Tracking The Unbeatens: Why a boring Kentucky is the good Kentucky

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Every Monday from now until every team in the country has a loss on their resume, we will be Tracking The Unbeatens, and predicting when, exactly, that unbeaten streak will end. You can follow along here.

Who lost last week?: None

Kentucky (23-0): Last week, as Kentucky was slogging through another uninspiring conference win against Georgia, I tweeted about the fact that Kentucky has been awfully boring to watch this season, particularly since conference play started. Some members of Big Blue Nation felt this was a slight against their team, and proceeded to take to their keyboards to inform me of just how ignorant I was in not seeing the entertainment value in the Wildcats struggling to put away a borderline bubble team they were favored to beat by 18 points.

I bring this up because I wanted to elaborate on that point: Being boring means Kentucky is doing what they need to do to win games.

READ MORE: Karl Towns was the NBCSports.com Player of the Week

The Wildcats are playing defense at a historically great level. According to Kenpom, they are the best defense we’ve seen in college basketball since 2002, and by a pretty decent margin. Luke Winn of Sports Illustrated went in-depth this week to see where the numbers show Kentucky ranks as the best defensive team in the modern era of college basketball.

That defense that Kentucky plays isn’t a manic full-court press like the one employed by VCU or the ’40 Minutes of Hell’ that Nolan Richardson rode to a national title in the 1990s. It’s not a defense designed to create transition opportunities or that gives up open shots at times as they gamble for steals. John Calipari’s boys simply play good old fashioned, fundamental man-to-man defense, and it just so happens that Cal has a roster full of NBA-caliber athletes that take pride in that end of the floor.

In basketball, really good defense just isn’t all that much fun to watch. And Kentucky plays really, really good defense.

But there’s more.

On the offensive end of the floor, the Wildcats aren’t all that good at scoring in the half court. They’re not loaded with shooters and their big men have back-to-the-basket games that fall somewhere between solid-but-developing (Karl Towns) to not-really-a-threat (Willie Cauley-Stein). There are quite a few times where Kentucky’s best offense in the half court is a missed shot, which is part of the reason you see them making the transition game a priority.

And, again, that’s not a bad thing.

When you have three NBA caliber seven-footers and a lineup with just a single player shorter than 6-foot-5, that’s how you should play.

So while Kentucky has the athletes to make plays like this a couple of times a month, in general, smothering defense and an offense that thrives on post touches and offensive rebounds is not all that aesthetically pleasing.

One note: A part of Kentucky “playing boring” might be that the team is actually bored. Their biggest game of the season was literally played last year, on Dec. 27th, when they went into Louisville and beat the Cardinals. Their is no other powerhouse program in the SEC right now. Florida is the biggest name, and they gave Kentucky a test on Saturday night, a game that was fun to watch because Florida came out swinging against the Cats, landing a few punches to get the crowd riled up and force Kentucky to have to make plays to win.

But what about playing a home game against, say, Mississippi State or South Carolina is going to get a team that’s been playing on a bigger stage than anyone else in the sport since August excited?

  • Next Game: Feb. 9 at LSU
  • First Loss?: Final Four?

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.