Unsung heroes shine in Pitt’s win over Maryland

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NEW YORK – How many people knew the name Talib Zanna heading into tonight’s Coaches vs. Cancer opening round?

Pittsburgh fans certainly did. He’s been starting for the Panthers since the season began. Maryland probably did as well. You have to go over your opponent’s leading rebounder when you scout a team. I’m pretty sure that’s on page one of the coaching hand book.

But on a national scale, how many people would you actually expect to know who a redshirt freshman is that was supposed to come off the bench this season? I’d be willing to wager a fair amount of money that, when asked who Talib Zanna is, more people would answer “Did Talib Kweli change his name?” than “the most productive post presence on the No. 4 team in the country.”

And I’d be pretty confident that I would be leaving with more money than I came with.

“We’ve known about [Zanna] since last year,” Panther senior Brad Wanamaker said after the game. “If he had known the plays last year, he probably would have played. But him playing college basketball was a little adjustment for him. He came out tonight, had a double-double. He’s going to have a great season for us.”

Zanna is one of the more pleasant surprises of this young season. Coming into tonight’s tilt with Maryland, he was averaging 8.0 ppg and 8.3 ppg in three starts against subpar competition. Tonight, however, he made a name for himself. The Nigerian native led Pitt with 14 points and 12 boards going up against one of the best big men in the country in Jordan Williams.

One of those rebounds and two of those points came on a tip in with 59 seconds left in the game that gave Pitt a 72-66 lead and all but Maryland’s fate.

“Coach just tells me to go after the ball everytime,” Zanna said after the game. “Ashton took the shot, and I was ready to go. I was just ready to get the offensive rebound and put it back in.”

That stat was correct, by the way. The redshirt freshman that is only starting because Nasir Robinson is working his way back from knee surgery went into Madison Square Garden in a game televised on ESPN and led the Panthers, who won tonight 79-70, in both scoring and rebounding.

Its precisely that kind of depth that makes Pitt such a dangerous team this season.

Coming into the game, all the talk was about Ashton Gibbs and Brad Wanamaker. Gibbs is the star, the preseason all-Big East member, while Wanamaker is the guy that everyone has pegged as one of this year’s breakout performers. Both were averaging 19.3 ppg in Pitt’s first three.

Neither played particularly well tonight.

And the Panthers were still victorious over a good Maryland squad that should be dancing come March.

Not many teams can boast that kind of balance.

While Wanamaker battled foul trouble all game, Gilbert Brown and Lamar Patterson got a number of crucial buckets and made the kind of hustle plays Wanamaker is known for. With Gibbs fumbling his way to six turnovers, Travon Woodall provided a spark off the bench. He finished with 11 points and five assists, the majority of which came in a transition game you don’t normally expect to see out of Jamie Dixon’s team. And Robinson, the guy that was expected to miss as many as ten games to start the year, gutted out seven minutes and scored arguably the most important points of the game. Pitt had built a 13 point lead early in the second half, and after Maryland went on a 17-4 run to tie the game at 46, Robinson answered with a tough, and-one bucket to spark a 7-0 counter punch that Maryland was never able to recover from.

“I thought we had a number of guys step up, I don’t really know who to point out,” Dixon said after the game.

“I think we have pretty good balance.”

Balance is right.

Five Panthers scored in double figures tonight. Seven scored between seven and 14 points. JJ Moore, a freshman that was the team’s third leading scorer coming into the guy, only played three minutes. That’s why this team is one of the few teams in the country that can lose a starter to injury and not miss a beat.

“It shows that guys are improving every day in practice,” Wanamaker said. “We got a lot of guys that show up and show that they want to work hard to get Coach Dixon’s confidence that if he puts them on the floor, they can show what they can do.”

This is nothing new for a Jamie Dixon-coached squad. Balanced teams and unsung heroes are his bread and butter. Its the reason he’s been the fifth winningest coach in the country since 2003, when he took over for UCLA-bound Ben Howland, without the benefit of a single first round draft pick.

And while Pitt’s balance is what will make them dangerous over the course of the season, tonight was Talib Zanna’s night to shine.

Will it affect his attitude if people start talking about him?

“I don’t really pay attention to that,” Zanna said.

“I just want to play my game and try to do what Coach Dixon tells me.”

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

Louisville challenges NCAA over recruiting allegations

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Louisville has refuted NCAA allegations against its men’s basketball program in the wake of a federal corruption scandal, requesting that the highest-level violation be reclassified.

The university also is challenging that former coach Rick Pitino failed to promote an atmosphere of compliance in his program.

Louisville filed a 104-page response last week to the Notice Of Allegations sent to the school in May. The document stated that college sports’ governing body seeks to ignore wire fraud convictions against several people involved in the scheme – including a former Adidas executive – by suggesting they were representing its athletic interests. Louisville’s contract with the apparel maker was a standard sponsorship agreement rather than a promotional deal, the response added.

“This argument is as novel as it is wrong,” the school wrote in its response. “Even if an institution has some responsibility for the conduct of its suppliers, that responsibility plainly does not extend to acts of fraud perpetrated against the institution itself.”

Louisville also seeks to have several second-tier violations reclassified even lower. The NCAA has until Nov. 15 to respond with the school responding 15 days after before a decision is made whether the case will proceed through the traditional Committee on Infractions or Independent Accountability Review Process (IARP).

The NCAA’s Notice of Allegations states that Louisville committed a Level I violation, considered the most severe, with an improper recruiting offer and extra benefits along with several lesser violations. Those lesser violations also include Pitino failing to promote an atmosphere of compliance.

The NCAA notice completed a two-year investigation following a federal corruption probe of college basketball announced in September 2017. Louisville acknowledged its involvement in the federal investigation related to the recruitment of former player Brian Bowen II. Pitino, who’s now coaching Iona, was not named in the federal complaint and has consistently denied authorizing or having knowledge of a payment to a recruit’s family.

Louisville has previously indicated it would accept responsibility for violations it committed but would contest allegations it believed were not supported by facts. The school also noted corrective measures taken in the scandal’s immediate aftermath, such as suspending and then firing Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich.

Louisville also dismissed the NCAA’s contention that former Adidas executive James Gatto and amateur league director Merl Code represented the school while funneling illegal payments to recruits at several schools.

“The enforcement staff’s remaining allegations lack factual support and overread the relevant Bylaws,” the response stated, “and rest on the erroneous contention that the conspirators were representatives of the University’s athletics interests.

“For these reasons and others set forth, the panel should reject the enforcement staff’s dramatically overbroad theory, and classify this case as involving a Level II-Mitigated violation.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.