Blogger Spotlight: Incredible guards? A sharp-dressed coach? Must be Villanova time

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On any other weekend, a Top 10 showdown between No. 4 Pitt and No. 9 Villanova would be the game of the day. But it’ll have to share top billing with No. 1 Ohio State playing at No. 13 Wisconsin.

That’s kind of how it goes for Villanova.

One of the nation’s most underrated hoops programs – Syracuse, Georgetown and UConn all get more attention – is a small school in Philly that thrives thanks to its continually impressive fleet of guards. In recent years, it’s been Randy Foye, Allan Ray or Scottie Reynolds turning heads. This year’s no different.

Behind Corey Fisher, Maalik Wayns and Corey Stokes, the Wildcats are 19-5 overall and 7-4 in the Big East and working on yet another impressive finish and NCAA tournament seed. So I turned to die-hard Villanova fan Brian Ewart (a contributor to the outstanding VUHoops blog and can be found on Twitter @brianisawesome) )for this week’s Blogger Spotlight – but my timing could’ve been better.

Most of this Q&A was done after Villanova was stunned by Rutgers Wednesday night thanks to a last-second four-point play. Sorry, ‘Nova. Even when it’s your turn in the spotlight, the timing stinks.

Q: How’s the year been without Scottie Reynolds? It must be what North Carolina fans felt after Tyler Hansbrough graduated or Syracuse when Gerry McNamara was gone. They were faces of their programs.

A: Scottie was the rare player who can be a star for four years and it is always tough to lose a player that the program has leaned on for so long. That said, on the court, the team really hasn’t suffered, and Villanova has Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Antonio Pena to thank for that.

So maybe it takes a few guys to replace Scottie Reynolds, but it seems that they have.

Q: So has that talented roster lived up to your expectations thus far? What are they missing?

A: No. Right now Villanova probably has one of the most talented rosters of the Jay Wright era. Maybe the 2005 roster could take that crown, but even so, there are McDonalds All-Americans sitting on the bench during any play of a game. Talent is great, but you have to execute.

This team, especially the younger players, is lacking experience. The sophomores are all adjusting to bigger roles this year and sometimes it shows.

Q: Last season Villanova fouled way too much. This season they don’t force as many turnovers. Did Jay Wright tell the guys to be less aggressive?

A: I don’t think so. If you watch closely you can still see that they are trying to force turnovers, and against Rutgers, Fisher had five steals to show for that effort. The press that Jay Wright has been using this year, however, has seemed to generate more easy baskets for opponents than turnovers. This isn’t the most aggressive Villanova team I have seen, but they do appear to be trying to force turnovers.

I think last year’s fouling issue was the result of trying to get a lot of new players used to the defensive scheme as well as the speed of the game. There were a lot of missed assignments on the defensive end, and fouls resulted when the ‘Cats tried to compensate. You still see a little of that this season, but it happens far less often.

Q: After a loss like that Rutgers,  maybe this isn’t the best time to ask, but I will anyway–are you convinced playing in the nation’s toughest league helps prepare ‘Nova for the NCAA tournament?

A: It certainly has its benefits. If you can win in the Big East consistently, you should be able to beat anybody. Moreso than that, though, the Big East exposes teams to different looks. Until this year, Villanova was almost exclusively man-defense, while Syracuse rarely departs from their 2-3 zone. Offensively, some teams will beat you up in the paint and others will try to beat you from outside.

You really can’t use the same game-plan twice in this conference, and that is a great way to prepare for the NCAA tournament, where you have a quick turnaround between games and can be matched up with almost anyone.

Even more than that though, getting battered a little bit in-conference might just make the NCAA tournament seem like a breather for a Big East team.

Villanova rarely makes a splash in the Big East tournament, but they have performed well in the NCAA tournament during Jay Wright’s tenure, so maybe that says something.

Q:Wwho’s the go-to guy in tight games? Fisher or whomever Wayns makes a play for?

