From under-recruited to team leader, Caris LeVert has seen it all at Michigan

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source: AP
Caris LeVert (AP Photo)

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Caris LeVert’s 2013-14 season ended just like the rest of his Michigan teammates: with a 75-72 loss to Kentucky in the Elite Eight. But unlike much of last season’s Wolverines rotation, LeVert is back at Michigan for his junior season.

Jordan Morgan graduated, Jon Horford transferred to Florida and Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III and Nik Stauskas all entered the 2014 NBA Draft. As a result that leaves the junior, LeVert, and last season’s starting point guard, sophomore Derrick Walton Jr., as the vital pieces for Michigan this season.

After being passed over by numerous Division I programs and nearly ending up at Ohio during his high school career, LeVert has had a long and strange journey to become the junior leader and All-American candidate of a storied Big Ten program.

Early in his senior year of high school, LeVert was getting some college interest from small Division I schools like Alabama State and Prairie View A&M before an Ohio assistant coach saw him and realized a talented local player had no scholarship offers. From there, Ohio’s entire staff, led by former head coach and current Illinois coach John Groce, saw LeVert play, offered the Pickerington, Ohio native a scholarship, and the then-6-foot-4 LeVert committed to be a Bobcat after being recruited more by Groce and his staff.

It would be only months later that Ohio would lose a head coach and a future star to the Big Ten.

After Groce took the Illinois job, LeVert was given a release from his Letter of Intent that forced him to choose a new school outside of the MAC. Dayton quickly jumped in and offered a scholarship and received a visit while Michigan, Purdue and Xavier would call and check on LeVert. LeVert ended up taking visits to both Purdue and Michigan, but the Wolverines ultimately won out.

In fact, it was LeVert asking the Michigan coaching staff if he had the opportunity to play in Ann Arbor during his visit to campus.

“When they were meeting with Caris he told the coaching staff, ‘If it is okay with you, if you want me, I would love to come to Michigan’,” LeVert’s high school coach, Jerry Francis, told Andre Barthwell of Scout.com. “That’s just the type of kid he is.”

Head coach John Beilein was probably thrilled that LeVert asked to play for Michigan because the wing has been thriving under his watch ever since. The junior has now grown to nearly 6-foot-7, 200 pounds, after entering college as a skinny 175 pounds. Last season, LeVert was one of college basketball’s biggest breakout stars averaging 12.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game on 43 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

Now with all of that star power from last season having left Ann Arbor, LeVert has to take on a new leadership role that he hasn’t faced at the college level before.

“I’m already a junior and it seems like just yesterday I was a young freshman here,” LeVert said at Big Ten media day last month. “Now the team only has me, Spike and Max from that team now so, it’s definitely a new look for us.”

MORE: Big Ten Preview: Wisconsin is the class of the Big Ten

Embracing the leadership role might not be as naturally easy for LeVert as the hard work it took for him to be one of the Big Ten’s best players, but Beilein said that his junior guard’s work ethic sets enough of a positive tone for Michigan’s young team to still make a difference.

“There’s guys that if they’re not comfortable being vocal they may not help,” Beilein said of LeVert’s leadership at Big Ten media day. “And I wouldn’t say he’s not comfortable but he’s not going to be like the Zack Novak like you’ve got to really jump in somebody’s face, which Zack was very happy to do several times.

“But you can still get it across. His effort every day and his attitude of being coachable and his effort every day speaks volumes for who he is. And he’s always been that way but now as one of the veteran players, our guys are watching him and that’s where I want to get this program to.”

Vocal leadership might not be LeVert’s forte, but he has a major advantage that many star players don’t have with incoming freshmen: he’s entirely relatable to Michigan’s seven new freshmen. LeVert entered the university just like this new core group at Michigan, as a physically unprepared system recruit with a chip on his shoulder. Because he was under-recruited and in the same position as many of the current Michigan freshmen, now Beilein hopes those players can follow in LeVert’s model and find success of their own.

LeVert has blazed an unlikely path to be a Big Ten star, and after the junior likely becomes a NBA Draft pick, Beilein is hoping to find another LeVert.

If Michigan wants to replace all that they’ve lost from last season and move forward quickly, the program will count on LeVert not only to produce on the floor, but to show others the way it’s done this season.

Caris LeVert once asked the Michigan coaching staff if he could play basketball for them. Now, those same Michigan coaches will ask LeVert to lead the Wolverines as their best player a little over two years later.

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.