No. 4 Duke proves No. 19 Michigan State cannot win at elite level if they keep missing on elite talent

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INDIANAPOLIS — The Champions Classic has become one of college basketball’s marquee events, the culmination of a made-for-television 24-hour Tip-Off Marathon that ushers in the season for the common fan.

With blueblood programs Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State battling one another each November, between the title-winning head coaches and the numerous potential All-Americans on the floor, as a sports fans, what’s not to like?

But as major college basketball has evolved into a one-and-done driven recruiting race between the haves and the have-nots, one of the four programs participating in the Champions Classic is clearly behind in the elite talent pool for the 2014-15 season. It certainly showed on Monday night as No. 4 Duke led wire-to-wire in an 81-71 win over No. 19 Michigan State.

The Blue Devils jumped out to an 8-2 lead less than two minutes into the game and seemed to hold a managable difference between 5-10 points for much of the rest of the contest.

MORE: No. 1 Kentucky makes 40-0 seem possible with punishing win over No. 5 Kansas

Tom Izzo’s Spartans showed the talent, toughness, determination and execution needed to be a Top-25 mainstay and a Big Ten title contender. But without elite, pro-level talent, Michigan State couldn’t get over the hump when facing future pros like Duke’s freshmen, center Jahlil Okafor and small forward Justise Winslow.

Much has been made of the 2014 Champions Classic having 23 total McDonald’s All-Americans between the four rosters, but the Spartans only contributed senior wing Branden Dawson to that equation. Meanwhile, freshmen starters for Duke like Okafor, Winslow and point guard Tyus Jones made a huge difference for the Blue Devils. All three were McDonald’s All-Americans in 2014 and all three have been regular starters for the Blue Devils this season as true freshmen.

The 7-foot Okafor looked unguardable at times without a double team, as he finished with 17 points and five rebounds on the evening while Winslow’s power game on the wing contributed to 15 points, six rebounds and three assists. When Okafor went to the bench with four fouls with 8:54 left in the second half, and Duke holding a single-digit lead, it was Jones who knocked down a four-point play a minute later to push Duke to a 64-51 lead.

Jones finished with 17 points and four assists while Duke senior guard Quinn Cook, another former Burger Boy, had a team-high 19 points and six assists as well. The Blue Devils simply had too much firepower for Michigan State.

The Spartans did as best they could with veterans like senior point guard Travis Trice (15 points, eight assists), Dawson (18 points, nine rebounds) and junior guard Denzel Valentine (13 points), but they couldn’t match Duke’s quick scoring bursts and overall talent. In the end, a depleted Michigan State roster couldn’t hang with Duke’s nine McDonald’s All-Americans, but it did serve as motivation for the Spartans and gives them a measuring stick for elite teams later in the season.

“That did motivate us coming into this game,” Dawson said of the All-American difference between the teams. “A lot of people doubted us and said we weren’t talented enough for them and wouldn’t match up with them. But I think us being a younger team and us losing our three leading scorers, we did a good job.”

It’s not like Izzo hasn’t tried to put the Spartans in position to succeed using the same kind of elite talent that his counterparts currently possess.

The veteran head coach chased a number of players participating in the 2014 Champions Classic on the recruiting trail and was heavily involved with Duke’s Jones and Okafor, as well as Kansas freshman power forward Cliff Alexander and Kentucky freshmen guards Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker. Former Duke forward Jabari Parker and former Kentucky wing James Young both played in last year’s Champions Classic and were heavily recruited by Michigan State before opting to play elsewhere for their one season of college basketball.

But Izzo struck out swinging on those seven McDonald’s All-Americans that were scooped up by other members of the Champions Classic, and with former Spartan Gary Harris departing for the NBA Draft himself last summer, Michigan State finds itself behind in the current evolution of talent acquisition in college basketball.

“We were in there with [Okafor], and I thought we were in there more with Jones — to be honest with you — but hey, they’re both doing well and I’m happy for them. I think they’re both going to be great players,” Izzo said after the game.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari has set the model for success using one-and-done players in the current world of college basketball with three Final Four appearances in the last four seasons and Kansas head coach Bill Self and Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski have recently followed suit by recruiting blue-chip players such as Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and Parker. If Michigan State wants to remain among the championship pack that plays in the spotlight each November, they need to start hauling in elite talent of its own, or the Spartns won’t find themselves battling for national championships in March.

Just don’t tell that to the players in the Michigan State locker room, because they’ve already heard it all before and it won’t deter them in their chase for glory in 2014-15.

“As far as our team, we don’t really have any McDonald’s All-Americans on this team, but we play hard, we just play solid,” Dawson said. “And I think that for those guys, they were fortunate to have nine McDonald’s All-Americans on their team, which play solid and play together.”

Michigan State is going to claw, fight and scrap its way to another 20-win season and Izzo hasn’t let the program miss the NCAA Tournament since 1997 but history certainly isn’t on its side. Only two teams have won a national championship without a McDonald’s All-American in the last 36 years, and the Spartans will need more blue-chip talent if they’re to win their first national title since 2000.

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.