The Other Side of the March Magic: The end of an era at Wichita State

(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

The Magic of March will always lead to heartbreak.

While we’re celebrating Paul Jersperson’s half court heave to send Northern Iowa to the second round, Isaiah Taylor and the rest of the Texas Longhorns shed tears that we’ll never see as their season comes to an end on a prayer outside of even Stephen Curry’s range. Cincinnati’s despair was two-fold: They lost in the NCAA tournament on a dunk that came after the buzzer and had their AAC tournament run stifled thanks to a 65-footer that barely counted.

March is a zero-sum game.

For every winner, there must be a loser. And with every loser, comes the end of a season, the end of a career, the end of an era. That adds another layer to what makes this event so special. It’s like the finale of a television series, our one last chance to say goodbye to people we’ve become inextricably attached to despite the fact that we barely know them beyond the jersey and rarely meet them anywhere other than in the sterility of a media session or a fan meet-and-greet.

That is to say that we don’t really know them even if it feels like we do.

But there’s still a sadness knowing that we’ll never watch, root for or cover those players in this setting ever again. There’s a finality to it all that you don’t find in any other sport, an abruptness in quickly the end comes.

What makes this season different is that it is the Year of the Senior. It was fun to see Karl Towns go from a kid that we knew could be good to a player that we knew had a chance at being great. We watched D’angelo Russell turn into a walking triple-double and the No. 2 pick in the draft. We got our chance to ooh-and-ahh over Jahlil Okafor’s throwback lowpost game. But in the end, we knew that those guys were nothing more than a one-year rental in our game.

The stars we’re losing this season are kids that we’ve seen grow over four years. Denzel Valentine went from a role player that couldn’t shoot into a bonafide superstar that fell victim to the biggest upset in NCAA tournament history. Buddy Hield went from being a defensive stopper as a freshman to putting up numbers that could be mentioned in the same sentence as J.J. Redick his senior season. Yogi Ferrell’s path was not easy, but he will leave Bloomington as the legend that he was supposed to be when he got to campus. Georges Niang will graduate as the one guy that might beat out Fred Hoiberg for Mayor of Ames.

Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige, Perry Ellis, Malcolm Brogdon.

Those guys all will have left legacies at their respective programs by the time their careers come to a close.

And they will all pale in comparison to the legacy that Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker will leave behind in Wichita.

Because we will never see another Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker.

Think about what those kids accomplished throughout their career. As freshmen, they played major roles on a team that went to the Final Four as a No. 9 seed. As sophomores, they were the stars of a team that started the season 35-0, an NCAA record. As juniors, they made it back to the Sweet 16 as a No. 7 seed, picking off in-state rival Kansas in the process.

The only time they didn’t win multiple NCAA tournament games in their four seasons together came when their tournament loss was their only loss of the season.

“We’ve been through so much together,” VanVleet said after Saturday’s second round loss to No. 3 Miami. “And that’s the only thing keeping my spirit up right now is just the type of teammates we’ve got, the family atmosphere that we have.”

They turned Wichita State into a top 25 program, the Gonzaga of the Midwest. The Shockers were always the story in their city and one of the best programs in the Missouri Valley, but VanVleet and Baker helped turn the program into a national brand.

“They’ve taken us on a magic carpet ride,” head coach Gregg Marshall said. “What they’ve done for this program, this University, the state of Kansas and college basketball, it’s been incredible.”

And don’t forget about what they’ve done for Gregg Marshall himself, because that’s where this story gets really interesting.

This is the end of the VanVleet and Baker era in Wichita, but will it be the end of the Marshall era as well? His name has been linked with seemingly every high major job opening the last three years. Alabama basically wrote him a blank check when they tried to hire him away from the Shockers last spring. He was linked to the Texas job that Shaka Smart eventually filled. He’s been mentioned in conjunction with the vacancies at Oklahoma State and TCU, as well as a couple of jobs that haven’t even come open yet.

Such is life when you’re a successful head coach outside the Power Five conferences, even if Marshall is getting paid like one. The contract he signed last April was a seven-year deal worth more than $23 million, which makes him one of the top 15 highest-paid coaches in the country. It’s not going to be easy to pry him loose.

But he also has a buyout of $500,000 if he decides to leave the school, compared to the $15 million Wichita State would have to pay him if he were to be fired.

He can afford to find a different job.

The question is if he wants one.

Marshall has built the Shockers into a program that can compete with bigger schools for players. Markis McDuffie was a top 100 recruit that is going to be a monster in the Missouri Valley. Connor Frankamp was a top 50 recruit. Rashard Kelly was recruited to play in bigger leagues, as was incoming freshman C.J. Keyser.

But as good as those kids have the chance to be, it’s hard to imagine them being as good as VanVleet and Baker were. VanVleet made multiple all-american teams, will have a career in the NBA and if one of those guys whose leadership and intangibles make him far more valuable than his measureables and shooting percentages. Baker did as well, and he may actually be the better NBA prospect.

In other words, there is no guarantee that Marshall will ever get this program back to these heights again.

Which means that, if he is going to leave, there has never been a better time to do it.

So who knows what the future holds for this program.

And yes, I feel guilty writing that, because at this point it shouldn’t be about the future. It should be about appreciating what we were able to watch that group accomplish the last four years; the places that Shocker Nation was able to root their team on.

It was special.

“It’s been a hell of a ride,” VanVleet said. “All good things got to come to an end at some point, unless we were able to cut down the nets in Houston this year. I probably would have cried just the same just because it was over.”

“We all sitting at this table came back for a reason this year, and I feel the same way today that I felt last year. I’m not looking forward in my future to anything else, just want to appreciate these guys and our fans and the program.”

“Shocker Nation is real, so thank you.”

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK

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

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


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.