Introducing Cinderella: Murray State and Ja Morant earn the first autobid

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The first autobid of the 2019 NCAA tournament has been earned as Murray State knocked off Belmont for a 77-65 win.

Receiving national attention all season thanks to sophomore point guard Ja Morant, the Racers don’t have to sweat on Selection Sunday thanks to another stellar performance from their superstar. Considered by some to be the best NBA Draft prospect in the country behind Duke’s Zion Williamson, Morant made the game-winning three-point play in the OVC semifinals on Friday before a 36-point performance against Belmont on Saturday. Morant’s heroics in Nashville during the week helped lift Murray State back into the Field of 68.

But Murray State is more than just Morant. The Racers were good enough to force their way into the bubble conversation before earning the autobid as they’ll be a very dangerous team in a few weeks.

CONFERENCE: Ohio Valley Conference

COACH: Matt McMahon

RECORD: 27-4, 16-2 in the Ohio Valley Conference

RATINGS:

  • KENPOM: 55
  • NET: 52

PROJECTED SEED: Murray State was strong enough to earn at-large consideration before earning the autobid as they’ll likely slot at a No. 12 or No. 13 seed in the NCAA tournament.

NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW: Besides for Morant (24.2 ppg, 10.3 apg, 5.5 rpg) and his electrifying athleticism and above-the-rim play, Murray State has three other double-figure scorers to contend with. It’s part of the reason Morant accumulated so many assists despite being a gigantic target all season. Senior guard Shaq Buchanan (13.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg) is the team’s second-leading scorer while freshman guard Tevin Brown (11.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg) has emerged as the team’s third playmaker on the perimeter. And junior big man Darnell Cowart (10.3 ppg and 6.7 rpg) is a wide-bodied big man who is a load to handle at 295 pounds.

BIG WINS, BAD LOSSES: The Racers actually just earned their best win of the season by beating Belmont in the OVC title game as it gave them their first Q1 victory. Murray State also lost to Alabama and Auburn by single digits earlier this season. The only loss Murray State suffered that wasn’t a top-60 team in NET was a respectable Q2 loss to 20-win Jacksonville State. Even though Murray State didn’t play a lot of marquee competition, they didn’t really lose to anybody bad.

STATS YOU NEED TO KNOW: Morant led the country in assists per game by nearly 2.5 per contest over his leading competitor. But the key for Murray State making a run could be its stellar three-point defense. Allowing opponents to shoot only 28.7 percent from three-point range on the season, good for fourth in the nation, the Racers do an excellent job of playing opponents off the line and making them settle for twos.

HOW DO I KNOW YOU?: Murray State has consistently been one of the nation’s great mid-major programs. Making the NCAA tournament last season, the Racers have made 17 total NCAA tournament appearances. And besides for Morant, the program has a tremendous history of producing NBA guards — particularly for a mid-major program. Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne are both recent Murray State products who went on to play in the League.

FINAL THOUGHT: America needed this. During a season in which the bubble has been incredibly mediocre and filled with near-.500 teams from power conferences, getting an exciting player like Morant into the field is a breath of fresh air for college basketball diehards. Hopefully, the committee also takes a serious look at Belmont’s at-large profile as well. Because the Bruins have a star of their own in Dylan Windler and they’re a great team in their own right. It would be a lot of fun to see two OVC teams make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1987.

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.