Michigan’s win at No. 4 Michigan State a sign of two programs trending in opposite directions

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Last year, the final time that Michigan squared off with Michigan State, the Wolverines pounded the Spartans.

The game was played in the Crisler Center, and it was never really in doubt. Michigan – then considered a team sitting squarely on the bubble – won by 29 points, sparking a three-game winning streak that turned their season around. They won six of their last eight games in the regular season, stormed through the Big Ten tournament, entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 7 seed, upset No. 2 Louisville in the second round and came within a missed Derrick Wilson jumper of playing Kansas for the right to go to the Final Four.

When the narrative of the 2017-18 Michigan season gets told, Saturday’s performance at No. 4 Michigan State may be the turning point that we point to once again.

The Wolverines beat up on the No. 4 Spartans, winning 82-72 behind 27 points from Mo Wagner and 16 points and five assists from Zavier Simpson, who thoroughly outplayed counterpart Cassius Winston despite missing four straight free throws in the final two minutes that left the door open for a Michigan State comeback that never materialized.

This is by far the best win for John Beilein’s team this season, and it came in a way that we haven’t exactly become accustomed to: With defense.

Beilein’s built his career around being one of college basketball’s best offensive minds. His teams were built around floor-spacing and taking advantage of the three-ball before it became the trendy way to play. Remember Kevin Pittsnoggle? Remember his West Virginia teams? Remember the way that he surrounded Trey Burke with shooters on shooters on shooters? Even last year’s team finished the season as the fourth-most efficient offense in the country, according to KenPom.

One of the most surprising sub-plots of the college basketball season is that this year’s Michigan team, one that, until Saturday, started Duncan Robinson alongside Wagner on the front line. Neither of those two players are known for their defensive prowess – it’s one of the biggest reasons Wagner is still in school and not playing in the NBA – but Beilein has stil managed to turn this group into the best defensive team that he has ever had.

Michigan State finished with 18 turnovers on Saturday, corralling just eight offensive rebounds and scoring 72 points on 69 possessions, and those numbers are slightly inflate by a flurry of points and possessions that came once the game was already in hand. The Wolverines mixed up their defenses, completely eliminated Nick Ward as an offensive weapon and kept college basketball’s best front line from finding a way to win on the glass or gain advantage in the paint. Winston was flustered throughout, and the Spartans shot just 3-for-13 from beyond the arc.

And with it came the win you can pin at the top of Michigan’s résumé. They’re in third place and two games out of first place in the Big Ten regular season race, so I’m not sure if they can be called a contender to win that just yet, but as long as they don’t do anything stupid over the final seven weeks of the regular season, they’ll be dancing.

But the bigger question to ask here is just what this loss – and Wednesday’s overtime win over Rutgers at home, and last Sunday’s blowout loss at Ohio State – is what’s going on with Spartans. Michigan exposed some issues that have been bubbling underneath the surface for Tom Izzo’s team since as far back as the Champions Classic.

One issue is the lack of an alpha. There is no one on this Michigan State roster that has shown the ability or the willingness to take a game by the balls, or throw the team on his back, or provide the necessary in-game leadership they’re lacking. There are 1,000 clichés that can be used, but the point is simple: When Michigan State is struggling, when there is a lack of confidence on the floor or when they aren’t playing the way that they should be, who is going to make that momentum-changing play? Who is going to be the spark they need?

The easy answer there would be Miles Bridges, but he has not been that guy. Part of the reason for that is that he just simply isn’t wired that way. He’s uber-talented and wildly athletic, a guy that deserves all of the hype that he gets as a potential lottery pick this season, but the truth is that he projects as a role player at the next level.

Hell, he really is a role player at this level.

What I mean by that is that when he’s at his best, he’s not a guy that’s going to get you 30 points on a given night. He’s not a guy that you’re going to run every offensive possession through. That’s just not his game. What makes him special is his ability to impact every aspect of the game. He can score. He can rebound. He can pass. He can defend just about every possession on the floor. He makes threes. He can post up. He score off the dribble.

That’s just a fact.

The problem with Bridges isn’t that he’s not scoring, and it isn’t even that he’s being played out of position, which is an idea that has been bounced around by a number of people this season. The issue is that he has not been the most active player on the floor every time that he has stepped on the floor.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” said one member of a staff that has played against Bridges this season. “Just coasts, and seems quite content.”

Bridges’ impact on a game is directly correlated with the energy that he plays with, whether it’s at the three or the four. There may be some justification to the idea that playing him at the four would make Bridges less inclined to settle for threes – which is a bad habit he’s fallen into – but I don’t necessarily think it’s an automatic fix.

And here’s the most concerning part of it all.

Many of these problems are the same problems we saw with Michigan State last season.

Michigan State has a lot of questions they are going to have to answer in the coming days and months, but the more I watch this group, the more I think that Izzo is not going to like the answers that he gets.

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.