Rankings the Positions: The Centers

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Outlook: The center position is probably the most balanced spot on the floor in this tournament. It certainly isn’t a weak spot for any of the Final Four teams, and it can be considered a strength for all but Butler. Like the small forwards, the centers are going to be an x-factor. Who stays out of foul trouble? Who is effective on the glass? Who is hitting their free throws? Things like that may end up determining some of these outcomes.

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Ranking the Cs:

1) Jamie Skeen, VCU: Skeen may not be the best center out of this group. Hell, he may not even technically be a center. But when VCU has their best lineup on the floor, it is Skeen that makes them so dangerous. At 6’8″ and 235 lb, Skeen has the size to matchup up inside with just about any college big man. He can defend on the block, he can rebound the ball, and he also has a solid back-to-the-basket game. But where he is valuable for the Rams in on the perimeter. He is a very good three point shooter, which means that when he is on the floor with four guards, VCU can really spread the floor. It creates driving lanes and space in the paint when Skeen’s man covers him, but if Skeen’s man doesn’t come out, he’ll knock down threes the entire game.

2) Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu, UConn: Oriakhi can be a dominating interior presence. When he is playing well, he’s a monster on the offensive glass. At 6’9″ and 240 lbs of solid muscle, Oriakhi just carves out space. His back-to-the-basket game is essentially limited to a drop step and a lefty jump hook that he can hit at a pretty consistent rate. On the offensive glass, he not only comes up with a lot of rebounds, but he keeps so many balls alive by tipping them back out to UConn’s guards. The problem? Oriakhi can disappear at times. Sometimes its due to foul trouble, but sometimes its simply just a lack of effort or focus. Okwandu is a legitimate seven footer, but he doesn’t provide much more than the occasional block, offensive rebound, and layup.

3) Josh Harrellson, Kentucky: The Kentucky center has been a revelation this season. Prior to this year, Harrellson played spot minutes for the Wildcats, spending as much time in the doghouse as he did on the court. The only reason he saw minutes early on this season was because Enes Kanter was not given eligibility by the NCAA. The only reason he is in shape is that John Calipari opted to run him through half hour conditioning sessions instead of kicking him off the team as the result of an inappropriate tweet earlier in the season. And through all of that, Harrellson has thrived. He’s scoring, he’s rebounding the ball, he’s beating people down the floor in transition. Harrellson is not that talented or athletic, but he works as hard as any big man in the country.

4) Andrew Smith, Butler: Smith came out of no where last season during Butler’s run to the title game when he played a number of crucial minutes against Kansas State. This year he has emerged as a solid low post threat and someone that can matchup, size wise, with bigger front lines. Smith will be at a bit of a disadvantage when Butler plays VCU — he won’t be able to matchup with Skeen on the perimeter — but if Butler advances to face UConn or Kentucky, Smith will be a crucial piece.

Future Pros: Alex Oriakhi appears to be the best prospect of this group. He’s the biggest, he’s the most athletic, and he has the most upside. He probably isn’t even going to be a lottery pick and may never go in the first round of the draft, but Oriakhi could one day end up playing a role similar to that of a Paul Millsap or a Brandon Bass.

Josh Harrellson and Jamie Skeen, both seniors, have an outside shot of latching on with an NBA team, but it will be a longshot. Harrellson has the size of an NBA center, but he is no where near athletic enough and does not have the kind of back to the basket game you look for. Skeen lacks some size and athleticism as well, but his ability to shoot is intriguing.

Essential to winning a title?: The center spot is going to be quite important to winning a title. Like I said earlier, this may end up being the x-factor position. Alex Oriakhi and Josh Harrellson can be difference makers for their respective teams. Jamie Skeen is the guy that makes VCU’s offense that dangerous. Andrew Smith’s size will be important, especially if Butler makes the final.

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.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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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.