Michigan’s process of adjusting to key personnel losses hasn’t been a smooth one

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Caris LeVert (AP Photo)

TUCSON — The last four seasons under John Beilein have been the most successful at Michigan since the 1990’s, with the Wolverines winning an average of 26 games per season, a pair of Big Ten regular season titles and a trip to the 2013 national title game. During that run, the Wolverines were able to account for the premature loss of key players, with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. grabbing the reins following the departure of Darius Morris, and a talented group led by Nik Stauskas doing so once Burke and Hardaway moved on to the NBA.

The consensus this preseason was that this current group, led by junior Caris LeVert and sophomores Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin, would be able to do the same. LeVert was a preseason all-american. Walton and Irvin? They were high-profile recruits with a year of college hoops under their belts, primed for a breakout season.

Things haven’t worked out that way, as the Wolverines have now lost three consecutive games, the most recent — an 80-53 loss on national television to No. 3 Arizona Saturday evening in Tucson — being only marginally less embarrassing than homes losses to Eastern Michigan and NJIT.

Expected to be every bit as competitive as last season’s meeting, a 72-70 Wildcat victory in Ann Arbor, Saturday’s game saw Arizona look every bit a national title contender. This Michigan team is still in search of an identity, the biggest issue on Saturday being their most glaring problem: The Wolverines have yet to find a consistent option in the middle.

That may seem weird considering that the loss of Jordan Morgan didn’t receive nearly as much attention as Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary bolting to the NBA. But Morgan was a valuable player for those Wolverines, making 27 starts and averaging 6.4 points and 5.0 rebounds per contest as a senior.

Morgan’s numbers may not have been eye-popping but he was consistent for the Wolverines. Offensively he was a capable passer in the high post, and he also did a solid job of finishing at the basket in pick-and-roll situations. Also good on the glass (remove McGary’s average through the eight games he played and Morgan led the team in rebounding), Morgan defended his position well for the Wolverines. In short, Morgan performed at a level that Michigan’s current big men have yet yo reach on a consistent basis.

It’s a bit unfair to use Saturday’s showing against a Mark Donnal (five points, one rebound) or Ricky Doyle (eight points, three rebounds). Arizona’s front court has multiple players whose names will likely be called by NBA commissioner Adam Silver at some point in the near future, and Doyle and Donnal are both playing their first season of college hoops.

Doyle displayed flashes of what he can do earlier this season, as he averaged 13.5 points and 6.0 rebounds in wins over Nicholls and Syracuse, but due in large part to their inexperience Michigan’s interior players haven’t been as consistent as one would like. Arizona scored 42 points in the paint Saturday, and while there were highlight-reel worthy dunks from wings Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson the Wildcat big men also proved to be an issue for the Wolverines.

“They have much bigger players, much more experienced players,” Beilein said after the game. “Our two freshman centers, Mark Donnal, Max Bielfeldt who’s a senior, and Ricky Doyle, were having trouble against the size of Tarczewski and [Brandon Ashley].”

But even with that being the case, Saturday’s contest proved to be a valuable one for the young Michigan big men as it gave them a good idea of what it takes to compete against some of the nation’s best big men.

“I really wanted to get Ricky as much [playing time] as we [could] to see what this level’s about,” Beilein said of Doyle. “It’s motivation now, it’s motivation all year. For him to see, ‘this is what the big boys play like, that’s what you have to learn to be able to do.’ There were really valuable small victories in some of the things he did.”

With Morgan out of eligibility and Jon Horford transferring to Florida, it was known that the Wolverines were going to be young in the paint this season. It’ll take time for the likes of Doyle and Donnal to develop into consistent players, as is the case for most freshmen in college basketball.

What that means is that Michigan may need to go with a lineup that allows them to exploit those mismatches for their perimeter players. But in order for that to be effective, Michigan has to use the resulting lanes to attack the basket and not simply settle for perimeter shots. Do that, and a team that ranks 12th in the Big Ten in free throw attempts (165) will be able to take advantage of the fact that they’re one of the conference’s best foul shooting teams (75.8%).

When it comes to Walton Jr. and Irvin, they’re making the transition from being part of a rotation one year to being critical pieces the next. LeVert went through that process last season, as his minutes tripled and he emerged as one of the most improved players in the Big Ten if not the country. With the lack of experience and consistent production inside those three have even more on their plates offensively, and the added attention is something they’ve had to battle this season. After being one of the best shooting teams in America last season, Michigan’s effective field goal percentage (55.7% to 50.1%) and three-point shooting (40.2% to 36.8%) are both way down this year.

According to Walton, the bigger concern is the team’s play on the defensive end, as Michigan is currently last in the Big Ten in both field goal (45.4%) and three-point (38.4%) percentage defense.

“I [don’t] think offense is the problem right now. I think it’s more so on the defensive end,” Walton Jr. said following Saturday’s loss. “[There are] just times when guys are falling asleep and missing boxouts and stuff like that. Film study will always help. At the end of the day this team needs to focus on the defensive end more than offense.”

After finding a way to account for the loss of key players with few major hiccups over the four seasons prior, that hasn’t been the case for Michigan in 2014-15. While losses to No. 7 Villanova and No. 3 Arizona will be understood given the caliber of those teams, a similar case can’t be made for their home losses to N.J.I.T. and Eastern Michigan. With finals this week, Michigan has just two games left to play (SMU and Coppin State) before they start Big Ten play December 30 against Illinois.

The time spent on the court and in the film room during this period will be vital for this group, as its most experienced options adjust to greater roles and the younger players work to become more comfortable not only with the system but also high-level Division I basketball. While the impulse for some may be to rush to judgment when it comes to this Michigan team, they’ve still got time to figure things out.

The process won’t be an easy one, as evidenced by their current three-game skid, but it is one the Wolverines are capable of navigating.

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.