New coach Kevin Ollie is Connecticut’s Optimist-in-Chief during the program’s trying times

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NEW YORK, N.Y.—When Connecticut guard Ryan Boatright received a text from teammate DeAndre Daniels telling him that the longtime coach of their program, Jim Calhoun, had decided to retire, Boatright was in disbelief.

“I thought he was kidding. We were just shocked,” Boatright recalled to NBCSports.com at Big East media day.

“Since he hurt his hip [in a bicycle accident in August] he was there every day on crutches. We thought if somebody can be dedicated enough to be there with a screw in his hip, he’s definitely coming back.”

But the day that had loomed for years had finally come, the day Calhoun would hand over the keys of the Connecticut program to a successor was here, and at Big East media day, it had finally set in.

Reporters still gathered around the Connecticut table to ask questions, with this team coming off of a berth in the NCAA tournament, but the man answering the questions on behalf of the Huskies was different.

Gone was the often stubborn, sometimes grumpy old man with the New England accent and in his place was, by comparison, a young man and former player who spoke with the eloquence and optimism of a Sunday preacher, today speaking to a congregation of non-believers.

And rightfully so were these non-believers steadfast in their attitudes, considering the mass exodus of talent from Storrs after the NCAA slapped a postseason ban on the program, compounding that with the departure of the man who had long been the face of this perennial Big East contender.

But when 39-year-old Kevin Ollie speaks, people listen. In the face of difficult questions, Ollie’s answers toe the line between cliché and perfect sense, remarkably almost always shading toward the latter.

“I don’t see obstacles, I see opportunity,” Ollie said. “It’s always been tough. I don’t see it like a lot of other people see it.

“Whether it’s seven months, seven years, or 27 years, I’m going to take it one day at a time and I’m not going to take it for granted.”

Ollie, a 13-year NBA veteran, takes over at his alma mater after serving as an assistant under Calhoun since 2010. Often seen as a player’s coach, Ollie has had to reshape his approach as the leader of the program.

“He’s always been the same person, character-wise,” Boatright said. “But his coaching style, him being in a higher position, he has more to say and demands a lot more respect from everybody.”

“My first impression of him was like, ‘Wow, this guy is super positive,’” junior guard Shabazz Napier said. “He’s all about preaching the right words and preaching the right things.

“As long as we walk through that valley together, we all should be fine. That was he always says.”

According to Napier, players had a good sense of who Calhoun’s successor would be, with Ollie as the leading candidate.

Having played at Connecticut for four years, Ollie, having secured the job, sees this as an extension of a long Husky career that Calhoun promised him more than two decades ago.

“He told me the first time I came on a recruiting visit [as a player] that I’d stay in Connecticut. I was like ‘No, I’m not,’” Ollie recalled. “Now, 22 years later, I’m still in Connecticut.”

But behind the flowery language, a number of challenges reside.

Jeremy Lamb and Andre Drummond have both move on to the NBA. Alex Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith, and Michael Bradley are all at other schools, continuing their careers.

The postseason ban had some ripple effect in recruiting, landing the Huskies New York standout Omar Calhoun, but perhaps putting a damper on a more extensive recruiting haul.

Despite all of that, leave it to Ollie, the self-identifying Husky for more than half of his life, to bring a relentless optimism, exalting the program even in its most trying times. Beyond what he can accomplish on the court in 2012-13, this may be the greatest skill that he brings to the Connecticut sideline.

“This is a special place for me,” said Ollie. “I’m always going to be a Connecticut Husky. This is the only brotherhood I know.”

Amen.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

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.