TRACKING THE UNBEATENS: We’re down to four

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After Iowa downed No. 1 Michigan State on Tuesday night, there are now just four teams left in college basketball without a loss on their record. When will they lose, and is there any chance we see an undefeated team this season?

The most interesting remaining member of the Undefeateds is No. 2 Oklahoma (11-0) for a couple of reasons:

  • For starters, this is a team that rarely gets mentioned when we’re talking about the best teams in college basketball. For the most part, that title usually falls to one of North Carolina, Kansas, Maryland or Michigan State, when the latter is healthy. Part of that is because Oklahoma’s elite win this season came over a Villanova team that has a reputation for not being all that good. Part of it is because this is basically the same team as last season minus TaShawn Thomas. Part of it is because Oklahoma doesn’t the star power. Part of it is because Oklahoma is, well, Oklahoma.
  • But the other side of this is that the Sooners are not even the favorite to win their league right now. No. 2 Kansas is, because Kansas has won 11 straight Big 12 regular season titles and only a fool would pick them to do anything but win their 12th this season. And depending on your view of No. 11 Iowa State, you may think that Oklahoma is the third-best team in the league.

And that’s where this thing takes a serious left turn, because we’re going to find out right away whether or not the Sooners are truly the kind of team that can contend for a national title. Their first two games in Big 12 play? They host the Cyclones on Saturday and follow that up with a trip to Lawrence to take on Kansas for Big Monday.

That’s a fitting name, by the way.

Because that battle in Phog Allen Fieldhouse could very well end up being between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country.

Who will be ranked where is yet to be determined. Oklahoma is No. 3 in the AP Poll and No. 2 in the Coaches Poll, and vice versa for Kansas. Both teams still have a game to get through this weekend before the new polls come out.

But if they get through them unscathed, Monday night should give us a matchup of the two top-ranked teams in college basketball, and that’s always a good thing for the sport.

First Loss?: Jan. 4 at No. 2 Kansas
Next Game: Jan. 2 vs. No. 11 Iowa State

No. 6 Xavier (13-0): Like the Sooners, Xavier is going to be tested right away in Big East play. The Musketeers pay a visit to two-time reigning champions No. 16 Villanova on New Year’s Eve Day, following that up 48 hours later by hosting No. 9 Butler. At this point, I do think that Xavier is the best team in the Big East and the most likely team to end Villanova’s reign at the top of the conference. I do not know, however, if they are good enough to go on the road in their first league game and beat the Wildcats in their own building.

I will say this: I think Xavier matches up as well with Villanova as anyone. They have the big bodies inside that can pound the offensive glass and they have the dynamic back court playmaker in Edmond Sumner that can take advantage of the limited size and athleticism of Villanova’s guards.

First Loss?: Dec. 31 at No. 16 Villanova
Next Game:Dec. 31 at No. 16 Villanova

No. 17 SMU (12-0): I’m not even going to try to hide it, man.

I’m rooting for the Mustangs.

In every game they enter with an undefeated record, I want them to leave with an undefeated record. I want them to end the season with an undefeated record. I want them to be ranked No. 1 in the country without a blemish to their name when they are left out of the tournament because of the cruel and absurd postseason that was handed down by the NCAA. I want their athletic department to have to come face-to-face with the idea that they did not appeal the ban in a year where they fielded the only team in SMU history truly capable of reaching the Final Four.

That’s certainly not going to make it any easier for Nic Moore, Jordan Tolbert and Markus Kennedy to sit out the postseason during their senior season, but it won’t be a bad consolation prize to be the first team since Bobby Knight’s 1976 Indiana team to finish the year undefeated.

They might actually have a shot.

KenPom is projected SMU to finish the season at 27-3, but the only game he isn’t currently favored the Mustangs to win is a Feb. 18th visit to UConn. That’s projected as a one-point SMU loss.

So we’re not exactly talking about SMU capturing a live Bigfoot here. There’s a real chance this could happen.

First Loss?: Never!
Next Game: Jan. 2 vs. South Florida

No. 25 South Carolina (11-0): I see the undefeated record. I’ve spoken with coaches that have prepped for the Gamecocks who say this team is legit. I think P.J. Dozier has a tremendous future under Frank Martin. I’m just not ready to fully buy-in on a team whose best wins are Tulsa, Clemson and … Hofstra?

First Loss?Jan. 9 vs. Vanderbilt
Next Game: Dec. 30 vs. Francis Marion

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.