A bad freshman class means a wide-open 2015-16 season

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The theme of the 2014-15 college hoops season was the strength at the highest level of the sport.

Kentucky was arguably the best team that we’ve seen in the early entry era, winning their first 38 games of the season and coming within a few ugly offensive possessions from getting a shot at Duke and a perfect, 40-0 season.

But it was more than just the Wildcats. Just as there was an obvious pick as the No. 1 team, there was a clear-cut delineation between the top seven teams in the country and everyone else: Wisconsin, Duke, Virginia, Gonzaga, Villanova and Arizona. Combined, those seven teams entered the NCAA tournament with just 16 losses, three of which came to another one of the top seven and two of which were after Virginia lost Justin Anderson, an injury that changed the course of their season.

None of those seven teams finished the season with more than four losses.

And while there were other good teams around the country — Notre Dame gave Kentucky all they could handle in the Elite 8, Michigan State reached the Final Four, Wichita State and Northern Iowa both won a ton of games — the toughest thing to do every week was find three teams to finish out the top ten. Those other three just didn’t feel like top ten teams, not in the context of the top seven.

This season is very different.

North Carolina was the nation’s preseason No. 1 team, a ranking that won’t last two weeks, as the Tar Heels lost at Northern Iowa on Saturday afternoon. UNC, however, is hardly the only elite team that’s struggled this season. No. 3 Maryland trailed Rider by as much as 14 points in the second half at the XFinity Center on Friday night. No. 4 Kansas lost to Michigan State in the Champions Classic just hours after No. 5 Duke was blown out by Kentucky. No. 6 Virginia lost at George Washington. No. 9 Wichita State lost at Tulsa.

The season kicked off eight days ago.

And the reason for that is that no one is really all that good this season. North Carolina was the best of a group of teams that would usually be ranked somewhere around, say, No. 5 or No. 6 entering the year, and they haven’t even had their best player available yet this season. Kentucky is going to end up being the No. 1 team in the country when the new polls are released on Monday, and they looked really good against Duke. But they’ve also been a bit underwhelming in their three other games. Michigan State is the other team that has really impressed early in the season, landing a come-from-behind win over Kansas on their resume, but they were outplayed for 30 minutes and needed a 29-point, 12-rebound, 12-assist performance — something that is not exactly replicable — from Denzel Valentine to get that win.

There’s a perfectly valid explanation for this: The 2015 recruiting class is just not very good.

Think about it.

Brandon Ingram was supposed to come in and be the difference-maker for the Duke Blue Devils, and while he was impressive against overmatched competition like Siena and Bryant, he has eight points, six turnovers and shot 3-for-13 in his last two games. Chase Jeter can’t even get off Duke’s bench. Jamal Murray is living up to the hype and Isaiah Briscoe is embracing his role, but Skal Labissiere’s defensive issues have limited the impact he can have on the offensive end. North Carolina didn’t bring in any star freshmen. Maryland’s key additions were transfers, not Diamond Stone, who played bad enough against Georgetown to get benched. Kansas’ Cheick Diallo isn’t cleared.

The best teams in college basketball, for the most part, build around freshmen these days, and when those freshmen aren’t capable of being built around, this is what happens.

And the result is going to be a season where five top ten teams losing in the span of a week isn’t much of an aberration.

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.