Tournament’s first weekend shows you cannot script March

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As fun as an unpredictable NCAA Tournament can be for fans watching from home, it can make media people sweat – or at least draw criticism via social media – when a string of upsets make them look bad.

In the first weekend of the tournament there were a number of shocking results. Results that, when you  look back at the trends of both the winning and losing teams, you just shake your head and wonder why a career performance or off shooting night had to occur when money, maybe even a sliver of your reputation, were on the line.

Norfolk State and Lehigh? I’m not even going to try and quantify why those games played out the way they did, chalk both of those up to a bit of a bad-matchup for Missouri, a slightly soft Duke team, and an incredible effort from both.

There were, however, some interesting statistical anomalies that are worth noting from the weekend. Stuff that, frankly, you wouldn’t even write into a dramatic screenplay.

Basically, the following information can be used as excuses for that busted bracket you just threw into the trash.

UNC Asheville

What if I told you that before the Bulldogs tipped off against Syracuse, that their leading scorer Matt Dickey would shoot a not-so-robust 1-13 from the floor?

Blow-out, right?

Well, even though UNC – Asheville did have five players average in double figures this season, Dickey was essentially a no-show even though his team nearly pulled off the most improbable upset in NCAA Tournament history.

The fifth highest scoring team in the country this season, UNC – Asheville scored well below their 80.5 a game average against the Orange, but stuck around to give Jim Boeheim a real scare.

This might have been one of the greatest moral victories in the history of the tournament.

Cincinnati 

One of the worst free throw shooting teams in the country, Mick Cronin’s club shot an impressive 19-23 from the charity stripe in their third-round game against Florida State, upsetting third-seeded Seminoles and providing the only shake-up in the East Region.

It was by far their best performance from the line all season; a slap in the face to anyone bracketologist who refused to advance this team to the second weekend of the tournament based on their foul shooting all season.

Had UC not shot well from the line? There would probably instead be only three teams from Ohio headed to the Sweet 16. Instead there are four, and we’re going to hear all about that this week.

Colorado

The Buffaloes best non-conference victory this season was against Georgia…by two points. They were the worst ranked BCS-conference team on KenPom.com, and were a program that had not won an NCAA Tournament game since 1997.

So how they heck did they beat UNLV?

Well, to be fair, the Rebels were just ice cold for most of that game. As a team that attempted nearly 800 three-pointers this season – and made 36 percent of them – going 9-36 will hurt you.

“Our shooters felt comfortable. Everybody felt comfortable. We just didn’t make shots and they did,” guard Anthony Marshall told the media after the game.

Conversely, the Buffs turned the ball over  a season-high 23 times, but had their own season high 7-12 from beyond the arc.

Sometimes that’s not a result of great defense, just good luck.

North Carolina State

They were the last at-large team unveiled during Selection Sunday, and many people (including me) didn’t believe they belonged.

Now, here they are  in the Sweet 16 in year one of the Mark Gottfried regime.

Let’s be honest: the Wolfpack didn’t really beat anybody in the regular season. The only reason they’re here isn’t because they didn’t really lose to anybody, but now they’ve beaten two teams seeded ahead of them.

Against the Aztecs, NC State had their best shooting performance against anyone of significance this season, going 31-53 from the floor against a team that regularly held opponents under 40 percent.

Yesterday against the Hoyas, the Wolfpack, well, they shut down Henry Sims, among other thing. The senior fouled out in just 21 minutes of play, with a season low four points and three rebounds.

Who would have thought that could happen from an average defensive team?

VCU 

Wichita State gave us their worst offensive game of the season. OK so that stinks for them, but was it due to stifling defense from the Rams?

Probably, but the Rams weren’t very efficient on offense themselves.

Coming into the tournament, the Shockers were 14-1 when holding their opponents under one-point-per-possession, and the Rams were an average offensive team. In Thursday’s game, both teams score under one PPP.

A minor detail, sure, but for a higher seed to do what they needed to do defensively and not get it done is rare.

Hats off to the Rams, who came up just short against Indiana in their next game.

Wisconsin

Although I thought the Badgers were ripe for an upset against Montana, Bo Ryan continued this program’s tournament success, grabbing a win (they’re also in the Sweet 16) for the 10th time in 11 years.

The win shouldn’t surprise you too much, but how Bucky advanced past the Grizzlies may. A nine-point favorite, Wisconsin’s 24-point victory was the largest margin against the spread in the second round of this tournament, due primarily because it was their best all-around shooting performance in about a month (that Ron Wilson flurry in the Big Ten Tournament notwithstanding).

With the Big Sky’s Defensive Player of the Year Will Cherry in foul trouble early, the court was wide open for Jordan Taylor, as he led the Badgers to their best first half offensive performance since Christmas.

For Cherry, it was arguably his worst game of the season, as he was limited defensively and finished with just nine points on 3-14 shooting.

Had he given us at least an average game, it could have made a big difference here.

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

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

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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.