No. 9 Gonzaga’s improvement defensively is why people should buy their Final Four potential

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Gonzaga head coach Mark Few (Getty Images)

TUCSON — In winning 29 games a season ago, No. 9 Gonzaga was able to combine a solid offensive attack with a level of play on the defensive end that was better than many had grown accustomed to seeing. From an efficiency standpoint Gonzaga ranked 15th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency per kenpom.com, the program’s best ranking in that category during Mark Few’s tenure as head coach, and they also limited opponents to 39.8% shooting from the field and 31.8% shooting from beyond the arc.

Yet even with those numbers being what they were there was doubt regarding the Bulldogs’ chances of beating the nation’s best teams, as their overall schedule lacked opportunities against high-level competition. Gonzaga would play just one game against a ranked team last season, and that was their loss to Arizona in the NCAA tournament.

With that, and the fact that the Bulldogs haven’t reached the second weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2009, there are some skeptics when it comes to discussing this current group’s chances of making a run at the program’s first Final Four appearance. However if there’s anything to be taken from their tough 66-63 overtime loss at No. 3 Arizona, it’s that the Bulldogs should be considered every bit capable of doing just that.

The biggest reason why: this group has defended at a level that most of Few’s past Gonzaga teams have been incapable of reaching.

And even though there was certainly a high level of respect for Gonzaga ahead of their meeting Saturday, Arizona head coach Sean Miller noticed a difference in Few’s squad.

“We played Gonzaga because they’re one of the great programs in college basketball,” Miller said following the win. “And to be candid I didn’t anticipate them having even as good of a team as they have, because adding [Domantas] Sabonis and Byron Wesley as late as they did gives them, to me, that ‘next level’ type of team.”

Of course the way in which Gonzaga finished that game, scoring just one field goal over the final 9:05, wasn’t pretty. But even with that drought the Bulldogs were right in there, going toe-to-toe with an Arizona team that’s been afforded the respect worthy of a national title contender. Gonzaga’s defense, even with Arizona shooting 60 percent from the field in the second half, had a lot to do with that. Arizona broke even in assist-to-turnover ratio (13 assists, 13 turnovers), and for the game they shot just over 44 percent from the field.

And those numbers were far superior to what Gonzaga was able to produce during the teams’ NCAA tournament game last season.

On that day Arizona beat Gonzaga by the final score of 84-61, and the fact of the matter is that the game wasn’t all that close. The Wildcats led by as much as 28 on that day, limiting the Bulldogs to 40.7% shooting and forcing 21 Gonzaga turnovers. Arizona was even better offensively, shooting 49.2% from the field and racking up 24 assists to just six turnovers.

“Last year they destroyed us in the NCAA tournament, but it’s a different year and a different team,” Gonzaga junior center Przemek Karnowski told NBCSports.com after the game. “We remembered that we were simply destroyed by them, and I think we really fought [Saturday].”

For Gonzaga, the improved health of guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. and Few having more options to turn two are the differences between last season and this one. Thanks in part to the addition of the likes of Sabonis, Wesley and Kyle Wlitjer the Bulldogs are more diverse offensively, with Wiltjer giving them a four capable of stepping out onto the perimeter and Wesley filling a void on the wing the Bulldogs were unable to adequately address in 2013-14.

Gonzaga didn’t shoot as well as they would have liked Saturday, with Wiltjer needing 16 shot attempts to score 15 points and Pangos limited to eight points on 3-for-10 shooting. Yet even with that being the case, their defense not only kept the Bulldogs afloat but also had them in position to earn what would have been one of the most impressive wins of the season to date.

Will Gonzaga need to do a better job of finding quality looks down the stretch? Yes, but it isn’t as if that was a serious issue entering Saturday’s game. Against Arizona the Bulldogs encountered challenges they’d yet to face this season, and despite not playing their best Gonzaga nearly overcame them. In the end Gonzaga went home with a loss, but they also returned to Spokane with experiences that will only help them as the season wears on.

“It’s a great experience,” Few noted. “Obviously we wanted to finish it off, and we felt like we should have finished it off. We just let it slip away. We’ve been scheduling games like this since I’ve been the head coach.

“That’s what college basketball is all about.”

Despite the outcome, the question of whether or not this current group of Bulldogs was equipped to take on such a test was answered in the affirmative.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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

Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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

Joe Rondone/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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.