‘Team Of Destiny?’ Sweet 16-bound Michigan is not a fluke, they are really, really good

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INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan was called a “traditionally white-collar team” by an opposing Big Ten center earlier this season. They’ve also been called the “team of destiny” since a plane crash sparked a run to the Big Ten tournament title.

Label the Wolverines however you want.

But after No. 7 seed Michigan rallied to beat No. 2 seed Louisville, 73-69, during Sunday’s second-round matchup in the Midwest Region, there is only one way to refer to this Wolverine team: really damn good.

Michigan won its seventh consecutive game on Sunday despite senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr. finally coming back down to Earth. After averaging 21.0 points, 8.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds over his last six games, Walton struggled to a 3-for-13 shooting day and only 10 points. Thankfully for Walton and Michigan, his Wolverine teammates picked up the slack as sophomore Moe Wagner had the game of his life with 26 points on 11-for-14 shooting. D.J. Wilson also chipped in 17 points, knocking down some key late free throws while also playing steady defense on the interior.

Beating a No. 2 seed like Louisville without Walton playing like the All-Big Ten caliber player that he was this season shows just how strong and balanced head coach John Beilein’s team is at this point in the season. Michigan only knocked down six three-pointers and was out-rebounded by double-digits but they still found a way to beat one of the ACC’s best teams.

Forget the “team of destiny” talk that was attached to Michigan after the scary incident involving the team plane right before the Wolverines won the Big Ten Tournament.

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

With an elite floor leader in Walton, veteran wing shooters and a mix of talented and versatile big men, Michigan believes it can continue to win games and make a run in this tournament despite the prevailing, “the Big Ten is down” sentiments.

“We always believed in ourselves, not only from a shooting respect, but also on the defensive end and in the paint as well,” Wagner said. “So, yeah, I’m very happy. I just said that to Coach B, we only shot six threes today and we won. So it’s awesome. We played gritty basketball, and I think we can be proud of that.”

Walton and Zak Irvin are the senior leaders for this Wolverine team but they also have some of the nation’s most versatile big men in Wilson and Wagner.

With Wilson, Wagner and senior Duncan Robinson all being able to play on the interior while also stretching the floor from three-point range, it makes Beilein’s floor-spacing on offense that much more dangerous. When you also factor in how much ground Wilson covers on the defensive end and you can see why the Wolverines have won five straight games against teams who played in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

“There are just so many different guys who can step up on any given night,” Michigan assistant coach Saddi Washington said. “We have a group that is ready to play on any night.”

Besides Michigan having a strong core group of players who fit well together on the floor, this team has also been described as being incredibly close throughout the course of the season. Michigan’s incident involving the team plane only enhanced this team’s unique chemistry.

The message of family was hammered home once again before Sunday’s game against Louisville when Michigan assistant coach Billy Donlon opted to motivate the Wolverines in a new way.

After Michigan’s first-round win over Oklahoma State on Friday, Donlon saw a picture of his dad and sister hugging in the stands in a photo taken by David Jablonski of the Dayton Daily News.

Donlon was so touched by his family’s reaction in the photo that he and the Michigan managers spent time this weekend gathering family photos from team parents to hang around the locker room.

“A lot of the talks that we give just come to you,” Donlon said. “[The photo] was my dad and sister… You don’t need any words to describe that. I saw [the photo] and it just hit me like, ‘You guys realize the impact you have on your family’s lives?’

“And the message was just really simple: this is another opportunity to impact the lives of each other and our families. Give a little extra for them.”

Scott Phillips, NBC Sports

Donlon carried the photo of his dad and his sister in his pocket while other family photos of players and coaches were all over the Michigan locker room. There was also a photo of a snarling pitbull mix — which Michigan calls “Toother” — a reminder of when Illinois center Maverick Morgan implied that the Wolverines were soft earlier this season.

When the Wolverines found themselves down by eight points at halftime to Louisville on Sunday, the family photos were there for one more extra slice of motivation to help them get over the second-half hump.

Michigan was finally able to make its move in the second half as Beilein was especially pleased with how the Wolverines didn’t press to get it all back right after halftime.

“A team that isn’t as experienced, that might not have the poise we have, would come back and try to win it all right away,” Beilein said. “We won every four-minute period until we got ahead in the game. And just by playing in those little increments made a big difference.”

After Michigan’s second-half comeback, most of those family photos found their way on the locker-room floor. Beilein sprayed his team with a Super Soaker to change up the team’s new “water celebration” trend and many of the photos fell victim to the euphoric celebration.

Not many people expected Michigan to make it to the Sweet 16 based on how they looked earlier this season. But the Wolverines have bonded together on and off the floor and look like one of the most dangerous teams left in the field.

“We’re just having so much fun right now,” Irvin said. “None of us want this to end.”

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.