SEC Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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Kentucky vs. The Field has been a popular debate among college basketball for much of the season, but first, the Wildcats have to get out of the SEC Tournament. At 31-0, John Calipari’s team is the heavy favorite to win the auto bid and it will be interesting to see if Kentucky continues its trend of playing well in big games on national television.

As long as Kentucky stays healthy and fully engaged, there’s no reason they shouldn’t win in Nashville.

Arkansas is the only other top-25 team in the SEC and the Razorbacks are coming off of a late loss against LSU as they’ve faltered a bit down the stretch. But the Razorbacks feature the SEC’s Player of the Year in sophomore Bobby Portis and he’s been fantastic during SEC play.

READ MORE: NBC Sports’ latest Bracketology

From there, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss and Texas A&M are still fighting for NCAA Tournament bids and/or better seeding. The Aggies and Tigers, in particular, could use a win or two to help get them into the field of 68 while Georgia and Ole Miss could use some wins to get out of the near double-digit seeding range they currently sit.

Some other dangerous teams lurk in the lower seeds as Vanderbilt is playing much better late in the season after some close losses and Florida has enough talent to at least put a scare into Kentucky if they play in the quarterfinals and the Wildcats have an off-night.

Bracket

source:

MORE: NBCSports.com’s 2015 Conference Tournament Previews

When: March 11-15

Where: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville

Final: March 15, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Favorite: Kentucky

Like there was any doubt? The Wildcats have rolled to a perfect 31-0 record before heading to Nashville to begin the postseason and it seems as though Kentucky plays even better when the game has national significance. Defensively, Kentucky can be as dominant as any team in the country, and offensively, they have so many different weapons and ways to get shots that they’re tough to stop.

And if they lose?: Arkansas

The Razorbacks benefited from only facing Kentucky once in the SEC and they’re the only team in the conference to be consistently featured in the top 25 during league play. Led by third-team All-American Bobby Portis, the Razorbacks have been more consistent away from home this season and can intimidate teams with their athleticism on both ends of the floor. But can Mike Anderson’s team bounce back from a 3-2 end of the conference season that also included some narrow wins?

Other Contenders

  • Georgia: Besides being swept by South Carolina and losing to Auburn at home, the Bulldogs have been rather strong in SEC play and have only lost to the conference’s top-four teams outside of that. Plus, Mark Fox’s team has actually given Kentucky a real test this season.
  • LSU: The road win at Arkansas to end the season was a big one and sophomore Jarell Martin is playing tremendous down the stretch. The Tigers are certainly talented enough to make a run in the postseason if Jordan Mickey is healthy and playing at full speed.

Sleeper: Vanderbilt

The Commodores are surging down the stretch and the experienced pieces are finally gelling with the freshmen. Sophomore big man Damian Jones has generated some early NBA buzz while freshman guard Riley LaChance is one of the most underrated freshman among power conferences in the country. As a team, Vanderbilt shoots 39 percent from 3-point range, and if they get hot, they can be tough to stop.

SEC Player of the Year: Bobby Portis, Arkansas

A third-team NBCSports.com All-American, Portis was the most important individual player on any team in the SEC this season. Averaging 17.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game on good shooting splits (56% FG, 42% 3Pt, 74% FT), the 6-foot-11 sophomore scored in double figures in all but one game this season as the Razorbacks’ go-to guy. In SEC play Portis played even better, as he averaged 18.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game while also blocking 2.8 shots a game in league play.

SEC Coach of the Year: John Calipari, Kentucky

Kentucky has answered every question about its use of one-and-done players and the platoon system this season by dominating opponents and playing mostly selfless basketball. Calipari is a huge reason why. The head coach has gotten nine McDonald’s All-Americans to put aside ego for the greater good of the bigger picture (a national title) and the result has been one of the best college basketball teams in recent memory.

First-Team All-SEC:

  • Portis
  • Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky – An NBCSports.com first-team All-American, the junior center is the country’s best defensive player, covering an incredible amount of ground on the perimeter while also protecting the rim as well as anyone in the nation.
  • Karl Anthony-Towns, Kentucky – The potential top-3 pick in the NBA Draft has played his best ball down the stretch. The freshman center only plays an average of 20 minutes a game but has at least 12 points in eight of his last 11 games.
  • Josh Richardson, Tennessee – It’s hard to imagine how bad Tennessee basketball would have been this season without Josh Richardson. The senior used a great 2014 NCAA Tournament as momentum for a tremendous senior year.
  • Jarell Martin, LSU – Coin flip between Martin and sophomore teammate Jordan Mickey based on numbers. Mickey has many more blocks, but Martin has been huge down the stretch, including 27 points in a road win at Arkansas that might have saved LSU’s season.

Second Team All-SEC:

  • Jordan Mickey, LSU
  • Danuel House, Texas A&M
  • Damian Jones, Vanderbilt
  • Stefan Moody, Ole Miss
  • Devin Booker Kentucky

CBT Prediction: Kentucky stays unbeaten entering the NCAA Tournament and beats Georgia for the title.

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.