Sorry Jimmer — Kemba Walker was 2011’s top college athlete

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During this summer’s ESPYs Award Show I, for the first time in the history of man watching award shows, was yelling at the screen denouncing an award recipient.

Jimmer Fredette, Joseph Smith love him, was given with the Male College Athlete of the Year Award over distinguished collegiate athletes Cam Newton and Kemba Walker.

I was fuming.  It was already about 85 degrees outside, so awarding Fredette with a trophy really worsened an existing temperature problem.

We all appreciate Jimmer Fredette.  He was the perfect David character for the 2010-2011 college basketball season because he played in a non Power Six conference and had an unorthodox game.

But he was no Kemba Walker.  He didn’t carry his team to a shocking Maui Invitational crown, he didn’t galvanize his teammates after a pedestrian 9-9 conference record, and he didn’t lead one of the most prominent and “number one with a bullet” programs to an unblemished neutral court record en route to an improbable national championship.

Looking at both the tangibles like statistics and skill set, and the intangibles ranging from charisma and flair for the dramatics, Kemba Walker is inarguably the college athlete of the year for 2011.

His arc is a perfect example of why it’s OK to spend more than one season in college, and his maturation as both a player and leader that climaxed during his junior season helps solidify his case. Walker also wasn’t the center of a pay-to-play recruiting scandal that followed Cam Newton around for the majority of his Heisman and Championship winning campaign. As special as his year was, it will be marked with an asterisk by more than a few people.

A highly-touted McDonald’s All-American oozing with skills that were perfect for highlight seekers, Walker was probably over his head at times during his freshman season.  He ran too fast and dribbled too much. Despite scoring in double figures in 11 games, the learning curve to becoming consummate point guard and lottery pick – not just an ankle breaker – was significant.

His sophomore year Walker showed signs of maturation. He assumed the starting point guard role and improved many of the statistics we deem important.

But it wasn’t enough.  Walker was really good, not great, and the stage was set for one of the most memorable individual college basketball seasons in the past decade.

Initially, I was not impressed. So what if he averaged exactly 30 points and shot 55 percent from the floor in his first six games? Walker was still that sort of flash in the pan guy in my mind.  He was just relishing being the go-to guy early in the season. Opponents didn’t know how to defend the Huskies.

By January it was pretty clear that the Huskies, despite plateau and losing a few games here and there, were not going anywhere. They had proven to be underrated coming in to the season and were serious threats to cut down the nets in Houston. Number 15 for the Huskies had just about everything to do with it.

Kemba Walker’s on court theatrics and was such an incredibly uplifting story in an otherwise mediocre season in terms of talent. As the face of a top-tiered Big East team, we desperately needed him to keep us interested. From his hot-out-of-the-gate start to his January theatrics in Austin to his incredible month of March, Walker delivered at each critical point in the season.

Looking at this a macro point of view, his ear-to-ear grin and confident style of play were prominently on display during a time when college athletics are currently revealing to the country its seedy underbelly.

Penn State, Ohio State, Miami; a not so flattering perception has been presented to the general public that calls in to question the inequities of how the NCAA and universities treat student-athletes like commodities and turn a blind eye to shady handling of that commodity if it means preserving a pristine image. Even the University of Connecticut is guilty of that.

Anointing Kemba Walker as the college athlete of the year in these parts doesn’t quite make up for his ESPY snub, but hopefully it’s some sort of consolation.

He’s off in the NBA now, enjoying a rookie season that looks promising. Barring injury, Walker has a long pro career ahead of him, one that likely had no chance of playing out if he didn’t blossom into a college superstar this past year.

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.