Conference Catch-ups: The SEC

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Over the course of this week, we will spend a few minutes catching you up on how some of the best conferences in the country currently look. With conference play starting up, its time to get into the basketball spirit.

Favorite: Kentucky

Well, this is obvious, isn’t it? Kentucky might be the most talented team in the country. If it wasn’t for a no-show performance from Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis in Bloomington — or if Christian Watford hadn’t hit the shot of the year to date — the Wildcats would still be undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country. There isn’t much I can tell you here that you don’t already know. Marquis Teague’s ability to shoot and protect the ball is the key. Anthony Davis is a freak. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is freakin’ awesome (hard-hitting analysis, that’s why you read me).

Biggest Surprise: LSU

I’m not going to lie, I didn’t expect much of anything out of the Tigers this season. In fact, I had them last in the SEC in the preseason, but Trent Johnson’s team has made me look silly with that pick. After a couple of ugly losses early in the season, the Tigers have found their identity. This is a tough, gritty team that is going to win when they can grind out a victory. Just as Marquette, who went down to Baton Rouge and got tripped up after blowing a 13 point lead, sending them on the downward spiral they have been on. LSU has also won at Rutgers (where Florida lost) and at Houston. Iowa State transfer Justin Hamilton has anchored the front line, Anthony Hickey has been disruptive as an on-ball defender and LSU’s role players — Storm Warren, Ralston Turner — are talented enough to make this team an upset threat in league play.

Biggest Disappointment: Vanderbilt

If anyone can figure out what is going on with the Commodores, feel free to let me know. Vandy struggled through the early part of the season, losing to the likes of Indiana State and Cleveland State while offering up disappointing performances down the stretch against Louisville and Xavier. It was enough that I was far from the only person ready to write this team off when they decided to go and absolutely embarrass Marquette in Milwaukee. The ‘Dores have plenty of talent — there are three first round picks on their roster — and if they can put it all together, they’ll be a contender in this league. They have that much potential.

And-1: Alabama was a top 15 team in the preseason, and they still have the pieces to be that good. But for all the defense that the Crimson Tide plays, there are times where they really struggle to score. At no time was that more evident than when the Tide lost three of four games earlier in the season. But with JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell sharing the front court and a talented group of youngsters on the perimeter, Alabama has plenty of talent to go along with their defense. The key? Hitting threes. The Tide is shooting 27.2% from deep this year.

Something left to prove: Florida

There are a lot of people out there that believe Florida is a Final Four contender. I disagree. Why? Well, its certainly not due to a lack of talent. The Gators have arguably the best perimeter attack in the country and one of the most physically imposing big men in the country in Patric Young. The issue is that they don’t take advantage of Young enough. Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton are plenty capable of putting up big scoring numbers, but far too often they settle for shooting tough, contested threes than dumping the ball into the post. Frankly, I just don’t think that Walker and Boynton are going to be consistent enough to give Billy Donovan four straight great games, which is what they need to do to make a run to the Final Four.

And-1: I am very high on Mississippi State. In fact, I think they are the second best team in the conference on paper. Arnett Moultrie has been terrific this season while Dee Bost continues to be one of the most underrated point guards in the country. Renardo Sidney is finally starting to buy in, and he is very effective as a complimentary big man. Rodney Hood and Brian Bryant are quality role players. My issue? Coaching. I don’t have much faith in Rick Stansbury as an in-game tactioner. Case in point: the way he botched the final possession against Baylor.

Player of the Year: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky

MKG has been the best player on Kentucky this season. How many people saw that coming? He is a hard worker, he defends, he rebounds and he can score in a variety of different ways. He sets a tone for this team, providing the kind of junkyard dog mentality that every team needs. Its not often that a blue-collar player is the best player on a team, but that is MKG to a T.

All-Conference Team:

POY: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky
G: Kenny Boynton, Florida
G: John Jenkins, Vanderbilt
F: Tony Mitchell, Alabama
F: Arnett Moultrie, Mississippi State
C: Anthony Davis, Kentucky

Power Rankings:

1. Kentucky
2. Florida
3. Mississippi State
4. Alabama
5. Vanderbilt
6. LSU
7. Georgia
8. Tennessee
9. Arkansas
10. Ole Miss
11. Auburn
12. South Carolina

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.