Conference USA Preview: UAB and Middle Tennessee try to keep shocking the world

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing Conference USA.

Nobody respected Conference USA entering last season’s NCAA tournament and it helped contribute to No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee’s shocking upset of Final Four contender Michigan State. The Blue Raiders followed in the footsteps of UAB after the Blazers’ win over Iowa State and both teams will once again be in the mix for what will likely be the league’s only tournament bid. But besides the top two contenders, there are a lot of talented teams in the equation this season.

It will be NCAA tournament or bust for preseason favorite UAB as they fell short of the Big Dance after falling to Middle Tennessee in the C-USA Tournament. The Blazers have a new coach in former assistant Robert Ehsan, but they return five starters from a 26-win team — including three all-league players. Middle Tennessee lost some key pieces from that tournament team but sharpshooting guard Giddy Potts and senior forward Reggie Upshaw return along with an intriguing graduate transfer in Arkansas forward JaCorey Williams.

The Stith brothers will lead the charge for Old Dominion as forward Brandan Stith returns after averaging nearly a double-double per game. He’s joined by Virginia transfer and younger brother Bryant Stith and all-freshman selection Zoran Talley to form an intriguing nucleus that could contend immediately. Dan D’Antoni brings back four scorers to a high-scoring Marshall team that went 12-6  in league play. The trio of Jon Elmore, Ryan Taylor and Stevie Browning can put up a ton of points but the Thundering Herd have to get stops to be among the league’s elite.

Western Kentucky will be fascinating under new head coach Rick Stansbury. While Stansbury is generating headlines for his Class of 2017 recruiting efforts, the team he’ll put on the floor this season includes some talented graduate transfers including Pancake Thomas (Hartford), Que Johnson (Washington State), Junior Lomomba (Providence) and Willie Carmichael (Tennessee). Those newcomers with returning forward Justin Johnson make for a talented team. Louisiana Tech loses talented point guard Alex Hamilton, but they get all-conference forward Erik McCree back along with guard Jacobi Boykins. Miami transfer Omar Sherman and the return of injured guard Qiydar Davis could be the key to the Bulldogs’ season.

Four starters are back for North Texas including the potent trio of Jeremy Combs, J-Mychal Reese and Deckie Johnson. The Mean Green also get former McDonald’s All-American Keith Frazier (SMU) after first semester, but they have to be more consistent to beat the league’s top teams. UTEP will have to replace some key pieces but Dominic Artis, Omega Harris and Terry Winn are returning double-figure scorers. If the Miners can get more consistent play from their frontcourt, they could be a sleeper in this league. Rice has a potential league Player of the Year candidate in high-scoring sophomore guard Marcus Evans and he’ll receive help from guard Marcus Jackson this season as Jackson returns from injury.

Charlotte is still very young and perimeter-oriented by all-freshmen guards Jon Davis and Adrien White are back along with senior guard Braxton Ogbueze. Florida Atlantic has four starters back as they boast one of the league’s most productive front courts. FIU has senior guard Donte McGill back but no other returning player averaged more than eight points per game. UTSA has a new coach in former Oklahoma assistant Steve Henson as he inherits some talented pieces including the backcourt trio of Christian Wilson, J.R. Harris and Gino Littles. Southern Miss is finally finished with its two-year postseason ban but the roster still has a long ways to go to be competitive again.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON CONFERENCE USA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: William Lee, UAB

The reigning Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, Lee is a pogo stick forward who is one of the best shot blockers in the country. The 6-foot-9 junior averaged 2.9 rejections per game last season in only 24.8 minutes per contest to go along with 10.6 points and 6.2 rebounds. Lee also shot 49 percent from the field and 34 percent from three-point range as he projects as the league’s best long-term prospect. If Lee sees more minutes this season he could be among the nation’s leaders in blocked shots as he’s trying to get the Blazers back to the NCAA tournament.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON CONFERENCE USA TEAM:

  • Marcus Evans, Rice: Coming off of a freshman season in which he averaged 21.4 points per game and won C-USA Freshman of the Year honors, Evans will try to improve his three-point shooting (30 percent).
  • Giddy Potts, Middle Tennessee: Before his starring role in the win over Michigan State, Potts shot a national-best 50 percent from three-point range while averaging 14.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
  • Chris Cokley, UAB: A productive sophomore campaign saw the 6-foot-8 Cokley averaged 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game while shooting 57 percent from the floor as he had some big games against good teams.
  • Reggie Upshaw, Middle Tennessee: The 6-foot-7 senior burst into the national spotlight with his postseason performances as he won C-USA Tournament MVP and scored 21 in the upset of Michigan State.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @Conference_USA

PREDICTED FINISH

  1. UAB
  2. Middle Tennessee
  3. Old Dominion
  4. Marshall
  5. Western Kentucky
  6. Louisiana Tech
  7. North Texas
  8. UTEP
  9. Rice
  10. Charlotte
  11. Florida Atlantic
  12. FIU
  13. UTSA
  14. Southern Miss

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.