A: Right now it’s Fisher. I hope that somewhere down the line, Mouph Yarou or another big can develop into a go-to type player, but that may be wishful thinking. Villanova basketball is about the guards even when there are three forwards on the court.

Of the guards, Fisher is the most reliable option. Stokes has been great as well at times, and he had a tremendous run, but when defenses want to take him out of the game, it gets tough to find him a shot. Wayns, meanwhile, can be an absolutely electric player, but he also has to develop some maturity and learn to make better decisions.

Q: What’s it gonna take to beat Pitt on Saturday? I think they’re the Big East ‘s best team but you can try to convince me otherwise.

A: If I knew that, I think I’d be sitting next to Jay Wright in a really expensive suit.

I think Pitt probably is the best team in the Big East right now, but they are also a team that Villanova has played well against.

With Ashton Gibbs out on Saturday, the most important match-up is probably going to be Yarou and McGhee.The ‘Cats can’t let McGhee beat them on the boards, and they have to play tighter defense than they have in a couple recent close games. Pitt is going to score points, but Villanova needs to make that as difficult as possible.

I like that Coach Wright has been starting Isaiah Armwood recently, but Maalik Wayns is still getting minutes and when the ball is in his hands, he needs to make better decisions. Wayns has developed a tendency to stand around and dribble near mid-court until there is about 10 seconds left on the shot-clock and then rush a shot or a pass. Sometimes it works and the ‘Cats score, but ball-movement is a better strategy.

If the ‘Cats make good decisions and get back to playing better on defense, they can probably win on Saturday. As Rutgers and Providence have proven: it doesn’t matter who the better team is on-paper in this conference.

Q: Sharper dresser: Jay Wright or Rick Pitino?

A: This is easily one of the most-debated topics in the basketball universe. Forget whether to foul up three at the end of the game (and ‘Nova should have done that against Rutgers), this one comes up way more often. On any given day it’s possible that Pitino could out-dress Wright, but have you ever seen Jay Wright in a white suit?

Case closed. Jay Wright has a sartorially-sound wardrobe that is free of errors, and for that, he takes the edge.

Q: This may sound like an odd question to non-Philadelphia people, but do you enjoy the Big 5 games more than the Big East showdowns?

A: Personally, I love the history, tradition and rivalry of the Big 5, and though the games are sometimes mismatches, the Philly schools play hard against Villanova.

That said, there are a couple of Big East match-ups that I absolutely prefer to the Big 5. I wouldn’t say that I’d pick Villanova/DePaul over the Holy War, but I might take a match-up with Georgetown or Syracuse over Villanova/La Salle in most years.

I would never want to see the end of the Big 5, but there are definitely some Big East games that the city schools can’t match.

Q: Who’s all-time favorite Villanova team?

A: Some of those teams in the 1960s and 70s under Jack Kraft won games at an insane clip, but I really never got to see those teams in person. I also never saw the 1985 team other than in replays of that Final Four on ESPN Classic.

Picking from my era, I’d have to pick the 2004-2005 team (you know, the one that would have went to the Final Four instead of eventual-national-champ UNC had the refs been able to count properly). Easily the best combination of offensive and defensive ability I have seen that year, and until Curtis Sumpter’s injury, it was undoubtedly the most talented team Jay Wright has put on the court.

Q: Non-hoops question – Would ‘Nova win the Big East in football?

A: Tough to really tell. I assume you mean in the 2010 season and without the 22 additional scholarships? I’ll go ahead and say no. They would have won more games than most Big East coaches would probably like to admit though.

Q: How’d you get involved in blogging and how long do you see yourself doing it?

A: I got involved with VU Hoops by commenting on the blog regularly. Eventually Mike (who started the site) emailed me and asked if I wanted to write. I decided to give it a try.

I’ve been involved ever since and I assume I’ll be involved until I run out of things to say or somebody makes me stop.

Want more? I’m also on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

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.