Sweet 16 preview: Southeast’s top players, champ

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The details: The East Region might be “tougher,” but the Southeast features four teams with legitimate shots to reach the Final Four, which makes it the most entertaining of the bunch. Both Sweet 16 matchups figure to be entertaining and close, while the regional final has compelling storylines no matter what teams are involved. Can Butler get to another Final Four? Will Bo Ryan reach his first? Is Florida back to elite status? And how far can Jimmer carry BYU? Everything’s gold. Plus, the basketball will be good, too.

Thursday’s matchups

No. 2 Florida (28-7) vs. No. 3 BYU (32-4)
Time: 7:27 p.m. ET on TBS

No. 4 Wisconsin (25-8) vs. No. 9 Butler (25-9)
Time: 9:57 p.m. ET on TBS

Team to beat: Wisconsin

The Badgers aren’t the top seed remaining, but that’s a detail I’m willing to overlook. They have the region’s top offense, an underrated defense and two players capable of taking over a game in guard Jordan Taylor and forward Jon Leuer. They’ve ditched the lingering taste of scoring just 33 points in a Big Ten tournament loss to dispatch the Big Dance’s most underseeded team (Belmont) and a Kansas State squad that harassed Taylor into one of his worst shooting performances. They also get the benefit of playing the region’s lowest seed remaining in Butler … though that’s not always a good thing.

Team with nothing to lose: Butler

The Bulldogs are playing with house money. They’re in the Sweet 16 a year after an improbable run to the title game, and did it with two last-second wins, one of which came against the region’s top seed. Anything after this is gravy. That doesn’t mean Butler’s going out quietly, though. Brad Stevens’ teams don’t do that in March.  

Players to watch

Kenny Boynton, Florida: The 6-1 guard sprained his left ankle against UCLA, but will start and is expected to guard BYU’s Jimmer Fredette. How Boynton fares on the nation’s leading scorer is – by far – the most crucial aspect to the Gators’ chances. It’s impossible to stop Fredette. But if Boynton can make him work for shots and keep him off the free-throw line, Florida’s in good shape.

Jimmer Fredette, BYU: He’s averaging nearly 35 points a game since center Brandon Davies was dismissed and burned the Gators for 37 in last year’s NCAA tournament win. How he adjusts to Florida’s defense pressure and switches – shoot or pass? – dictates BYU’s offensive flow. The more attention he commands, the better it is for the Cougars.

Shelvin Mack: The streak shooter was on vs. Pitt (30 points on 16 shots), but not vs. ODU (15 points on 14 shots). His performance isn’t essential to the Bulldogs’ chances, but someone needs to stretch Wisconsin’s defense. Ronald Nored will be all over Jordan Taylor, leaving Mack free to focus on offense.

Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin: Can Taylor avoid two straight sub-par games? He’s facing the prospect of Ronald Nored sticking to him all game, raising the possibility of another 2-for-16 game. The Badgers run everything through Taylor, which leaves it up to him to avoid forcing shots and finding teammates like Jon Leuer  or Keaton Nankivil.

Coach under pressure: Billy Donovan

This is a small stretch, but I had to pick one. Donovan’s experienced, balanced team is the highest seed remaining in the region and should have a solid fan contingent in New Orleans. But turn all that around and it means the Gators should win, right? Plus, there’s the daunting aspect of losing an NCAA tourney game to BYU for the second straight year. That’s not a happy thought for an SEC champ. Florida loses and Donovan will hear catcalls that he’s not the same coach who won back-to-back titles. That’s completely bogus, but I’m fairly certain that’s what would happen.

Outcome: Even before Pitt lost, the region was up for grabs. It wouldn’t be a shocker for any of these teams to win, including Butler. (Do you want to pick against Brad Stevens?) But someone’s gotta win, and I’m going BYU.  The Cougars are playing their best defense since Davies was in the lineup. They’re rebounding, challenging shots and hitting shots. Plus, they have Fredette.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

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.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.