Big West Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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As expected the Big West season was a competitive one, with Hawai’i and UC Irvine sharing the regular season title and Long Beach State and UCSB both winning double digit games in conference play as well. Now comes the conference tournament, where the Rainbow Warriors are the top seed and will look to earn their first NCAA tournament bid since 2002. The road to the title won’t be an easy one however, as the Big West has multiple teams capable of cutting down the nets in Anaheim. Plus, the top seed hasn’t won this event since Long Beach State did so in 2012.

The Bracket

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When: March 10-12

Where: Honda Center, Anaheim, California

Final: March 12, 11:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

Favorite: Hawai’i

Earning the top seed in the tournament not only got the Rainbow Warriors an automatic bid to the NIT should the need it, but it also keeps them away from the one team that they’ve struggled to match up with this season (Long Beach State) until the title game. Stefan Jankovic has been a much-improved player for the ‘Bows in the front court, and the presence of tough, talented guards such as Roderick Bobbitt, Quincy Smith and Aaron Valdes allows Hawai’i to get after teams defensively. While they were swept by The Beach, the ‘Bows did sweep both UC Irvine and UCSB.

And if they lose?: UC Irvine

Russell Turner’s Anteaters have won at least a share of two of the last three Big West regular season titles, and they’re a veteran group that has the talent needed to make a second straight trip to the NCAA tournament. 7-foot-6 junior center Mamadou Ndiaye serves as quite the deterrent in the middle of their zone defense, and guards Alex Young and Luke Nelson lead the way on the perimeter. UC Irvine led the Big West in many of the major statistical categories on the defensive end of the floor this season, which makes them a threat to take home the crown.

Other Contenders:

  • Long Beach State: As mentioned above Dan Monson’s 49ers swept the season series with Hawai’i. Nick Faust has been a great addition, and the development of sophomore PG Justin Bibbins has helped as well.
  • UCSB: The Gauchos have the Big West’s leading scorer in senior guard Michael Bryson (18.0 ppg in all games), and they’re also one of the Big West’s better defensive teams (second in FG% defense, first in 3PT% defense).

Big West Player of the Year: Stefan Jankovic, Hawai’i

After averaging 10.6 points and 4.9 rebounds per game in his first season at Hawai’i, the Missouri transfer took a significant step forward in 2015-16. Jankovic leads Hawai’i in both scoring (15.7 ppg) and rebounding (6.8 rpg), and he’s shooting 55.9 percent from the field and nearly 39 percent from three. In conference games, Jankovic averaged 16.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per contest, ranking in the top three in the Big West in both categories.

Big West Coach of the Year: Eran Ganot, Hawai’i

This is an easy choice. In his first season at the helm Ganot led the Rainbow Warriors to their first Big West title, and thanks to a sweep of the season series with UC Irvine they’ll be the top seed in Anaheim. Most of this rotation was on last year’s team that reached the Big West title game, including Roderick Bobbitt, Aaron Valdes and Stefan Jankovic, and Ganot was able to make this team even better. Add in dealing with an NCAA investigation that began prior to his arrival, and Ganot is the pick.

First-Team All-Big West:

  • Stefan Jankovic, Hawai’i (POY)
  • Nick Faust, Long Beach State: In conference games Faust averaged a Big West-best 18.4 points per game, doing so on 44.4 percent shooting from the field.
  • Michael Bryson, UCSB: Bryson averaged 16.7 points per game in Big West play, shooting nearly 48 percent from the floor, and grabbed 6.6 rebounds per contest.
  • Luke Nelson, UC Irvine: Nelson ranked eight in the Big West in scoring (15.2 ppg) and fourth in assists (4.1 apg) in conference games.
  • Mamadou Ndiaye, UC Irvine: Ndiaye averaged 12.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game in Big West play, and his mere presence on the floor changes the way in which opponents attack UC Irvine’s defense.

PREDICTION: Hawai’i ends the top seed’s recent run of futility in this tournament with a win over UC Irvine in the title game.

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.