A viewer’s guide to the SEC/Big East Invitational

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Finally, the SEC and the Big East made the decision to expand to an all-out, full-fledged conference battle.

But the leagues did mess up. For starters, both Kentucky and UConn are playing teams from the bottom of the opposing conference. St. John’s and Arkansas appeared to be on the rise a year ago, but let me give you schedule-makers a tip — when you are manufacturing a competition, it’s best to pit two of the best teams taking part against each other.

Who doesn’t want to see the Huskies play the Wildcats in a rematch of last year’s Final Four? Um, everyone.

Miss this game for a wedding, but only if you’re getting married:

No. 1 — Friday 7 p.m.: No. 9 Florida at No. 3 Syracuse
In a week that gave us three games pitting top 10 teams, Syracuse and Florida may actually have the most intrigue. For starters, there is the obvious — the Bernie Fine scandal. With the speed at which this story has transformed, who knows what will happen between now and Friday night. And, making the story all the more interesting, who knows what questions are going to have to be asked of coach Jim Boeheim in the press conference after the game? Given his history with the media, the postgame may have more fireworks than the game itself.

For Florida, this will be the first time that they take the court against a real opponent without Erik Murphy. Murphy was the x-factor entering the season. Through four games, he looked like he was primed to be a serious weapon for the Gators. There aren’t many 6-9 forwards that can shoot the ball and spread the floor like he can. He would have been especially valuable against a team like Syracuse that plays strictly zone.

In terms of who will actually be on the court, we get one of the most exciting back court matchups that we’ve seen this young season. Florida boasts three upperclassmen in Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker and Mike Rosario, but the best of the bunch may be freshman Brad Beal. It feels like we are saying this every year about the Gators, but keep an eye on the way that Boynton and Walker play. The knock on them throughout their career has been mediocre shot selection. Walker’s making better decisions, and Boynton has hit 22-45 from beyond the arc. Watching them attack the 2-3 zone should be fun.

For Syracuse, their back court starts with Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche and continues with the dynamic Dion Waiters coming off of the bench. But the key for the Orange in this one will have little to do with their guard play. Boeheim’s team is loaded up front with size and athleticism, something that the Gators lack behind Patric Young. Players like CJ Fair and James Southerland will be a tough matchup for Florida. Also keep an eye on Kris Joseph. Florida is going to have difficulty dealing with his length on the wing.

Pick: Syracuse

No. 2 — Friday 8:30 p.m.: No. 19 Vanderbilt at No. 6 Louisville
Injuries have diluted what could have been one of the season’s best matchups. Vandy is without their hoss in the paint, as Festus Ezeli is still battling his eye back from a sprained knee. Louisville? We may be better off listing the players that are healthy with the number of injuries that Rick Pitino’s team has had to deal with already this year. Peyton Siva is banged up. Rakeem Buckles and Stephen Van Treese are out. Elisha Justice has a broken nose. Mike Marra and Wayne Blackshear are out for the season. Roll call — did I miss anyone?

Louisville has thrived this season thanks to defense, though Pitino has kept the team in check to prevent further injuries. Against Long Beach State, Pitino finally let the reins out a bit, and the Cardinals ran LBSU off the court, at least until their legs caught up to them. The biggest issue for Vanderbilt is going to be how they defend Louisville’s back court. Siva, Kyle Kuric and Chris Smith are an impressive trio, and Russ Smith has been a pleasant surprise for Louisville fans. (Card Chronicle has the best line I’ve read on Russ Smith this year, referring to the Smith’s questionable shot selection as “Russ things”.)

I’m concerned about Vanderbilt’s ability to defend Louisville’s perimeter attack, but I am also worried about how Vandy is going to be able to break the Louisville press. Brad Tinsley and John Jenkins can both shoot the heck out of the ball, but they have a tendency to struggle against pressure defense. Kevin Stallings is going to want to take advantage of the mismatch that Jeff Taylor creates. He is too big and too athletic for any of Louisville’s perimeter players.

