Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards: Can the Valley get two teams in?

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The Missouri Valley Conference tournament — known by Valley fans as Arch Madness because of its St. Louis location — will be especially intriguing this season. As one of the only mid-major leagues with a legitimate chance to get two teams into the 2017 NCAA tournament the Missouri Valley Conference tournament will have a lot of eyeballs on it this week.

Casual college basketball fans are surely familiar with Wichita State after their recent successes but Illinois State was another important story during the conference season. The Redbirds enter this week as the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament as they tied the Shockers with a 17-1 mark in conference play (with Wichita State and Illinois State splitting the regular-season series).

Outside of Illinois State and Wichita State the rest of the Valley has seen a down year — which is part of the reason the Redbirds and Shockers are hovering near the bubble.

Can Illinois State and Wichita State both get in the field if they meet for the title?

The Bracket

When: March 2-5

Where: Scottrade Center; St. Louis, Missouri

Final: Sunday, March 5, 2 p.m. EST, CBS

Favorite: Wichita State

The Shockers come in as the No. 2 seed but they are throttling opponents lately during a 12-game winning streak. Wichita State owns a scoring margin of 19.5 this season — second only to Gonzaga — and every win on the current streak has come by at least 15 points. One of the most balanced teams in the country, this year’s Shockers might not have future pros like Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet, but they go 10 deep and wear opponents down over the course of a game.

And if they lose?: Illinois State

Illinois State is the No. 1 seed in this tournament as they feature a tough and experienced roster that is also riding a six-game winning streak. Not nearly as dominant as Wichita State when it comes to margin of victory, the Redbirds had to sneak by to win some games the last few weeks as they’ve managed to stay 17-1 in conference play. Illinois State loves to slow down the tempo (308th in adjusted tempo on KenPom) and rely on its No. 10 overall defense (per KenPom) to do most of its damage. The Redbirds have a suffocating defense led by senior point guard Paris Lee and his Valley-leading 2.0 steals per game as they rank fourth in the country in field goal defense as opponents are only shooting 37.7 percent against them.

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Other Contenders:

  • Northern Iowa: Just like last season, Northern Iowa is one of the most confusing teams in the country. The Panthers lost five straight to start conference play, rallied by winning nine of 10 and then lost the final three games to close out conference play. Northern Iowa is talented enough to make noise as the No. 3 seed but they’re wildly inconsistent.
  • Southern Illinois: The Salukis only finished .500 in conference play but they’re sitting at the No. 4 seed thanks to a weak year in the Valley. Southern Illinois might not be as competitive as a typical four seed in this event but they do have some steady seniors in guard Mike Rodriguez and forward Sean O’Brien. Talented sophomore guard Armon Fletcher is also showing signs of breaking out of a recent slump after netting the go-ahead three to beat Loyola last week.

Sleeper: Loyola

Revenge will be on Loyola’s mind this week as they get a crack at Southern Illinois in the quarterfinals before potentially playing Illinois State in the semifinals. The significance of those two in-state games for the Ramblers? Loyola lost to both teams, on the road, by two points each, during the last two weekends of conference play.

In fact, Loyola has seen eight of its 13 losses get decided by four points or less this season. Loyola has to be tired of falling in close games and they get one more chance to make a run here.

The Bubble Dwellers: 2

  • Wichita State: If Wichita State wants to help its computer numbers then they should hope to play Bradley, Northern Iowa and then Illinois State to fully enhance their resume. The Shockers have a gaudy record but only six top-100 games all season (2-4 record), so a title-game rubber match against a top-50 team like Illinois State should help computer numbers — regardless of the outcome.
  • Illinois State: If Illinois State hopes to enhance its NCAA tournament profile in the best way possible they should hope for Evansville, Southern Illinois and Wichita State as opponents during Arch Madness. The Redbirds are slightly higher than Wichita State in current RPI but they’ve played even fewer top-100 opponents (2-3 record). As explained above, it likely helps Illinois State if they play Wichita State in the championship game — win or lose — because it gives both teams an additional top-50 opponent.
FILE - In this Feb. 9, 2016, file photo, Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall directs his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Drake, in Des Moines, Iowa. At this time of year college basketball coaches often sound like political candidates looking for votes as they tout their teams' NCAA tournament worthiness. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

Missouri Valley Player of the Year: Paris Lee, Illinois State

The senior guard won a tight race over a handful of others as Lee separated himself from the group with another stellar defensive season. The NCAA’s active leader in career steals, Lee led the Valley in assists and steals per game this season as he averaged 13.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.8 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game. Improving dramatically on the offensive end, Lee upped his shooting percentages across the board, including a staggering rise from 31 percent to 41 percent as a three-point shooter.

Missouri Valley Coach of the Year: Dan Muller, Illinois State

You could make a strong case for Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall but Muller gets the slight edge for this award. Illinois State captured its first Missouri Valley Conference regular season title since 1998 and the Redbirds were able to do so despite missing senior MiKyle McIntosh for five games in the middle of conference play. Muller is now hoping to break another drought started in 1998 by taking his alma mater back to the NCAA tournament.

First-Team All-Missouri Valley:

  • Paris Lee, Illinois State (POY)
  • Landry Shamet, Wichita State: Only the fourth Valley freshman to ever grab first-team all-conference honors, Shamet averaged 11.4 points, 3.4 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game while shooting very efficiently (49% FG, 45% 3PT, 81% FT).
  • Milton Doyle, Loyola: Motivated to finish strong after a disappointing junior season, the 6-foot-4 Doyle came through in a big way for the Ramblers as he put up 15.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game.
  • Jeremy Morgan, Northern Iowa: Although his junior season was more efficient shooting the ball, Morgan was asked to do it all for the Panthers this season as he led the team in minutes, points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
  • Alize Johnson, Missouri State: One of 20 Division I players averaging a double-double this season, Johnson put up 14.5 points and 10.5 rebounds per game while shooting 39 percent from three-point range. The junior is starting to generate some pro buzz.

Second Team All-Missouri Valley:

  • Jaylon Brown, Evansville
  • Markis McDuffie, Wichita State
  • Deontae Hawkins, Illinois State
  • MiKyle McIntosh, Illinois State
  • Sean O’Brien, Southern Illinois

Defining moment of the season: When Wichita State’s Daishon Smith dunked on Oklahoma’s Kristian Doolittle back in December, it signified that the Shockers would be just fine playing bigger opponents without Baker and Van Vleet. This is one of the better poster dunks of the year.

CBT Prediction: Wichita State over Illinois State (but both teams get in the NCAA tournament)

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.