Can anyone beat Kentucky? Where it could stumble

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INSTANT ANALYSISEast | West | South | Midwest

Like it or not, this NCAA tournament is going to almost entirely come down to one topic and one topic alone: Can anyone beat Kentucky?

That’s what happens when you have a team full of future lottery picks that will enter the NCAA tournament with a 34-0 record. It doesn’t matter if there are six other teams in the country that had a valid argument for being a No. 1 seed, or if those six teams — Wisconsin, Arizona, Duke, Villanova, Virginia and Gonzaga — are a cut above anyone else in the country.

That’s how good this Kentucky team is.

So let’s break it down round-by-round. Who can beat these Wildcats?

FILM SESSION: Who can Kentucky, and why

Round of 64: Hahahaha. Right. Moving on.

Round of 32: Cincinnati is physical enough to hang with Kentucky, but the way they play is basically like the JV version of Kentucky. You can’t out-Kentucky Kentucky. Purdue would be intriguing, as they have two seven-footers of their own, but I’m not sure they have the perimeter firepower to pull the upset.

Sweet 16: I don’t love any of these matchups. Maryland’s guards are really, really good, but I don’t think you can beat Kentucky relying on guards going 1-on-1; that’s what the Wildcats want you to do. West Virginia is dangerous to anyone because of the way they can press and force turnovers, but without a healthy Juwan Staten, can they even get that far? What if No. 12 Buffalo gets to the Sweet 16?

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Elite 8: Who wants to see a rematch between Kentucky and Kansas? I’m sure the Jayhawk faithful would love a shot at redemption, and I think there’s a chance Kansas could pull that upset off. I know they’re without Cliff Alexander and Perry Ellis is banged up, but Kansas has a ton of shooters this season. Teams that can dial it up from deep are always a threat, which is why No. 3 seed Notre Dame may actually be the better sleeper pick to come out of the region. They have almost no chance of slowing down Kentucky in the paint or of keeping them off of the offensive glass, but Jerian Grant is a serious threat to be this year’s Shabazz Napier, and he’s surrounded by some flat out snipers.

Here’s another name for you: Texas. Yeah, I know, I know. But keep this in mind: The Longhorns have top ten talent, a massive front line and gave Kentucky a fight in Rupp Arena without their starting point guard.

Final Four: The biggest downside to this bracket, in my mind, is that the two best teams in the country not named Kentucky both ended up on the same side of the bracket, Wisconsin and Arizona. That’s also why I think that the Wildcats are the most susceptible to getting picked off in the Final Four.

As far as Wisconsin is concerned, they do the three things that you need to be able to do to beat Kentucky:

  • Avoid getting dominated in the paint
  • Force them to shoot over the top of the defense
  • Score early or late in the shot clock

Wisconsin’s front line isn’t as deep as Kentucky’s, but it is every bit as big. And those big bodies aren’t just big and strong, all three of them — Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes — can step out on the perimeter and score; no one inverts their offense as well as the Badgers.

Arizona is peaking as well. Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski and Gabe York have played some of the best basketball of their careers of late, and that’s incredibly important in this particular matchup. When Arizona struggles offensively, they end up relying far too much on T.J. McConnell in ball-screen actions, and if there is one thing that Kentucky is great at doing defensively, it’s taking away ball-screens. They have the size and athleticism up front to keep Kentucky off the glass, and they play a Pack-Line defense as well as anyone this side of Virginia.

North Carolina and Baylor, if they can get to the Final Four, would also have a puncher’s chance at pulling the upset.

National Title Game: The way I see it, there are four teams on the other side of the bracket that can beat Kentucky in the national title game — Virginia, Duke, Gonzaga and Villanova — but if I’m being honest, I don’t love any of the matchups.

Virginia’s got the best matchup, given their ability on the defensive glass and how well they run that Pack-Line defense, but they are not the same team without Justin Anderson completely healthy. He’s coming off of a broken finger and an appendectomy, and if there is anything we saw during the ACC tournament, it’s that he’s not 100 percent yet.

Duke clearly has the firepower offensively, but how will Jahlil Okafor deal with Kentucky’s size offensively? How will they be able to keep the Wildcats off the glass? With five front court players over 6-foot-10, will Kentucky simply resort to putting Okafor on the line as much as possible?

Gonzaga has the size up front to matchup with Kentucky, but I don’t love the personnel matchups. They need Kyle Wiltjer’s versatility offensively, but will Wiltjer be physical enough to deal with having to guard the likes of Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl Towns?

Villanova is underrated, there’s no question about that, but I just cannot see a team that has one rotation player over 6-foot-7 — and just one big man that can hit threes — beating this Kentucky team.

Here’s the thing to remember about Kentucky: As good as they have been this season, they have yet to play one of those other six teams. Their loaded non-conference schedule, the one that included showdowns with Kansas, Texas, Louisville and North Carolina, doesn’t quite look as impressive as it did back in October.

The Wildcats could very well end up going 40-0 this season. No one in their right mind would argue against that.

But if they do, here’s to hoping that they get challenged along the way.

 

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.