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.

ACC coaches back idea of all D-I teams in 2021 NCAA tourney

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
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RALEIGH, N.C. — Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball coaches are pushing the idea of having next year’s NCAA Tournament include all eligible teams in Division I.

Numerous league schools and coaches released statements Wednesday after the coaches held their weekly call to discuss the proposal, which was first reported by Stadium. There are 357 Division I programs in the country, with NCAA spokeswoman Meghan Durham saying 346 of those are eligible to play in next year’s tournament.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett said the ACC coaches are “united in strongly pursuing this” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that led to the cancellation of last year’s NCAA Tournament days before the field of 68 was set to be revealed. Multiple coaches said creating an everybody-gets-in format would be an incentive for schools as they create the safest conditions possible for returning to play.

“This is not a regular season,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said in a statement. “It is clearly an irregular season that will require something different. Our sport needs to be agile and creative. Most importantly, an all-inclusive postseason tournament will allow a unique and unprecedented opportunity for every team and every student-athlete to compete for a national championship.”

Durham declined comment specifically on the proposal in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday. Last month, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said the Division I oversight committees for men’s and women’s basketball planned to announce by mid-September plans for whether the season and preseason practice would start on time or require a delay due to the pandemic.

Louisville coach Chris Mack said the proposal would provide flexibility during the season without mandating a number of nonconference or conference games to be played. And the league has already experienced that scheduling challenge with football and other fall sports.

The ACC announced in July that it would have each football team play 10 league games – including the addition of Notre Dame as a football member this year – and one nonconference game to be played in the home state of the member school. Those schedules were released in early August, slightly more than a month before Thursday’s UAB-Miami game kicks off the season.

“This is a time to think differently,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell said, adding: “After all these players have been through, what better way to reward them than the opportunity to compete in an unprecedented version of the most exciting event in sports.”

College basketball floats idea of bubbles for safe season

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The NBA bubble has held. So has the NHL’s double bubble. The WNBA and MLS, no leaks.

In this unprecedented landscape of sports in a pandemic world, one indisputable fact has emerged: bubbles work.

Thousands of tests, minimal to no positive COVID-19 test results.

So as the NCAA gets set announce its plans for the 2020-21 college basketball season, there are clear precedents and blueprints in place should it decide to go the bubble route.

“It’s certainly viable,” said Mark Starsiak, vice president of sports at Intersport, a Chicago-based sports marketing and media agency, “From a basketball standpoint, I think we can follow those models.”

The college football restart has been scattershot. The season has already started, yet 53 FBS schools have the pads and helmets hanging on hooks while waiting for better pandemic news.

A much more unified plan is in place for the college basketball season.

The NCAA is hoping to start the season in late November/early December, with a vote by the Division I council expected Sept. 16.

A partnership between the Pac-12 and Quidel Corp. to potentially do daily, rapid COVID-19 tests on athletes should help smooth a return to the court.

The question then becomes: What’s the best way to safely play basketball again?

Bubbles may be the answer.

While bubble football would be next to impossible logistically, basketball could fit nicely.

The travel parties are much smaller and college basketball already has plenty of multiple-team events, from holiday and conference tournaments to the NCAA Tournament. Add the effective safety measures of the pro leagues, find suitable sites and bubble basketball could work.

The NCAA is already looking at it, reportedly filing a trademark for the phrase “Battle in the Bubble.” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont also said there have been preliminary talks for bubble basketball at the Mohegan Sun resort.

“The idea of a bubble would be a really good idea, just to isolate all the teams who want to play against each other in that bubble and keep things safe, keep away from the public and keep us in our own area where we’re able to play the game the right way and safely,” Duke sophomore forward Wendell Moore, Jr. said.

A big key will be finding the right places to bubble.

The NBA has the ideal setup at Disney World, but college basketball might be better suited to follow the NHL’s lead.

Hockey’s two bubbles – Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta – cordoned off areas enclosing the arena and several nearby hotels. All personnel entering are tested and strict protocols are in place for vendors delivering food and packages into the bubbles.

Similar bubbles for college basketball could be set up at smaller resorts, cities with arenas and hotels nearby, or Division II or III schools with arenas not being used during the pandemic.

The NCAA could set up pods of multiple nonconference teams, conference tournaments could be held in similar fashion and so could the NCAA Tournament.

In other words, basketball bubbles could pop up all over the country.

“Maybe do it for maybe a week or two at a time, playing a certain amount of games and getting retested after you come back or something like that,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “It’s possible, but it’s not going to be easy.”

