Kevin Stallings won’t use Festus Ezeli as an excuse for weak defense

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EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – Postgame press conferences are usually filled with generalities and cliches.

Coaches and players — especially those of the losing team — see them as a necessary evil. The quotes that are given are rarely enlightening, as the interviewees all too often talk to the questioners as if explaining basketball to a ten year old. Answering questions from a room full of reporters is not what the teams want to be doing immediately after winning or losing a big game.

Every once in a while you’ll run into a coach who, for whatever reason, decides to provide the media with a moment of clarity regarding his team. Kevin Stallings did just that after Vanderbilt’s 86-79 win over NC State on Saturday night.

And he wasn’t happy.

“We have to play better defensively,” he said. “We’re a pretty good offensive team, but we suck on defense. Until we get better defensively, it doesn’t matter who we put out there. We’ve got to get better defensively. Period.”

He’s right. The Commodores are not a very good defensive team. But they also are not a complete basketball team right now, and they won’t be complete until Festus Ezeli is back in the lineup. Ezeli was supposed to miss the first six games of the season after the NCAA ruled that he had received improper benefits, but that suspension was nullified when he sprained his knee in late October. the injury is bad enough that it could keep him out of the lineup until the calender changes.

Its no wonder that Vanderbilt isn’t complete. You take a first round draft pick off of any team and there is going to be a negative impact.

“Festus is a load for anybody,” Jeff Taylor said after the game. “He’s 6’11”, 270 lb, so obviously its a big hole that we all collectively need to fill.”

Stallings strongly emphasized that Vandy cannot sit back and complain about the missing piece, saying “we’re foolish if we’re sitting around and waiting for Festus to all of a sudden show up and cure our problems. We have problems that have nothing to do with Festus and nothing to do with the fact he’s not here.”

Frankly, he’s right.

Vanderbilt got torched defensively. CJ Leslie scored 18 of his 20 points in the first half while Richard Howell finished with 16 points and nine boards inside. Vandy allowed the Wolfpack to shot 50% from the floor for the game (they shot a crisp 60% in the first half) and gave up 45 first half points to a team expected to finish near the bottom of the ACC. That’s not good.

“We did what we do a lot,” Stallings said. “Letting players get their head up and get in their comfort zone. As soon as someone becomes confident, they become a lot harder to guard.”

That’s where Festus Ezeli makes a difference for this team. He’s an eraser around the rim. He wouldn’t have been matched up with Leslie man-to-man, but he would have been hanging around the rim to challenge some of those shots that Leslie got. He would have provided a much tougher matchup for Howell, who carried NC State for stretches during the second half.

By no means is this meant to be a knock of Steve Tchiengang, Ezeli’s replacement at the center spot. He actually played pretty well in his 34 minutes. He finished with 11 rebounds, three on the offensive end of the floor, and chipped in six points. Lance Goulbourne, who starts at the four for Vandy, had his best offensive game of the season, scoring 15 points and adding five rebounds.

But neither of them provide that presence in the paint that Ezeli does. John Jenkins had Vanderbilt’s only block. He’s a 6’4″ shooting guard.

“He cleans up a lot of stuff back there, he’s a big presence,” Goulbourne said. “Offensively, we can throw it in to him anytime and he can score the ball.”

Ezeli will make a big difference for this team when he finally does get healthy and back onto the court, but its unclear when that is going to be. Vanderbilt still has plenty of games to play in the meantime, and while pontificating about how good this team will end up being defensively with Ezeli in the lineup is worthwhile for us, thinking about a player that won’t be on the court will only be a distraction for the Commodores.

“Festus ain’t here,” Stallings said. “He ain’t gonna be here Monday. He’s not going to be playing Friday or the following Monday. He’s not going to be playing, so if our guys are — and I’m not suggesting that they are because I don’t think they are and I hope they’re not — if they’re sitting around and waiting for him to come back, then we got more problems than just our defense.”

“Festus will help that a little bit when and if he gets back, but we better get help before that or we’re going to have a bunch of numbers that go in that right hand column that we’re not very excited about.”

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

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

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.