No Shock, just surprise: Wichita State’s departure invites chaos to the Valley

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DES MOINES, Ia. — The reminders came from the public address. They came from the arena MC, and they came from the crowd.

Time and again, the stakes were stated, as much to stir emotion, it seemed, as to evoke a communal reality check, as if it kept being repeated, that meant it had to be true, no matter how unlikely it seemed.

“This,” the refrain came again and again, “is for first place.”

Here, at Drake’s Knapp Center, is not where the battle was supposed to be fought for a leg up in the Missouri Valley Conference heading into the backstretch of the league race. Yet, here it was.

Even for a league that has been recently remade, the state of the Valley at its 2018 midpoint makes little sense, and it was never more evident than Wednesday’s matchup between Drake and Loyola, with first place on the line, between one team that hasn’t finished in the upper half of the standings in a decade and another who was a conference realignment door prize four years ago.

It’s a new day in the Valley. Or maybe it’s night. Or dawn or dusk. Whatever it is, it’s confusing.

“It’s a coach’s nightmare,” Ramblers coach Porter Moser told NBCSports.com after his team pulled alone into first with an 80-57 win over the Bulldogs. “You can’t look ahead. I’ll go to the funny farm if I look ahead.

“I really believe that 10 could beat one. In this league, anybody could beat anyone. I believe that in my heart.”

From top to bottom, the Valley, recently one of the country’s most predictable leagues, is a mess to make sense of. The preseason favorite, Missouri State, is hovering just above .500. Northern Iowa, the pick to finish second, is 3-6. Illinois State, with one of the best pro prospects in the league and a preseason darkhorse, is 4-5.

It’s hard to know what to make of it other than it’s chaos created by a vacuum. First, Creighton left for the Big East in 2013. Then, this spring, Wichita State, having established itself not only as MVC juggernaut but national powerhouse, abruptly moved on to the AAC.

“It opened the door and everybody knows they have a chance to win the conference,” Loyola point guard Clayton Custer said, “and if we win the (conference) tournament, go to the NCAA tournament.”

The Shockers run of dominance brought order to the league. Without Gregg Marshall and Charles Koch’s money backing him up, mayhem reigns.

“They were operating at such a different level,” Moser said. “They had such a dominance. Their home court. It was the monster in the room.”

Without the monster to keep them tucked away, the rest of the league has come out to play.

“It’s this huge overwhelming wave of optimism,” Moser said. “I think every single program is asking, ‘Why not us?’

“Every program has that opportunity. I’m looking at the recruiting. I’m looking at how everybody’s playing and you can just see this wave of confidence around the league.”

(AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn, File)

Everyone probably was asking, ‘Why not us?’ but most were also probably saying, ‘Definitely not Drake.’ The Bulldogs, after all, finished last in the league the last two years, prompting Ray Giacoletti’s midseason resignation, and haven’t been remotely relevant since 2008.

With a new coach, Furman’s Niko Medved, and much of the same roster that won five MVC games last year, the Bulldogs were picked last in the preseason poll.

Then they found themselves locked in a tie game one their home floor with nine minutes to play in late January with first place on the line.

“I think nobody expected us to be doing what we’re doing right now,” Medved told NBCSports.com. “I have a style I like to play. I believe in that. To (the players’) credit, they just bought into that from Day One.”

The Bulldogs have become the fastest offensive team in the Valley and one of its most 3-happy, with nearly 40 percent of its conference attempts coming from distance. They’re also the league’s most unselfish squad, with 61.8 percent of their baskets coming courtesy of assists.

Some of Drake’s four-out offense is by design, but it’s also no doubt by necessity. Medved inherited a veteran roster in which he plays two guys 6-foot-8 or taller with the rest of the roster 6-foot-3 or shorter.

“Maybe we’ll get bigger and maybe a little more athletic (in the future),” Medved said, “(but) I think moving forward that’s the way we look at it, four around one.

“Sometimes you get the personnel that you have and you try to just make it work the best you can.”

That personnel has worked out to nearly literally the best the Valley can offer. Drake’s spot in second place can’t really be chalked up to sample size after nine games. The Bulldogs look legit.

“You’ve got five hard-playing veteran seniors that have the total buy in,” Moser said of Drake. “That’s a credit to them and Niko and his staff because you see coaching changes all over the country, and to have five seniors who went three years and had to buy in, that’s a credit to their buy in.

“What they really done is that they’re playing with a ton of confidence defensively and offensively.”

While Drake’s unexpected resurgence is emblematic of the Valley’s upheaval, Loyola at least represents some stability, picked to finish third after bringing back nearly everyone from last year’s 8-10 Valley squad. They knocked off Florida in December and now have won six in a row, the most recently courtesy of a 21-6 run against the Bulldogs to turn a tie game into Drake’s first home loss of the season and a spot alone atop the standings.

“Everybody’s buying into what coaches are saying,” Custer said. “We’re moving the ball. We’re playing a fun style. The biggest thing is we’re trying to defend and get stops. We’re trying to get to the top of the league of defense, and we’re getting there.”

The Shockers leaving has brought surprise back to the Valley. There are nine games left before the league heads to St. Louis for its conference tournament. It’s an event named ‘Arch Madness’ after the host city’s iconic monument, but this year the name might as well describe the league.

The height of craziness.

“The standings are so close right now that you got to be close to pay too much attention to where you sit right now,” Medved said. “ It wouldn’t surprise me to see anyone win in St Louis. I really mean that.”

After the first month the Valley’s had, it shouldn’t surprise anyone.

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.