Sweet 16 preview: West Region’s top players, champ

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The details: There are all kinds of intriguing storylines in this region. For starters, there is the potential matchup between Duke and UConn, who have played three times in the tournament, all of which have yielded classic games. There is Sean Miller, who has brought the Arizona program back to national relevancy with a Pac-10 title and a trip to the Sweet 16. Then there is Steve Fisher, the coach that went down with the Fab Five, potentially making his return to the Final Four.

Matchups

No. 2 San Diego State (34-2) vs. No. 3 UConn (28-9)
Time: 7:15 p.m. ET on CBS

No. 1 Duke (32-4) vs. No. 5 Arizona (29-7)
Time: 9:45 p.m. ET on CBS

Team to beat: Duke Blue Devils

I fully expect Kyrie Irving to be close to 100% by the time the Sweet 16 games roll around, meaning that Duke will once again be arguably the most talented team in the country. Kyle Singler was a preseason favorite for national player of the year, Irving was a favorite for national player of the year before he got hurt, and Nolan Smith has emerged as a favorite since Irving was injured. Not many teams can boast that kind of 1-2-3 punch. The problem? Duke’s weakness is on the interior, and the three teams that the Blue Devils can end up facing all have at least one powerful front court presence.

Team with nothing to lose: San Diego State

The Aztecs, despite being the No. 2 seed in the West region, are the underdog heading into the Sweet 16. They play in the Mountain West Conference. They played all of one BCS conference team this season, beating Cal by 20 points. They have a head coach with the reputation of a guy that just rolls the ball out. They were the trendy pick by analysts to get upset in the second round of the dance by Temple. This team has no expectations, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They head into the Sweet 16 playing without pressure.

Players to watch:

  • Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State: Leonard is one of the most entertaining players in the country to watch, and its a shame that he isn’t known on a more national scale. When dreaming up a prototype small forward, you think of Leonard. He’s 6’6″, he’s got long arms, he’s quick and athletic and explosive. He attacks the glass as hard as anyone in the country, but he can also lead the break when need be. By the time he fully develops, he’s the kind of player that can average 15, 10, 5, 2, and 2.
  • Alex Oriakhi, UConn: Kemba Walker is the star. Jeremy Lamb, Roscoe Smith, and Shabazz Napier take turns as his sidekick. But Oriakhi may be the most important player on the roster outside of Walker. He’s really the only strong, interior presence the Huskies have. He defends the rim and is one of the best in the country at battling on the offensive glass.
  • Derrick Williams, Arizona: Like Leonard, Williams is probably a talent that you haven’t seen enough of this season. He’s a versatile, 6’8″ forward that can score from any where on the floor. He’s been good enough this season to warrant consideration as the No. 1 overall pick come June. And he’ll be a nightmare for the Plumlees to cover.
  • Nolan Smith, Duke: I fully expect Kyrie Irving to be back to full strength by the time the Sweet 16 games come around, which puts Smith in an awkward position. Will the senior that has become the team’s leader, star, and is a national player of the year candidate and defending champion be willing to play second fiddle to a freshman with seven games experience?

Coach under pressure: Jim Calhoun

The coach isn’t going to be under pressure as much as the team is. The Big East sent 11 schools to the NCAA Tournament. All but two of them have been eliminated. The other one? No. 11 seed Marquette, playing in the toughest region left. Its too much to say that the fate of the Big East is riding on UConn’s shoulders. But it isn’t too much to say that the Huskies are the conference’s only hope to make the Final Four.

Outcome: Duke is the favorite to reach the Final Four out of this region. But that doesn’t mean that they are going to have an easy road. Derrick Williams will be a matchup nightmare for the Plumlees or Ryan Kelly or Kyle Singler or whoever they end up putting on him. San Diego State’s front line will be even more difficult for Duke to matchup with. Billy White, Kawhi Leonard, and Malcolm Thomas are just that much more physical than Duke’s. Alex Oriakhi is a horse in the paint, and Duke has had issues with players of his ilk this season.

So much of what happens will depend on which Kyrie Irving we see. That said, my money is going to be on the winner of the San Diego State-UConn game.

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

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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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

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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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

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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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.