New Mexico hires Richard Pitino, as Minnesota aims higher once again

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After an amicable split with Minnesota, Richard Pitino headed west for New Mexico, no longer a young man relying more on name recognition than coaching experience.

Both the mid-major team he’s inheriting and the power-conference program he’s leaving behind are searching for a spark to bring fans back to their storied arenas.

Hours after Minnesota finalized his firing following eight seasons on the job, the 38-year-old Pitino was hired as New Mexico’s coach to succeed Paul Weir, who went 58-63 in four seasons for the Lobos.

“He is his own person. He knows his name is a name he’ll carry with him the rest of his life, and he owes a lot to his dad for giving him an opportunity, but the fact is he has built the successes and the reason he is here today is because of who he is and what he has done,” New Mexico athletic director Eddie Nunez said on a video conference call with reporters.

Dad in this case, of course, is Rick Pitino, the Hall of Fame coach who has returned this year to the NCAA Tournament with his fifth different team, Iona.

When Minnesota picked Richard Pitino for the job, he had one season of prior experience as a head coach at Florida International and was far from the first choice.

Though Pitino went just 54-96 in conference play with only three finishes in the rugged Big Ten higher than 10th place, he took the Gophers to the NCAA Tournament twice and went there five other times as an assistant at Louisville under his father and at Florida with Billy Donovan. Two of Pitino’s other teams at Minnesota, including this year, were on an NCAA Tournament track before injuries led to a late-season demise.

“I love Minnesota. It was an eight awesome years, but I’ve landed in a spot where I know we can win big,” Pitino said on KFAN radio in the Twin Cities.

Nunez played for and coached under Donovan. Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle was another vital reference for Nunez, who also considered former Nebraska coach Tim Miles among others for the vacancy. Coyle and Pitino grew close, even though Coyle didn’t hire him, and the strength of their relationship made an impression on Nunez.

“He is one of my favorite people. I respect him. I know he’s going to do wonderful things at New Mexico, but in terms of at Minnesota, I just felt like it was time in my heart that we needed to go in a different direction and try to find a new leader to help us accomplish the goals that I firmly believe we can accomplish here,” Coyle said.

New Mexico last reached the NCAA Tournament in 2014, in coach Craig Neal’s first year. The Lobos, playing in the Mountain West Conference, went three times in six seasons under Neal’s predecessor, Steve Alford. Playing in their eclectic arena, The Pit, they’ve had their share of strong teams over the last several decades.

“The way people view this program is so high, and it has earned that because of the passionate fan base that we have,” Nunez said.

Nunez said he was working on a six-year contract for Pitino with an annual salary similar to what Weir had ($775,000). At Minnesota, Pitino’s base salary was $2 million. His $1.7 million buyout will be significantly lessened by his new employment. Coyle declined to be specific about how much.

The Gophers play at Williams Arena, the 93-year-old, barn-shaped building with the uniquely raised floor that some analysts and boosters have pointed to as a hindrance to sustained success for the program in such an unrelenting conference with big-spending competitors.

Pitino, in his radio interview, said he didn’t think recruits were dissuaded by it. He does, however, believe it’s a factor in declining attendance when fancier professional-team venues are surrounding it in the area with the NHL’s Wild, the NBA’s Timberwolves, the NFL’s Vikings and MLB’s Twins.

“The fans, we’re asking a lot of them, to come at 8 o’clock on a Wednesday night in the cold weather,” Pitino said on KFAN.

Since reaching the Final Four in 1997, a season that was later vacated by NCAA infractions, the Gophers have won a grand total of two NCAA Tournament games.

“I did not come to Minnesota to be .500,” Coyle said. “We have the pieces in place here.”

Pitino thought so, too.

“We did some good things. We really did. I’m not going to sit here and defend and say I did the greatest job in the world, but there’s a lot I’m certainly proud of,” he said. “I’m proud of what we did, and hopefully someone can come in and make it better.”

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.