Wisconsin vs. Kentucky: The Final Four rematch we deserved to see

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What happened in Saturday night’s Elite 8 action is not going to be easily topped by any of the three remaining nights of NCAA tournament action.

Wisconsin scored 55 second-half points on Arizona, hitting 10-for-12 from beyond the arc in the final 20 minutes as the Badgers pulled away from an Arizona team that, for the second time in two years, couldn’t get to the NCAA tournament’s final weekend.

It was as good as a basketball game can be when one team has control for much of the second half, as Wisconsin did, and yet, it couldn’t hold a candle to what we got in the nightcap.

Notre Dame gave still-undefeated Kentucky everything they could handle in Cleveland, spreading the floor with shooters and letting Jerian Grant, Zach Auguste and company take advantage of all the space that created in the paint. The Irish had 20 dunks and layups despite having just one player taller than Kentucky’s starting back court.

The difference ended up being two defensive plays by the Wildcats in the final minutes. Notre Dame’s offense is built around ball-screen actions, and twice in the final 1:26, Grant, a first-team all-american, had a big man switch onto him, something that he routinely took advantage of during the regular season. But neither Trey Lyles nor Willie Cauley-Stein allowed Grant to beat them off the dribble, forcing him into a pair of step-back threes, as Kentucky scored the final four points of the game to win.

You couldn’t have asked for anymore from those two games.

But here’s the best part: It sets up a rematch from last year’s Final Four, as Wisconsin and Kentucky will square off next Saturday with the right to play for the national title on the line.

It’s a dream matchup. The NBCSports.com National Player of the Year, Frank Kaminsky, against the best front line that we’ve seen at the college level in more than a decade. The nation’s most efficient offense squaring off with the nation’s best defensive team. Two coaches that have mastered their craft, with John Calipari cornering the market on churning out wins with one-and-done prospects and Bo Ryan proving that building a program, one that survives on player development over the course of four or five years, is still possible.

And while Notre Dame diagrammed and executed to perfection a game-plan to beat Kentucky, falling just short, there is no team in the country that is better-suited to ending the Wildcats’ bid for a perfect season than Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is one of the few teams in the country that has the size to matchup with the Wildcats. Kaminsky is a 7-footer. Sam Dekker is 6-foot-9. Nigel Hayes is 6-foot-8. Duje Dukan, their first player off the bench, is 6-foot-8. And if that’s not enough, Wisconsin is also one of the best teams in the country on the defensive glass, giving up offensive rebounds on just 23.9 percent of an opponents’ missed shots. Kentucky will still be bigger than the Badgers — they’re bigger than most NBA teams — but you won’t be seeing Kentucky simply dump the ball into their posts on every possession the way they did against Notre Dame. Karl-Anthony Towns is going to have to work harder if he wants to get those 25 points.

But there’s more.

Each of those Wisconsin front court players are incredibly versatile. Kaminsky is a guard that just happened to sprout into a 7-foot, 235-pound matchup nightmare. Hayes can hit threes, can beat slower defenders off the dribble and can overpower small forwards asked to guard him on the block. And Dekker? He’s an immensely talented, 6-foot-9 combo-forward who has played the best basketball of his life during the regional in Los Angeles.

Seriously.

He set a career-high with 23 points in Thursday’s win over North Carolina, and then set a new career-high with 27 points on Saturday.

Just like Notre Dame did, Wisconsin will be able to spread the floor, pulling Kentucky’s big men away from the rim and putting them into situations they aren’t used to defending. Their offense isn’t as ball-screen heavy as Notre Dame’s, but they can run pick-and-rolls.

And they can isolate any of their five players against a mismatch, including their bigs on the wing and their guards in the post, a tactic known as “inverting the offense”, which Wisconsin does better than anyone.

They can also execute their offensive sets as well as anyone in the country, whether it’s Bo Ryan’s patented Swing Offense or a simple screen-the-screener action to get an open three or a post duck-in.

Wisconsin is not only the second-best team left in the tournament, but they are the team that is the best-suited to beating the Wildcats this year.

And while this game probably deserves to be played in the final, seeing them square off in the Final Four, on the sport’s biggest stage, isn’t a bad consolation price.

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.