Five Final Four darkhorses

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Despite the thinking for much of the year that the NCAA tournament would be as wide-open as the regular season, many have gone with traditional powers such as Louisville, Indiana and Duke when filling out their brackets. With this college basketball season being as “unpredictable” as it has been, is there an opening for a darkhorse of sorts to get hot and get to Atlanta? Here are five candidates to keep an eye on (seed and region in parentheses).

1. Saint Louis (4-Midwest)

The Billikens, regular season and tournament champions of the Atlantic 10, are well-known by this point in the season. Armed with veterans such as guards Jordair Jett and Kwamain Mitchell and forwards Cody Ellis and Dwayne Evans Jr., interim head coach Jim Crews has the pieces needed to win multiple games in the tournament. Despite landing in the brutal Midwest region, SLU’s attention to detail and its status as one of the best defensive teams in the country (7th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, 10th in points allowed/possession) make them a tough out.

2. Wisconsin (5-West) 

Bo Ryan’s team wasn’t at it’s best down the stretch in their loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game on Sunday afternoon. But with that being said, the Badgers are capable of making a run in the West region. From an efficiency standpoint Wisconsin is similar to Saint Louis: ranked in the fifties offensively but one of the best in the nation defensively. With Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans the Badgers don’t lack for depth in the front court, and point guards Traevon Jackson and George Marshall have improved as the season’s worn on.

3. Syracuse (4-East)

Lacking confidence entering the Big East tournament, Syracuse tallied three wins in New York later and took steps towards the level of play that helped the Orange win 18 of its first 19 games. Of the five teams on this list Syracuse is the only one that ranks in the top 25 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. Plenty of teams play zone at some point or another during the year, but how many can do so with the length that Syracuse possesses? And with veterans such as C.J. Fair, James Southerland and Brandon Triche, Syracuse will be formidable in the East.

4. VCU (5-South)

Like Syracuse, VCU offers up a defensive system that will be difficult for opponents to prepare for. “Havoc” is the name of the game for Shaka Smart’s team, with the Rams being the best team in the nation when it comes to forcing turnovers. Opponents have a turnover rate of 28% and average 19.9 turnovers per game. VCU has a deep rotation with guards Darius Theus and Briante Weber spearheading their full-court pressure, and Treveon Graham leads four players in double figures with an average of 15.5 points per game.

5. Arizona (6-West)

Those three McDonald’s All-American big men haven’t played to the level many expected of them before the season began and the Wildcats struggled at time in Pac-12 play. But Sean Miller’s team doesn’t lack for talent, and in senior wings Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom and senior point guard Mark Lyons the Wildcats have tournament experience. The keys for Arizona: defending the three-pointer better than they have for much of the season (opponents shoot 36% from three) and getting consistent production from the trio of Brandon Ashley, Grant Jerrett and Kaleb Tarczewski.

Others to consider: Oklahoma State (5-Midwest); Butler (6-East). 

Tempo-neutral stats from kenpom.com

Raphielle also writes for the NBE Basketball Report and can be followed on Twitter at @raphiellej.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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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.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
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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.