Purdue, Virginia looking to join Villanova among the ranks of college basketball’s elite

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We’ve heard it time and again this year: That there are no elite teams in college basketball, not this season, anyway.

That’s what happens when the preseason top three teams all turn out to be flawed while the trendy teams that emerged during non-conference play have regressed to the mean.

Duke has enough question marks defensively that they can be beaten by just about anyone on a given night. Michigan State has found themselves stuck in a slump over the course of the last two or three weeks, one that has them losing to teams they shouldn’t lose to by numbers they shouldn’t lose by. Arizona doesn’t have the personnel to avoid playing a lineup that includes Dusan Ristic at the five. Kansas lacks depth and relies entirely on the three ball. Kentucky is one of the youngest teams that we have ever seen in college basketball. North Carolina is rebuilding. Wichita State is a mess. Arizona State came back to earth. Louisville has to start over from scratch.

So I get it.

Hell, I’ve said it. Over and over again, and I’m starting to think that idea is, frankly, wrong.

Villanova is currently the best team in college basketball. They’re No. 1 in the AP Poll. They’re No. 1 on KenPom. They’re No. 1 in my top 25 Power Rankings. They’ve taken a loss this year, yes, but that loss came on the road to a Butler program that should end up in the NCAA tournament where the Bulldogs shot 15-for-22 from three and 60 percent from the floor. NCAA tournament teams are not going to lose all that often on the nights where they shoot 15-for-22 from three.

Since that loss to Butler, this is what Villanova has done: They’ve put 100 points up on Marquette, they beat No. 11 Xavier by 24 points, they won at St. John’s and they beat Georgetown 32 points heading into today’s showdown at UConn. The game was never really interesting. UConn was down by 19 points at the half and trailed by 30 before they eventually fell, 81-61, in Hartford.

Villanova has the best offense in the country, according to KenPom, and have been very good on that end of the floor save for a three-game stretch that spanned Christmas. Jalen Brunson could end up winning National Player of the Year if Trae Young continues to play like Cliff Paul, and Miles Bridges could end up beating Brunson out for Big East Player of the Year if things play out a certain way. They’re old, they have better depth than most will realize and three of their five starters won a national title two seasons ago, while another starter and their sixth-man spent that season as a redshirt.

They’re also matchup-proof, given the kind of versatility that Jay Wright has on this roster.

There’s a very real chance that these Wildcats aren’t just the No. 1 team in the polls but a cut above the rest of the field.

The same can be said for Purdue.

The Boilermakers have now won 15 straight games after mollywhopping yet another Big Ten opponent on the road on Saturday, this time beating Iowa 87-64 in a game they led by 31 points at halftime. Purdue is now 8-0 in Big Ten play and they have won their last three games by an average of 28.3 points. They are the only team in the country to be ranked in the top five of both offensive and defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and among their recent victims is No. 23 Michigan, who fell to Purdue at home.

But that win at Michigan is their first win over a tournament team since beating Butler on a neutral floor on Dec. 16th and only their second win over a tournament team since that 25-point win over Arizona two weeks into the season.

The numbers say Purdue is great, markedly better than the team that had Caleb Swanigan on it last season, but it’s not quite as easy to look at them and think they’re the best team in the country because it has been so long since they’ve beaten one of the best teams in the country. With how weak the middle of the Big Ten is this season, we probably won’t get that chance until a Feb. 10th trip to East Lansing.

Virginia deserves a mention here as well, but as our study last week showed, it is easier to win a national title with a great offense and a good defense than vice versa, and that is where Virginia lies; they’re playing some of the best defense we’ve ever seen in the KenPom era this season, but only one team in the last 16 years has won a national title with an offense that ranked lower nationally than Virginia’s does.

As of today, it’s hard for me to justify putting Virginia into that same tier.

And I think it is still fair to wonder if Purdue belongs there as well; we’ve seen Big Ten teams end up with inflated KenPom numbers as they overwhelm their league. (Hi Wisconsin!)

But they are right there.

Virginia is close, too.

And, as of today, I think Villanova has arrived: College basketball has an elite team after all.

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.