Recruiting rundown: San Diego St. adds to stockpile; Nerlens Noel, Shabazz Muhammad set visits

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There’s little doubt that the San Diego State men’s basketball program is running on all gears right now. They’ve been extremely successful in what was expected to be a down season, and have talent waiting in the wings for next year in the form of two high-major transfer forwards in J.J. O’Brien (Utah) and Dwayne Polee (St. John’s). The Aztecs have also struck gold on the recruiting trail, as they now have their third, and best, pledge for the 2012 class in 6-8 forward Winston Shepard of Findlay Prep (Nev.).

Shepard was previously one of only a handful of top-100 players left still on the table, and has steadily been working his way up the player rankings charts with his play for the national No. 2 ranked high school basketball team, Findlay Prep. He’s a Texas native who was well-known for his defensive prowess, slashing offensive game and overall energy as a sidekick to Shabazz Muhammad on the AAU circuit, playing for the loaded Dream Vision team that also featured players bound to Boston College, Colorado, Kansas State and UNLV. Among that cast of stars, Shepard stood out at times with his long frame and game-changing potential.

The skill and talent levels aren’t entirely comparable, but the fairest comparison to Shepard’s overall game in the college ranks could Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky’s touted freshman forward. Shepard, like Kidd-Gilchrist, lacks a reliable outside shot, but brings tremendous intangibles, and plays to win at all times. Both show defensive prowess that isn’t seen in every elite prospect.

Shepard’s recruitment looked in the summer like it would come down to current Mountain West rivals San Diego State, UNLV and New Mexico, but as of late, St. John’s, Connecticut and Oklahoma State were among the schools that jumped in the picture with scholarship offers. Still, San Diego State did a tremendous job in Shepard’s recruitment, and won out over some bigger “name” schools.

While Shepard is clearly a gem, the Aztecs previously signed two other excellent prospects from Southern California. Local wing forward Matt Shrigley should be a multi-year starter with his combination of bounce and skill, and many recruiting analysts are scratching their heads regarding the lack of Pac-12 offers to 6-9 center Skylar Spencer, who is expected to be a major factor down the road at San Diego State. Additionally, the Aztecs landed an under-the-radar transfer from Virginia, forward James Johnson, who could benefit with a year to develop following his change of colleges.

While the Big West isn’t the most lauded college basketball conference, there’s sure to be many schools taking their aim at San Diego State when the Aztecs become basketball members. With the talent that coach Steve Fisher and his staff have amassed, though, it’s easy to image a basketball dynasty in the making near the shores of the Pacific Ocean on San Diego State’s sunny campus, especially if they continue their recent recruiting successes.

Heads of the class take trips

The top dogs in the 2012 class, 6-6 wing Shabazz Muhammad of Bishop Gorman (Nev), and 6-10 Nerlens Noel of Tilton School (N.H.) are fitting in travel to their prospective college campuses, as their high school seasons wind down. Muhammad is expected to be at Kansas, as the Jayhawks prepare for what should be an epic tilt with Missouri this weekend, while Noel made his way to Syracuse and Kentucky in recent weeks.

Muhammad, the top prospect in the 2012 class until Noel recently reclassified, has taken official trips to Texas A&M and Kentucky, and is also expected to trek to Duke to be on scene for their tilt against North Carolina. Additionally, Muhammad is still considering, to various degrees UCLA, UNLV, USC and Arizona. He may not officially visit the schools nearest his Sin City home, as prospects are only allowed five official visits. He has been on those campuses, on unofficial visits.

Noel is not yet allowed, per NCAA regulations, to take any official visits, as his paperwork is not complete to be technically a member of the 2012 class, just yet. As a result, he is making unofficial trips on his own dime while he conducts his abbreviated recruitment. It’s no surprise that the Orange and Wildcats made up his first two visits, as those schools are expected to be the major players to land his unique, shot-blocking talent.

Still, Florida, North Carolina, Georgetown, Providence, UConn and others are attempting to make up lost ground for Noel, and work their way towards wresting him away from two elite programs in Syracuse and Kentucky.

The 2012 class is largely off the board, which puts the spotlight even brighter on Muhammad and Noel. Whichever school lands either prospect has an immediate starter for at least a year, and Kentucky fans have to be salivating as they remain on both lists. Along with 6-7 strong man forward Anthony Bennett of Findlay Prep (Nev.), only three legitimate impact players are left in the 2012 class, which makes their priority obvious for the schools in hot pursuit.

St. Mary’s recruit Cullen Neal spurns father’s school
Anyone who saw the New Mexico-based Danny Granger Hurricanes club basketball team over the summer saw two star players with deep ties to the New Mexico basketball program. Two standout 2013 guards, Bryce Alford and Cullen Neal, are the sons of Lobos coaches Steve Alford and Craig Neal. While Alford may still elect to play college at New Mexico, Neal committed last week to St. Mary’s. The move didn’t come as a shock though, as Neal was expected to blaze his own trail for college.

While he was recruited and offered scholarships to the Pac-12 level, Neal is an absolute steal and could star at St. Mary’s. He’s a rare recruit who will end up at a great fit, rather than the most prestigious sound opportunity.

Landing recruits like Neal is part of the reason for coach Randy Bennett and the Gaels continued success. At 6-3, the Eldorado (N.M.) star can play either guard slot, and sets up to be a scoring point guard in the WCC. While he won’t continue to average the 27 points per game he currently is against New Mexico high school competition, Neal could be an early and valued contributor at St. Mary’s.

Kellon Hassenstab runs Hoopniks.com. Follow him on Twitter @hoopniks.

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.