Belmont’s struggling, but it can win a tourney game

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NASHVILLE, Tenn – Belmont’s chances of getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament died a long time ago. If it wasn’t when the Bruins came up short in their upset bids at Duke and at Memphis, then it was when they had a stretch of three losses in four games against the likes of Marshall, Miami OH and Middle Tennessee State.

When you play in a conference like the Atlantic Sun, you can’t lose three games to teams that have no shot of getting an at-large bid and still expect the committee to call your name come Selection Sunday without your league’s auto-bid. You just can’t.

But that doesn’t mean that the Bruins are incapable of winning a game in the NCAA Tournament. It doesn’t mean that they have no shot of making it to the second weekend, something that a lot of folks had speculated was possible back in October. And while losing to Lipscomb at the Curb Center after blowing a 12 point lead in the final 12 minutes is going to sting, it certainly doesn’t alter the talent level on this team.

As the saying goes, in a rivalry game, you can throw the records out.

“I felt that the team that wanted to win, and played the hardest, won the game tonight,” Belmont head coach Rick Byrd said after the game. “Their kids deserve a great deal of credit. They made hustle plays. They got loose balls, offensive rebounds, and long rebounds. I told our team that the team that plays hard, the breaks seem to fall their way.”

“This was an upset, based on where the teams were at the time, and how they’ve played to this point, but they outplayed us and deserved to win.”

Frankly, Byrd is probably right when he calls this game an upset.

Coming in, Lipscomb was 6-9 on the season and 2-2 in conference play. They had lost five of their last six games, including a 21 point drubbing at North Florida on Wednesday, and while this was technically a road game for the Bison, it was the first time they had played a game in Nashville in exactly one month to the day.

It was also the best game that Lipscomb has played all season long. The Bison put six players in double figures, led by 17 points from Jacob Arnett, 16 points from Jordan Burgason and the best all-around performance of Justin Glenn’s career — 14 points on 5-6 shooting, 10 boards, six assists, five blocks and four steals.

It was Arnett and freshman Deonte Alexander who sparked a 28-6 Lipscomb run to close the game. Alexander, in particular, had a big finish to the game, scoring eight points in a four minute span that included a banked-in 28 footer that gave Lipscomb their first lead of the second half with 3:53 left in the game.

“He told me he called it,” Lipscomb coach Scott Sanderson said after the game, which Alexander, who gave the rowdy Belmont student section the double three-goggles as he hopped back down court, immediately confirmed: “I did.”

As well as Lipscomb played, this was a bit of a fluky loss for the Bruins. Outside of Ian Clark — who was simply outstanding, finishing with 28 points (including seven threes), six boards and five assists — no one on Belmont played well. Their front line of Scott Saunders and Mick Hedgepeth got out-muscled by the burly Justin Glenn, finishing with a combined 11 points and nine points. They came in averaging 19.3 ppg and 12.0 rpg combined.

“They were collapsing on them as soon as they caught it, so we had to hope to get some in and out scoring,” Byrd said. “When we’ve got Mick out there, his man would double, and we didn’t take advantage of that with him cutting to the basket like we could have.”

And while I’m sure Glenn would love for me to give all of the credit for those struggles to his play defensively, the fact of the matter is that Lipscomb’s game-plan had just as much to do with that performance as anything. Every single time that Hedgepeth and Saunders touched the ball on the block, they got double-teamed. Neither of them would get put in the same sentence as, say, Chris Webber for their ability to find open teammates out of the post, but both Hedgepeth and Saunders are certainly capable of recognizing and finding the open man.

They did a solid job of that on Friday night as well.

The problem?

No one on Belmont’s perimeter was able to finish the open opportunities they got as a result of that ball-movement. JJ Mann was 4-14 from the floor and 2-11 from three. Kerron Johnson, who is one of the more exciting point guards in the country to watch, was 4-15 from the floor and 0-5 from three. In fact, if you take away the 8-15 that Clark shot and the 7-11 that he made from beyond the arc, the Bruins made just 6-25 from deep and shot a frigid 35.3% from the floor.

For Johnson, the struggles were more than just his ability to shoot the ball. Byrd gives him a long leash when it comes to attacking the basket, and deservedly so. Johnson is quick as lightening, left-handed and capable of finishing over bigger defenders in the paint. That’s a good combination for a point guard to be. But on Friday, he overpenetrated, he threw the ball away and he missed far too many open looks from the perimeter. More importantly, he played poorly defensively. After Alexander banked in the three to take the lead, Johnson missed shots on the next two possessions while getting beat on the same play — a UCLA cut for a layup — twice.

You simply are not going to see Johnson play that way too often.

And you are not going to see Belmont get the kind of performance they got out of Hedgepeth, Saunders, Johnson and Mann too often.

But there was more to this loss than simply an off-night. In fact, there are a couple of issues with this Belmont team that seem to be chronically plaguing them this year.

The biggest issue may actually be the loss of Jon House. House wasn’t a big scorer (just 5.3 ppg in 19.0 mpg), but he was Belmont’s glue-guy. He was the guy that guarded their best wing player and the guy that dove on the floor and got that key loose ball and the guy that set a screen to free a shooter. He did the things that don’t show up in the box score that help a team win, and Belmont hasn’t found someone to effectively fill that role yet.

The other issue is that sophomore JJ Mann hasn’t been able to fill Jordan Campbell’s shoes. Campbell shot 46.8% from three as a senior. He didn’t miss. Neither does Clark, and when you have Johnson penetrating with two shooters on the wings that defenders absolutely cannot leave, well, that’s a good thing. Mann has improved on the 32.7% he shot as a freshman, but he’s far too streaky with his jump shot. When he gets it going, he can make four or five in a row. But when he’s off, you see games like Friday. And he’s had too many games like Friday of late.

The Bruins have not been playing the same level of defense that they did last season, either. Their pressure forced a ton of turnovers that led to easy layups and open threes last season, and Belmont isn’t getting those same opportunities this season.

Belmont still has the pieces to win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament. They have a front line that is big enough to hang with a high-major team. They have a talented, play-making point guard and a big-time scorer on the wing. They have depth. They are very well-coached and, for the most part, they usually understand how to run their offense and execute defensively.

But they simply cannot have the defensive lapses and lose their composure they way they did on Friday.

Because every loss right now affects where Belmont will be seeded should they win the Atlantic Sun’s automatic bid.

Belmont as a 12 seed will be a trendy pick to pull off an upset.

Belmont as a 15 seed is simply first round chum for a UConn or a Baylor.

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.