UConn, Kevin Ollie no longer have excuses for their struggles

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NEW YORK — Kevin Ollie has run out of excuses.

The UConn head coach and the handpicked successor to Jim Calhoun, a Hall of Famer and the man that put Storrs, Conn., on the college basketball map, is not even four years removed from winning a national title in just his second season as a head coach and he’s damn near managed to run the UConn program into the ground.

UConn has missed two out of the last three NCAA tournaments, with last year being the low-water mark. The Huskies finished below-.500 for the first time since Jim Calhoun’s first season in Storrs all the way back in 1986-87, and there’s no guarantee that this season is going to finish any better. The Huskies lost to Arkansas by 35 points. They needed overtime to get past Columbia at home. Monmouth, too. And on Tuesday, UConn fell to a mediocre – by their standards – Syracuse team in the Jimmy V Classic in a game where the final score was flattering.

The Huskies trailed by as many as 17 points. They went into halftime down by 11 — “A horrible disappointment,” according to Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, because they “should have been up 20, 22, 23 points.” — and never got closer than seven points in the second half before losing, 72-63.

In the past, when Ollie’s missed out on the NCAA tournament, there have been justifiable reasons why. In 2013, UConn was not eligible. In 2015, the program was replacing four starters — including Shabazz Napier — from a team that won the national title. Last season, two of the program’s top three players — Terry Larrier and Alterique Gilbert — suffered season-ending injuries in the first weeks of the season.

There are no excuses this season.

Only reasons, many of which are self-inflicted.

We can start with the lack of talent and experience along UConn’s front line. That’s what happens when three former four-star recruits transfer out of the program in the offseason. Would things be different if Steven Enoch (now at Louisville), Juwan Durham (Notre Dame) and Vance Jackson (New Mexico) had not left the program?

Probably.

At the very least, the Huskies would not be relying on three-star freshmen, JuCo transfers and former Cornell big men to carry the water for them in the paint.

Maybe there’s something to be said for Gilbert’s shoulder continuing to be an issue. He has missed the last three games after playing just 17 minutes in the loss to Arkansas, but if one player is the difference between UConn, a program that has won two national titles since the Green Bay Packers last won a Super Bowl, winning and losing by 35 points to an Arkansas team that lost by 26 points to Houston, we have a problem.

And then there is the issue of coaching.

“It was like we never, you know, seen a zone before,” Ollie told reporters after Tuesday’s loss, which is not exactly high-praise coming from the man in charge of ensuring that his team sees a zone before facing Syracuse.

What about this: A member of a coaching staff that has scouted UConn this season told me that, “in terms of the actions they run and the game plan, probably the simplest scout I’ve seen.” The numbers back it up. UConn currently ranks 128th in offensive efficiency, which is actually up from 154th last season. The only UConn team in the history of KenPom to finish worse was the 2007 team, when Calhoun had to replace his entire roster.

It’s too early to pen a “Fire Kevin Ollie” column, and yes, I know that comes after I recorded this podcast.

UConn still has a chance to turn this thing around, although it won’t be easy. They play at Arizona in two weeks. Two days later, they’re at Auburn. A week after that, AAC play starts, and they still have a random January game against Villanova tucked away.

There will be plenty of chances for UConn and Ollie to prove that the last two weeks were a hiccup in a season returning the program to glory.

It also means there will be plenty of chances for the Huskies, who KenPom has as a favorite in just eight of their remaining 22 games, to get embarrassed.

If the latter occurs, Ollie will no longer be able to look anywhere other than the mirror.

Because the excuses are gone.

Reasons are all that are left.

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.