Can a down year in the Pac-12 open the door for Stanford?

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NEW YORK – It’s now well into Feast Week, which means we are officially in the midst of the college hoops season. And while it’s still early, it’s not too early to begin making judgements on the outcome of the handful of games that have been played.

A consensus opinion is a rarity in March, so you can imagine how difficult it is, in the age of social media and message board journalism, to get everyone on the same page as early as Thanksgiving. But if there is a consensus opinion to be had about this young season, it’s that the Pac-12 stinks. That’s not to say that by March the league is still going to stink, because there is some talent among their ranks. But as of today — November 24th — the Pac-12 stinks.

I’m sorry.

Believe me, it’s not personal.

But the Pac-12 stinks.

Let me sit back and count the ways:

– Arizona was the league’s highest ranked team coming into the season, finding its way into the top 20. But already, the Wildcats have had two players — including star freshman point guard Josiah Turner — suspended and struggle through the early part of their schedule, posting unimpressive wins over mid-major teams and losing to both Mississippi State and San Diego State.

– Cal, one of the league favorites coming into the season, got drubbed by 39 points against Missouri.

– Washington, another one of the league favorites, was handed a 13-point loss by St. Louis in a game it trailed by as much as 30 during the second half.

– Where do we start with UCLA? Josh Smith is too fat, Reeves Nelson doesn’t care, its guards aren’t good enough. Worst of all, its losses to Michigan and Kansas in the Maui Invitational were being called moral victories. It makes sense, I guess, because the Bruins have yet to earn a win this year against a Division I team.

– And then there are the personnel issues. Oregon just had Jabari Brown, its best freshman and probably its most-talented player, leave the team. Arizona State is playing without Jahii Carson, who may never end up getting cleared, and lost to Pepperdine at home. USC has too many injuries to count, which is probably why it’s able to give up 42 points to Cal Poly and lose.

Oregon State has been the league’s one bright spot this season. Jared Cunningham is playing like a superstar and a first-round draft pick while Craig Robinson has a couple of young big guys with very bright futures. But the Beavers aren’t exactly a top 25 team right now. One of their four wins came against a Div. II program, and their banner victory is against a Texas team in a down year that blew an 18-point lead against North Carolina State.

So when we say that Oregon State is a surprising team, it means that it has a shot of making the NCAA tournament, not that it is a lock for the Sweet 16.

In fact, as of Thanksgiving, the Pac-12 has just one undefeated team left: the Stanford Cardinal.

And you know what else?

This Cardinal team has a shot to be pretty good.

Stanford came into tonight’s Preseason NIT semifinal against Oklahoma State with the standard, mediocre schedule that you see out of high-major schools that are trying to rebuild. The Pokes aren’t exactly a powerhouse, but they aren’t exactly a bottom-feeder in the Big 12, either, which is why Stanford’s 82-67 win over the Cowboys raised a few eyebrows.

“I think we’re scoring the ball better than I thought we would early on,” head coach Johnny Dawkins said after the game. “We lost our leading scorer last season. He averaged 17 ppg, a first team all Pac-12 player. Where are our points going to come from?”

Senior forward Josh Brown led the way for the Cardinal with 21 points, scoring 13 of their first 15 and knocking down his first nine shots. He scored in the paint, he finished dump-offs and, on back-to-back possessions in the first half, he jumped a passing lane and went in for a dunk. This performance was all-the-more special for Owens. He missed the entire 2009-2010 season with an undisclosed medical issue.

“I’ve never played here before,” Owens said. “Usually when I come to 34th and 7th, it’s to get to Penn Station to catch the train to New Jersey. It was a great experience.”

While Owens was providing a punch in the paint, Stanford’s backcourt was lighting it up on the perimeter. Chasson Randle and Aaron Bright combined for 32 points on 11-of-18 shooting, 6-of-11 from beyond the arc, and five assists. Bright did the majority of his damage in the first half while Randle caught fire as Stanford pushed its 11-point halftime lead up into the mid-20s.

As a duo, Bright and Randle provide an intriguing back court. Neither is really a true point guard, but both are capable of scoring the ball and running the point. Bright, a sophomore, has really come on this season. He’s leading the team in scoring and hitting 51.9 percent of his threes. While Randle is a bit bigger than Bright, he’s more of a playmaker. But Randle is still a freshman and is still plagued by freshman mistakes. He’ll only get better as he cuts down his turnovers and improves his shot selection. Wednesday may have been the start; he was 5-of-9 from the floor and only turned over the ball twice.

“We tell out guys to always stay in character,” Dawkins said. “You know the shots you’re capable of making. Be ready for those shots when they present themselves. That’s all we ask our guys to do.”

Andrew Zimmermann and Josh Huestis have played well alongside Owens in the front court for the early part of the season, but the X-factor this season is going to be Dwight Powell. Powell, who was a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, has gotten off to a slow start in his sophomore year thanks to an ankle injury he suffered earlier this month.

If he can become the shot-blocker and interior presence that he was expected to be coming out of high school, Stanford may be able to play its way into the NCAA tournament.

Who knows, maybe a down year for the conference could end up providing an avenue for a banner year in Palo Alto.

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

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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.