Jarrett Culver vs. De’Andre Hunter is the most appealing part of the national championship

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MINNEAPOLIS — Monday night’s national championship battle between Virginia and Texas Tech has been billed as a battle of underdogs and top-five defenses.

Both programs have never reached this point in the NCAA tournament. Suffocating opponents and the “defense wins championships” mantra applies to Chris Beard and Tony Bennett and how they prefer to run things.

In a smaller individual subplot, however, Monday’s title game features an intriguing contest on the wing between two potential NBA lottery picks in Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter and Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver. During a season in which Zion Williamson became the talk of the sport, the glaring lack of one-and-done prospects has been a topic of discussion, once again, during the Final Four. Since Duke and Kentucky both got upset in the Elite Eight, the opportunity to see two lottery-level talents play against each other on the sport’s biggest stage could emerge as the most fascinating storyline to watch for a large casual audience.

“You can tell, when the game’s on the line, [Culver’s] their guy. And it’s similar in our case with De’Andre Hunter,” Virginia assistant coach Brad Soderberg said of the duo. “When you find a guy with size, and a skill set that can play out to the NBA line, all the way to the rim, you have to [play through them].”

“We face a lot of guys in the ACC and [Culver’s] every bit an ACC kind of player that we see. So the respect for him is at a high level.”

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Culver and Hunter share many similarities and a few differences. NBC Sports first-team All-Americans during the 2018-19 season, the duo entered college with minimal fanfare as potential pro prospects — only to emerge in the lottery discussion after a few seasons in school. Multi-positional on the defensive end, Culver and Hunter can be disruptive thanks to their length and program’s defense-first mindsets. Hunter gains a slight edge for his individual defensive prowess but Culver is certainly no slouch on that end.

And the duo can also erupt for 20-point outings against quality competition. Culver is the more aggressive and dangerous offensive threat off the dribble whereas Hunter is a more consistent catch-and-shoot perimeter option.

The duo will likely spend some time defending each other on Monday night. The mutual respect between the pair is apparent in how each describes each other’s games.

“I just know that he’s a great player, athletic, can shoot the ball well. I mean, he plays defense,” Culver said of Hunter. “We know a lot about him. But it’s going to be a great matchup for our team to play against him.”

“He’s a great player; he’s a two-way player,” Hunter said of Culver. “He’s a bigger guard and he basically does everything for his team. He’s very versatile.”

Fresh off of Saturday night’s national semifinal victories, both coaching staffs are still figuring the best way to play against each other. Slowing down Culver and Hunter will undoubtedly be a focal point for the Cavaliers and Red Raiders.

But there are also plenty of other talented offensive players on each team to contend with. Texas Tech has received stellar play from senior guard Matt Mooney and sophomore floor-spacer Davide Moretti during the past few weeks. Virginia is always hunting looks for talented perimeter shooters like Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome — potentially the Cavaliers’ go-to offensive options on Monday. There’s a distinct possibility Culver and Hunter spend a healthy amount of the game in individual matchups against other threats.

“There will be different guys guarding each other depending on who is on the floor for us and who is on the floor for them. But I can see those two going against each other. But it’s much bigger than Jarrett and De’Andre,” Virginia associate head coach Jason Williford said.

Two defensive juggernauts battling in a slow-tempo game isn’t the most desirable tussle to watch. So the chance to see two NBA-level talents closing out the season facing each other is the biggest subplot for casual fans to monitor on Monday night. Culver and Hunter have a chance to produce a memorable individual battle before likely turning pro and it could be the saving grace if the national championship turns into a rock fight.

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.