Big East tournament preview and postseason awards

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POSTSEASON AWARDS

BIG EAST PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Markus Howard, Marquette

There really isn’t all that much of a discussion to be had here. Howard was the best player in the Big East this season, and I’m honestly not sure it was all that close. He carried the Golden Eagles for long stretches despite the fact that he’s playing somewhat out of position. Howard is a scoring guard. He’s a shooter first and foremost, but he is also the only ball-handler on Marquette’s roster. That put him in a difficult situation this season, and frankly, it came back to bite Marquette at the end of the year. Part of the reason the Golden Eagles finished in second in the Big East standings and not as the regular season champions is because they blew leads in four straight games to close out the year, a direct result of Marquette’s turnover issues.

But that shouldn’t take away from just how good Howard has been.

BIG EAST COACH OF THE YEAR: Kevin Willard, Seton Hall

To think that there were people that wanted Kevin Willard fired just a couple of years ago. In the last two seasons, he has more than proven that he is one of the better coaches in the Big East, but this year will likely go down as his best coaching job. Coming off of a year where the Pirates lost four senior starters — Khadeen Carrington, Angel Delgado, Desi Rodriguez, Ismael Sanogo — Willard found a way to get this group to the No. 3 seed heading into the Big East tournament and, barring something catastrophic, a spot in their fourth straight NCAA tournament. I don’t think anyone saw that coming in October.

FIRST TEAM ALL-BIG EAST

  • MARKUS HOWARD, Marquette
  • SHAMORIE PONDS, St. John’s
  • MYLES POWELL, Seton Hall
  • PHIL BOOTH, Villanova
  • ERIC PASCHALL, Villanova

SECOND TEAM ALL-BIG EAST

  • KAMAR BALDWIN, Butler
  • MAX STRUS, DePaul
  • NAJI MARSHALL, Xavier
  • SAM HAUSER, Marquette
  • JESSIE GOVAN, Georgetown

BIG EAST TOURNAMENT PREVIEW

WHEN: March 13-16
WHERE: New York City
FINAL: March 16, 6:30 p.m., FOX

FAVORITE: Villanova (+175)

I know Villanova is down this season and I know they lost four of their last six and five of their last eight regular season games. I know they lost the last five games that they have played away from home. I know all of that. I also know that this is a program that has won three of the last four Big East tournaments and two of the last three national titles. They know how to get the job done in a tournament setting, and in a conference where it appears that no one is actually good, that should be enough.

And here’s the other thing: Given the way that this bracket broke down, Villanova is going to have the two best players on the floor every time they take the floor until the Big East tournament title game. Eric Paschall and Phil Booth have both hit something of a slump late in the year, but their half of the bracket doesn’t have a surefire NCAA tournament team — Creighton pending.

One other note: I love this Marquette (+200) team, but considering that there is a very real chance that they end up playing St. John’s — who swept them — in the second round of the tournament, I am going to stay from them. Justin Simon’s length has given Markus Howard fits for years, and I’m not going to bet on him figuring it out today.

SLEEPER: St. John’s (+900)

So let’s talk about this St. John’s team. On the one hand, they are super, super talented. Shamorie Ponds, Marvin Clark, Justin Simon, Mustapha Heron, L.J. Figueroa. On paper, that might be the best starting five in the Big East, and yet the Johnnies still managed to put together a 20-11 season with an 8-10 mark in Big East play. That’s not ideal.

The reason I have them listed here is two-fold. For starters, they tend to turn up with the lights are the brightest. The Johnnies get swept by DePaul, Providence and Xavier — games that no one really cares about — but went 3-1 against Marquette and Villanova and would have swept Seton Hall if it wasn’t for a blown call in with 3.9 seconds left. This is the Big East tournament. They should care.

Oh, and should I mention that they are playing in one of their home arenas?

This is a risky play, but the value is there. Think about it like this: St. John’s is the No. 7 seed, but if they can win their first round game, they get Marquette — who they swept — in the quarterfinals. To get there, they have to beat No. 10 seed DePaul, who swept them.

Buckle up!

BEST VALUE: DePaul (+5000)

OK, so hear me out on this one.

The Blue Demons finished in last place in the Big East, but this team is better than you probably realize they are. They won seven games in the league for the first time since 2007. They swept St. John’s, who they play in the first round. They swept Seton Hall, who they would play in the semifinals if seeds hold. They’ve won two of their last three games and they have a kid named Max Strus that is among the most dangerous scorers in the country; he had 43 points against St. John’s nine days ago.

In a league that makes absolutely no sense, 50:1 odds is pretty good value.

BUBBLE DWELLERS

SETON HALL (NET: 62, SOS: 31): With a 6-7 record against Q1 opponents, a 12-10 mark against Q1 and Q2 and wins over Kentucky (5) on a neutral and at Maryland, the Pirates are probably safe regardless of what happens, but as a team sitting in that No. 10 seed range in most bracket projections, there certainly is a world where a first round loss costs them a trip to the tournament.

CREIGHTON (NET: 54, SOS: 15)
XAVIER (NET: 71, SOS: 48): The Bluejays face what could amount to a play-in game right off the bat as they draw Xavier in the 4-5 game on Thursday afternoon. Creighton is in a better spot than Xavier right now after winning five games in a row — including at Marquette (29) — to close the regular season. They also do not have any bad losses, while Xavier lost to DePaul (100) at home and to San Diego State (134) on a neutral. Creighton might still have a chance if they lose. Xavier probably needs to wins to have a real chance to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.

ST. JOHN’S (NET: 66, SOS: 68): In a normal year, we probably would barely consider a Saint Joh’s team that was swept by DePaul (100), swept by Xavier (71), swept by Providence (74) and lost to Georgetown (76) at home anything close to a bubble team, but here we are. The Red Storm swept Marquette (29), beat Villanova (25) at home and has a neutral court win over VCU (31). But they also played a non-conference schedule that ranks 211th nationally. I think that with a third loss to DePaul, the Johnnies — who currently sit as an 11 seed in our latest bracket — could be in some trouble.

GEORGETOWN (NET: 76, SOS: 77): The Hoyas are a longshot to dance, but their resume is awfully similar to St. John’s. They also have five Q1 wins. They are 11-10 against Q1 anf Q2 opponents as opposed to St. John’s’ 10-9 mark. They, too, have a pair of bad losses and an ugly non-conference schedule. If the Hoyas can get passed Seton Hall (62) in the quarterfinals, a win over Marquette in the semis might actually get them into the tournament.

WHAT ELSE IS ON THE LINE?

Beyond all of the bubble teams trying to play their way into the NCAA tournament, I think what’s on the line here is Villanova and Marquette finding a way to turn this thing around and get it going before the NCAA tournament starts. Villanova has lost four of six and five of eight to close the regular season. Marquette lost four in a row. These are the two teams that have a real shot to make some noise in the NCAA tournament this season — particularly Marquette — and if the Big East wants a representative. in the second weekend of the tournament, this is where it is going to come from.

PREDICTION

I have no idea what is going to happen in this tournament, so my prediction is simple: None of the top three seeds — Villanova, Marquette and Seton Hall — will still be playing on Saturday.

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.