Villanova tries to put March flops behind them

Associated Press
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VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) Villanova could stand to raise some funds for a new trophy case.

The Wildcats opened last season winning the Legends Classic in Brooklyn, New York. That was just a warmup for 12 straight wins and a Big East championship. Then it was three more wins and a Big East tournament championship.

Josh Hart even earned conference sixth man of the year honors, pointing everything toward celebration on the Main Line.

Except for one thing – the Wildcats again flopped in March, when college basketball matters most.

Thirty years after Villanova won an improbable national championship, the top-seeded Wildcats were booted in the second game of the NCAA tournament by North Carolina State. President Barack Obama had even cast his vote for Villanova to reach the national championship game.

The Wildcats have been impeached from the tournament in the first weekend every season they’ve made it since they played in the 2009 Final Four. That’s a 3-5 record that has raised some questions if the Wildcats can ever truly become elite under coach Jay Wright.

They’ll try again this season, ranked 11th in the AP Top 25 poll and the Big East favorite.

Wright said he’s looked hard at fixing the tournament problems.

“It’s more from the coaching standpoint than the players,” he said. “It’s little tactical things we could do. It’s two years in a row playing a 1-16 game or 2-15 game, then going to a high-level game the next game. Maybe the coaching staff – me – didn’t do a good enough job in between those games.”

Wright said the regular season can’t be considered anything but a success but added, “I get it” why his program is judged on March alone.

Hart, guard Ryan Arcidiacono, forward Kris Jenkins and forward Daniel Ochefu all return from a team looking to prove they really are built for the long haul.

But it’s the new kid in town that could give the program the jolt it needed as tries for the first national championship since 1985.

BRUNSON BURNER: Jalen Brunson, a 6-foot-2 guard and McDonald’s All-American, is the most highly-touted recruit to hit campus in years. Brunson is the son of former Temple star and NBA player Rick Brunson. He was unanimously named the Big East Rookie of the Year and could help the Wildcats erase their March doldrums. Wright said Brunson was an intelligent, gritty guard who might be around for only one or two seasons, a rarity for a program built on the strength of upperclassman.

“I know one thing that concerns me is that he’s gotten so much hype, that when people hear hype, they expect Andrew Wiggins,” Wright said. “He’s not that.”

NEW ARENA: Villanova’s 6,500-seat Pavilion opened in 1986 – and was outdated by 1987. Most high school gyms have more restrooms and concession stands than the Pavilion and Wright said plans are in full swing for either a new arena or complete renovation.

“We sell this place out every game,” Wright said. “But for the school, we could create more revenue. The place looks great on TV. It’s just not good for fans and it doesn’t generate the revenue like a new arena would.”

HOME AWAY FROM HOME: Because seating capacity is almost tripled, the Wildcats save their biggest games each season for the Wells Fargo Center.

But with the arena the site of an NCAA tournament regional this season, Villanova was limited to only three games during the regular season if it wanted the option of playing in March at home.

“We didn’t want to be arrogant about making the decision, like we’re going to get there,” Wright said. “But if we did get that far, and we didn’t give ourselves that chance, it probably would be irresponsible. We actually take a revenue hit doing it.”

FIFTH FRANCHISE: The 76ers might be good around the next Republican presidential debate – in 2019. The Flyers are mired in mediocrity, the Eagles hope a .500 record can win them the NFC East and the Phillies are a few years off from contention. That leaves the Wildcats standing tall as the lone Philly sports bright spot through an otherwise bleak winter.

“We’re used to people paying attention to us once the Eagles’ season is over,” Wright said. “But it’s fine if they want to watch now.”

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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

Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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

Joe Rondone/USA TODAY NETWORK
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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.