Are we going to see a return of the prep-to-pro debate?

(Photo by Jon Lopez)
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NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — It should have been the most highly-anticipated matchup of the summer.

Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 player in the Class of 2017 was squaring off with Marvin Bagley III, the No. 1 player in the Class of 2018.

Not only were the potential No. 1 picks in the 2018 and 2019 NBA Drafts playing on the same court at the same time, they spent much of the afternoon guarding each other. At the biggest and best event in July, it was a dream scenario. And yet, in a Riverview Park Activities Center that is typically overflowing with fans, media and coaches yearning to get a peak at the Next Big Thing, the gym on Thursday was … spacious.

Part of that is because there isn’t much drama in the race for No. 1 in either class. Ayton is probably going to remain the consensus No. 1 player in his class regardless of what happens in the next year, and Bagley is so far ahead of the rest of the Class of 2018 that it’s not even a discussion. The race for the top spot matters in recruiting circles, and that race is what generates the hype for the high-profile individual battles.

But the other side of it is that there are no assurances that either Ayton or Bagley will end up playing a second of college basketball.


At the center of the question marks regarding both players is Hillcrest Prep, an institution in Arizona that fields a basketball team while sending the players to their coursework at Starshine Academy. It’s a pretty typical setup for these new-age prep school operations, except that Starshine Academy is not approved by the NCAA. A prospect with core courses coming from Starshine will not be cleared by the NCAA’s Eligibility Center.

That eligibility issue is reportedly the reason that Bagley, who transferred to Hillcrest after spending his freshman season at Corona del Sol, left for Sierra Canyon in the middle of the fall semester and was forced to sit out the 2015-16 season as a transfer. And that eligibility issue is why Ayton — who transferred into Hillcrest from Balboa City HS in San Diego, another school with NCAA question marks — made it a point to tell the media gathered in North Augusta that he is working with the NCAA to make his transcript acceptable.

The first step, he says, was to take his classes online at Arizona Communications instead of with Starshine, and that Arizona Communications has been certified by the NCAA.

“I’ve been in contact with the NCAA,” Ayton said. “They’ve given me my classes. I’m doing summer school right now. They say I’m on track. I just have to finish these classes and I’m good.”

To his credit, Ayton was adamant about the fact that he wants to play a one-and-done year.

“There’s no overseas,” he said, adding that Kentucky and Arizona had joined Kansas as the only three schools currently recruiting him. “I’m going to college.”

“I just want to have the experience. I want to win a national championship, and even though I’m one and done, I would love to be in that atmosphere.”

Bagley’s situation is different. He left Hillcrest at some point when it became clear that he would not be able to play college hoops from that school, but no one seems to know exactly when he left, how long it took for him to get from Hillcrest to Sierra Canyon or what exactly he was doing in the in-between time.

And while he was also non-committal about the prospect of playing in college — “I can’t say I want to skip college or go to college,” he said. “Whatever happens, happens.” — his father told me, very specifically, that there was no way his son would not go to college. “Never,” he said. “I don’t even entertain it. I plan on having him finish college one day.”

The evidence? Bagley cut his list to six schools — Duke, Arizona, Kentucky, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA — to avoid the avalanche of calls he was expecting to get from staffs hoping that they had a shot.

So it’s still possible that we see both of these kids on campus.

But let’s say we don’t.

The prep-to-pros route is where this thing will get interesting, because the situations that both Ayton and Bagley have been directed into make them into prime candidates to follow in the footsteps of Emmanuel Mudiay and Terrance Ferguson.

Or Thon Maker.

And when you then consider that potential first-round picks like Trevon Duval and Billy Preston have eligibility question marks of their own, that’s when things get interesting.

Because Ayton and Bagley don’t need to play in college to be picked No. 1. Duval doesn’t need college to be a lottery pick the same way that Maker and Mudiay didn’t. Ferguson and Preston could get guaranteed money from an NBA contract without cashing a scholarship check.

And if the elite recruits following them see that these decisions don’t effect their chances to be a pro, and that going to college simply puts you at risk of slaloming down NBA Draft boards like Skal Labissiere, that’s when the concern about the reignited prep-to-pros movement becoming a trend gets validated.

Nike/Jon Lopez
Nike/Jon Lopez

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.