Big Ten Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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It may still be February, but March is officially here.

The Big Ten tournament is the first of the major conference tournaments to kick off, and they’ll be doing so in New York City, which is just as dumb of an idea as it sounds. One year after playing their league tournament in Washington D.C.’s Verizon Center, the Big Ten opted to try and get into Madison Square Garden this season. But that’s the Big East’s home in March, which is why the Big Ten was forced to move everything up a week this year.

They played two league games the first weekend in December. The teams in the conference had to pack their league schedule as tight as possible. Everyone played two games a week for the entirety of league play. There weren’t off-days, all so the Big Ten could make the cash-grab of appealing to the New York City market. After all, nothing says Big Ten basketball quite like Rutgers and Maryland.

The league did all this so that they can make as much money as humanly possible off of the part of the country they’re trying to annex into the “Big Ten cable footprint”.

And there still isn’t enough money to be able to pay athletes, because this isn’t just a business and it’s all about getting a scholarship and an education and playing for the love of the game.

Right?

*eyes roll through the back of my head*

Anyway, let’s talk some hoops.

THE FAVORITE

Michigan State is the best team in the Big Ten, just like we all thought they were going to be entering the season.. They won the outright league title, they have the most talent and they are the most difficult to matchup with. I also think that they are currently peaking, as Cassius Winston is learning to takeover games in big moments and Tom Izzo is starting to trust a lineup that features Jaren Jackson at the five and Miles Bridges at the four.

THE CONTENDERS

Ohio State and Purdue are the other two teams that were in the mix for the Big Ten title this year. The Buckeyes probably have the league’s best player in Keita Bates-Diop and they enter the league tournament with the most to gain; Purdue and Michigan State are probably going to end up being top two seeds, while Ohio State still has some work left to do to get to that level. Purdue, on the other hand, has just been so impressive this season. They have a star in league guard Carsen Edwards and he’s flanked by four seniors — assuming Vince Edwards will be good to go — that all understand and embrace the roles they are asked to play. When things are clicking for the Boilermakers, they are a machine.

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

Nebraska, Nebraska, Nebraska. The Cornhuskers is the only argument that you need to show why the Big Ten is just is not all that good. Nebraska will enter the Big Ten tournament with a 22-9 record and a 13-5 mark in the Big Ten, but I’d be willing to wager there aren’t any brackets that currently have them in the NCAA tournament. That’s because they only have one Quadrant 1 win: Michigan, at home. Their draw is perfect, too. As the No. 4 seed, they’ll (likely) get No. 5 seed Michigan in the quarters and No. 1 seed Michigan State in the semis. If they don’t win those two games, I don’t think they get into the tournament.

Nebraska’s Tim Miles (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

WHO IS ON THE BUBBLE?

See above. The only other team anywhere near the bubble is Penn State, but I think they would need to win three games to really be in the discussion.

THE SLEEPER

It’s been weird watching the transformation of Michigan this season. The Wolverines, under John Beilein, have developed a reputation for being an elite offensive team that can struggle on the defensive end of the floor. This year, they are ranked 11th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. They aren’t just a group of shooters with a couple soft bigs that only want to score. They still have those guys, but they also have a young core of tough-minded, defense-first athletes that can grind out wins when they need to. The Wolverines enter the postseason on a five-game winning streak.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Keita Bates-Diop is probably the best player in the Big Ten. Carsen Edwards can absolutely take over a game offensively. Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson are the two best NBA prospects in the league. But I’m going to go with Wisconsin‘s Ethan Happ. He hasn’t had a great season as a junior, but he’s played much better down the stretch as the Badgers have continued to improve. They won three straight and four out of five — including a win over Purdue — before a season-ending loss by five points to Michigan State at home.

X-FACTORS

  • Will Michigan State fully embrace a small-ball lineup?  When they play Miles Bridges at the four and Jaren Jackson at the five, the Spartans are very hard to guard.
  • We all saw what Juwan Morgan is capable of when he went for 34 points in a win over Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic. Like Wisconsin, Indiana came on strong late in the season.
  • Likewise, Tony Carr is a guy that might ruin someone’s dreams of hoisting a trophy in the Big Apple. Penn State lost three in a row at the end of the season to put an end to their at-large hopes pending a tournament run, but he can catch fire.

NBC SPORTS’ BIG TEN POSTSEASON AWARDS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State

COACH OF THE YEAR: Chris Holtmann, Ohio State

FIRST TEAM ALL-BIG TEN

  • Carsen Edwards, Purdue
  • Cassius Winston, Michigan State
  • Miles Bridges, Michigan State
  • Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State
  • Ethan Happ, Wisconsin

SECOND TEAM ALL-BIG TEN

  • Tony Carr, Penn State
  • James Palmer Jr., Nebraska
  • Vincent Edwards, Purdue
  • Mo Wagner, Michigan
  • Juwan Morgan, Indiana

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.