Pick: Louisville

These games are worth TiVoing the season finale of “Sons of Anarchy:”

No. 3 – Thursday, 9:30 p.m.: Georgetown at No. 12 Alabama
This one should be fun. Alabama defense features a physical and athletic frontline in JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell. Georgetown, on the other hand, has been one of the surprises of the young season. Jason Clark and Hollis Thompson have both been terrific, while Henry Sims will get a real test going up against the bigs of the Crimson Tide. I like Alabama’s young perimeter attack, but the key to this game is where it’s being played — Alabama doesn’t lose in Tuscaloosa.

Pick: Alabama

No. 4 – Saturday, 9 p.m.: West Virginia at Mississippi State: The frontcourt matchup will be entertaining. Renardo Sidney and Arnett Moultrie, for all of the effort and conditioning issues that are present, are as big and as talented as anyone in the country. But West Virginia has their own pair of quality big men in Kevin Jones and Deniz Kilicli. The rebounding battle is going to be important, but it will be interesting to see how West Virginia’s freshman point guard Jabarie Hinds will handle Mississippi State’s Dee Bost.

Pick: Mississippi State

No. 5 – Saturday, 5:15 p.m.: No. 17 Pitt at Tennessee
Last year, Tennessee went into Pittsburgh and knocked off the Panthers in impressive fashion. This year, however, both teams are way down. Pitt is struggling mightily on defense, while Tennessee is plain old struggling. After losing to both Duke and Memphis in Maui, Tennessee dropped a roadie to Oakland this week. But the Vols have a talented pair in Trae Golden and Jeronne Maymon, the latter of which will get a chance to showcase his skills against one of the country’s biggest frontlines.

Pick: Pitt

Watch the “Sons of Anarchy” finale, but TiVo the “Law and Order” reruns:

No. 6 – Thursday, 7:30 p.m.: St. John’s at No. 1 Kentucky
Kentucky is probably the country’s most talented team. But its point guard, Marquis Teague, has turnover issues. St. John’s loves to press, and it could cause some issues for the Wildcats. That said, St. John’s is very, very young. And heading into Rupp. This could easily turn into a massacre.

Pick: Kentucky

No. 7 — Saturday 3:15 p.m.: Arkansas at No. 10 UConn
The Huskies have major question marks: When will Alex Oriakhi show up? Is Andre Drummond ever going to become consistent? Will Shabazz Napier or Jeremy Lamb ever take the reins of this team? How good is Ryan Boatright? UConn has much more talent than Arkansas, but they also had much more talent than Central Florida.

Pick: UConn

Follow a beat writer on twitter for the game:

No. 8 – Friday, 7 p.m.: Cincinnati at Georgia
The Bearcats were supposed to be a contender to finish in the top five of the Big East. But they’ve already lost to Presbyterian and Marshall. When will Yancy Gates become the star he was supposed to be this year? Georgia does have some talent, in particular guard Gerald Robinson.

Pick: Cincinnati

No. 9 – Thursday, 9 p.m.: Ole Miss at DePaul
This game looks ugly on paper, but there is some intrigue. Ole Miss has some talent on their roster — they just knocked off Miami in overtime — and DePaul has been impressive thus far. Can Brandon Young, Cleveland Melvin and company pull of the win?

Pick: Ole Miss

Checking the box score in the morning may be too much:

No. 10 — Friday, 9 p.m.: Auburn at Seton Hall: Herb Pope and Jordan Theodore are finally playing up to their potential. Auburn is improved, but they had nowhere to go but up.

Pick: Seton Hall

No. 11 – Saturday, 7 p.m.: LSU at Rutgers: LSU has been awful. That’s enough for Rutgers.

Pick: Rutgers

No. 12 – Thursday, 7 p.m.: Providence at South Carolina: South Carolina is terrible. Providence looks to be better this season, and guys like Vincent Council and Gerald Coleman has been putting up some impressive performances.

Pick: Providence

And the winner is? The Big East, 8-4.

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

Michelle Pemberton/IndyStar
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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.