Pulling off a college basketball bubble, however, comes with a caveat.

NCAA players are considered students, so academics would have to be part of the equation.

Division I players are already accustomed to doing school work on the road and the majority take primarily online classes. To make the bubbles work, socially distant space would have to be carved out for the players to take their classes and study.

The programs may also have to rethink the size of their traveling parties.

“Discussions about the right amount of tutors or academic staff would need to take place,” said Starsiak, who has operated high-level sports and entertainment events for 15 years. ”

You have to look at, do we need three managers this time around? No, probably not. Do you take two and have a tutor or an academic come with us? Yeah, I think you could. I think there’s a way to kind of combine both things to have some live, in-person resources.”

The NCAA is going to do everything possible to have a basketball season.

The pandemic wiped out the NCAA Tournament last spring and the NCAA collected $270 million in cancellation insurance instead of the $1 billion TV payout it normally gets. A second straight year without March Madness could be devastating.

Bubbles may be the way to go.

‘Father of the Final Four’ Tom Jernestedt dies at 75

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INDIANAPOLIS — Tom Jernstedt, a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame for his contributions to college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, has died. He was 75.

The NCAA said Sunday Jernstedt died this weekend.

Nicknamed “Father of the Final Four,” Jernstedt has widely been credited with transforming the NCAA Tournament into the billion-dollar March Madness it has become today.

“A decade after his departure from the NCAA, Tom Jernstedt’s fingertips remain visible during March Madness and the Final Four,” NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt said in a statement. “His innovation and superb ability to develop relationships turned a basketball tournament into a three-week phenomenon that became a global event.”

A former back-up quarterback, Jernstedt worked his first Final Four in 1973 and helped push the growth of the NCAA Tournament from 25 teams to the 68, anything-can-happen bonanza held every spring.

Jernstedt helped the NCAA increase its television contract from just over $1 million to more than $10 billion when he left in 2011. He served as president of USA Basketball, was a member of the College Football Selection committee and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame as a contributor in 2017.

“Tom Jernstedt was a humble and unsung steward of the game,” John L. Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame, said in a statement. “Under his direction, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament grew into a phenomenon that brings college basketball fans together on a global scale. He will forever be remembered as the Father of the Final Four and one of the most respected leaders in basketball.”

Jernstedt established himself as a team leader despite being a backup quarterback at Oregon from 1964-66 and went on to serve as the Ducks’ events manager. He joined the NCAA in 1972 and spent 38 years with the organization.

“Tom served as a friend and mentor to countless people in and around collegiate athletics, and I’m proud to be among that vast group of people,” Gavitt said. “His legacy within the NCAA and its membership, and his impact on the sport of college basketball, is eternal. We extend our deepest condolences to Tom’s family.”

Aztecs extend Brian Dutcher’s contract 3 years through 2026

Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
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SAN DIEGO — San Diego State basketball coach Brian Dutcher has signed a three-year contract extension through the 2025-26 season.

Dutcher signed the deal following one of the most successful seasons in school history. The Aztecs went 30-2, won the Mountain West regular-season title and were expected to be a No. 1 or 2 seed before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. They opened the season 26-0 and were the nation’s last undefeated team.

“Having spent more than 20 years at San Diego State University I understand what a special place this is,” Dutcher said in a statement Friday. “I am humbled and honored to continue to represent SDSU and Aztec Basketball as its head coach.”

Dutcher is 73-26 in three seasons, the most victories by an Aztecs coach in his first three seasons. He spent 18 seasons as Steve Fisher’s top assistant, including six as associate head coach/head coach in waiting. He took over as head coach after Fisher retired following the 2016-17 season. The Aztecs reached the NCAA Tournament in his first season.

Before that, he spent 10 seasons with Fisher at Michigan. In Dutcher’s first season with the Wolverines, Fisher was promoted to interim head coach on the eve of the NCAA Tournament and won the national championship.

Indiana halts all voluntary workouts

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Indiana has halted all voluntary workouts indefinitely for its men’s basketball, field hockey, men’s soccer and wrestling teams after 14 participants tested positive for the coronavirus this week.

The Hoosiers did not identify which teams recorded the positive tests. The football team, like other Big Ten programs, is not playing this fall. Indiana said 63 positives have been reported from more than 1,400 tests of athletes, coaches and staff since June 8.

“Our athletic program is following strict protocols during these unprecedented times and we strongly support our medical staff as we try and mitigate this issue,” men’s basketball coach Archie Miller said.