Even without Woodall, Pitt can turn this streak around

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MILWAUKEE – Pitt lost their fifth consecutive game to open Big East play on Saturday, falling to Marquette 62-57 and finding themselves as the only winless team in the league.

At this point, moral victories are meaningless for the Panthers. They need real, honest-to-god wins to start piling up if they don’t want to go down as the biggest disappointment of the 2011-2012 college basketball season. We know this. They know this. And Syracuse, who hosts the Panthers Monday night, knows this.

“They played well,” Orange head coach Jim Boeheim said after watching Pitt’s loss on Saturday. “They had a real good chance to win. They are a good team. I don’t care what their record is. They’ve got a good team. They will come in here Monday night, and they will play well. I know that.”

And he’s right.

Pitt looked like a different team on Saturday. After rolling over and playing dead in a 23 point home loss to Rutgers on Wednesday, Pitt came to fight against Marquette. They jumped out to a 13-4 lead, they battled on the glass and they got a career-high 29 points out of Ashton Gibbs. The Panthers may be on the wrong end of a six game losing streak, but this is still a team with a winning mentality and culture. Putting up a good fight on the road isn’t enough; they expect to win those games.

“The losses are more than we’ve ever had,” Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon said after the game. “Our kids are very disappointed because they played hard. They played well. They just didn’t play well enough to win.”

Pitt may not want to hear about moral victories, but I absolutely took something out of their performance: this team isn’t ready to quit on their season. Gibbs and Nasir Robinson aren’t ready to call it a career. The Panthers are going to be a tough out the rest of the way, at least as long as they still have a chance to take part in the postseason.

The problem is that the Panthers are flawed right now, and those flaws are neither a secret nor permanent. In fact, I can tell you how Pitt can turn their season back around, and I only need two words to do it: Tray Woodall.

Its that simple.

Look, Pitt has never been a great defensive basketball team under Dixon. They’ve been good — really good at times — but not elite. That fact has been magnified this season, but its not like the Panthers have been getting blown out. Four of their seven losses are by five points are less. The loss to Rutgers was the result of a horrendous shooting night and a game that the Panthers quit on. Pitt’s defense has been good enough to give them a chance to win.

“We’re not used to this,” Dixon said. “We lost to some good teams, but we’ve had chances to win.”

Turnovers are what cost Pitt the game against Marquette. There’s no way around it. They turned the ball over 17 times in the game. Robinson had seven of them. Without Woodall in the lineup, Robinson has been forced to try and become more of a primary playmaker and that’s simply not what he does best. He’s a great role player and a terrific complimentary option. He’s not a go-to guy.

Lamar Patterson was an even bigger scapegoat. He had four turnovers on the game, but all four of them came in a six possession span in the middle of the second half. Marquette threw on a press and Patterson lost the ability to throw the ball to his teammates. It only took two minutes for the Golden Eagles to turn a 41-36 deficit into a 49-41 lead.

Would that have happened if Woodall had the ball in his hands in Pitt’s press break?

“Turnovers have been a problem,” Dixon said. “We’ve tried to get better at it. Those really cost us.”

The problem with that line of thinking?

Its like saying if I looked like Leonardo di Caprio I would be able to dump Giselle for Blake Lively.

Pitt doesn’t have Woodall. They don’t know when they are going to be getting him back, and while he sits on the bench in street clothes, the Panthers are going to have to do something to try and figure out a way to get their season turned around.

“We definitely miss him, but playing without him, we could definitely win some games without him,” Gibbs said. “He definitely helps us on the court, but he’s not there. We can win some games without him. Isaiah [Epps is] doing a great job, he showed that today. I think we found our lineup, now its just about doing little things to win games, and that is not turning the ball over and rebounding.”

Against Syracuse, Pitt is going to miss Woodall’s playmaking. To compensate, they are going to need both Robinson and Patterson to play much better than they did against Marquette. You beat the Syracuse zone by getting the ball to a playmaker at the high post, either via the pass or the dribble. Without Woodall, that playmaker becomes Robinson or Patterson. They are both capable of finding open teammates, and they are going to have to if the Panthers want to beat that Syracuse zone.

“Its definitely a possibility of beating them, we were right here with Marquette, who is one of the best teams in the league,” Gibbs said. “But we can’t turn the ball over.”

The bottom line is this: even with Woodall in the lineup, Pitt is not as good as their preseason rankings. But without Woodall, they are not as bad as they have been the past month. The Panthers are going to turn this thing around and start winning some basketball games.

But that only happens if they spend the rest of the season playing with the effort they did against Marquette, not Rutgers.

“I liked how we played,” Dixon said. “We did some really good things. I’m proud of how hard we played but we didn’t get it done.”

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

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

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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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

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

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.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.