of being a “one and done” prospect didn’t have an impact on the way he played the game. Gordon simply did the things he did best, seamlessly fitting into the Arizona attack.

“I think that one credit I give Aaron is he always was true to himself,” Miller said at Pac-12 media day last month. “We gave him a role and he did it to the best of his ability. We’re at that point now where, as we start to define roles, it’s important that guys stay within the framework of that role, embrace it, do the very best they can.”

“In Nick and Aaron’s case, part of what made them so good, they really didn’t try to be a whole lot of what they weren’t. They tried to bring their array of skills that they were already good at to the table, not just in games but every day.”

source:
ArizonaWildcats.com

Both players were key defensively for a team that finished the season ranked first nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (per kenpom.com), and they were also ranked in the top ten nationally in both field goal percentage (fourth) and scoring (sixth) defense. Athleticism, which Arizona didn’t lack last season and certainly won’t in 2014-15, helps but factors such as chemistry and execution are just as important. Building a similar level of chemistry is what this current Arizona team is working to do, and the process won’t be an easy one even with the amount of individual talent on the roster.

In addition to the starters, players such as junior Gabe York, sophomore Elliott Pitts and freshman Craig Victor will look to earn opportunities as well. With Ashley out of the lineup York made 12 starts, reaching double figures in five of those games and finishing the season with an average of 6.7 points per game. Perimeter shooting, a sore spot for the Wildcats last season, remains an issue that needs to be addressed with the hope being that players such as York can step forward.

Talent is a required attribute of any team looking to put together an exemplary season. But even for the most talented of teams it’s the intangibles like leadership and chemistry that separate a good season and a special one. As is the case for any team, Arizona will need time to establish roles and camaraderie as they look to take that next step, with the ultimate goal being to duplicate the feat accomplished by the 1997 team (they won the national title in Indianapolis, cite of this year’s Final Four). And therein lies the greatest challenge facing Arizona this season.

“It’s up to guys like Brandon now, myself, to rekindle that [chemistry of last season’s team],” Miller noted last month. “We find ourselves as we try to do it, it doesn’t happen in 12 days. It certainly doesn’t happen when you’re welcoming such a big group of new players into a cast that has a big group of guys that have been there before.

“I think part of it is the quest of bringing everyone together, a big challenge for us at this point.”

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.