Cullen Neal snaps out of his slump as New Mexico beats Marquette

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LAS VEGAS, Nev. — On a night that saw leading scorers Alex Kirk and Kendall Williams held in check, New Mexico received valuable contributions from a freshman guard and a senior forward. And thanks to those two players the preseason favorite to win the Mountain West picked up a needed non-conference victory for its resume.

Cullen Neal pumped in a career-high 24 points, with 11 coming in the first half with the other key Lobos struggling to get going offensively, and Cameron Bairstow added 20 to go along with ten rebounds and five assists as the Lobos defeated Marquette 75-68. To say the least this is an important result for New Mexico as the Lobos were coming off of a disappointing home loss to rival New Mexico State, a game in which the Lobos failed to make a single three-pointer.

Neal knocked down six of his eight attempts against Marquette with Williams (12 points) making three, an important development for a team that entered the game shooting a Mountain West-worst 29.5% from deep. While the Lobos were still a top 50 team in regards to adjusted offensive efficiency in spite of their three-point woes, they have to hit those shots in order to keep defenses honest and open things up for their talented interior tandem.

“In the losses we’ve had when one of us [he, Kirk and Williams] doesn’t score well or two of us don’t score well that’s when we really struggle offensively,” noted Bairstow. “It was really reassuring tonight to see that guys were able to step up and make shots because me and Alex were double-teamed the whole game, and we really needed people to step up and make shots.”

The question moving forward is one that is asked of any freshman: can Neal get to the point where he’s knocking down those shots on a consistent basis? In the five games prior he shot a combined 5-for-24 from the field and scored 19 points. With Kirk limited to just three points by Marquette, New Mexico needed Neal’s scoring.

“Cullen was tremendous tonight,” New Mexico head coach Craig Neal said after the win. “He played exactly how I thought he could play, and I always thought he could do this. His teammates made a lot of great passes to him and he shot open shots and made good plays.”

Bairstow’s output is essentially a given at this point, and he’s one of the best front court players in the Mountain West. But if New Mexico is to win another Mountain West championship it will take contributions from players such as Neal and Deshawn Delaney (ten points, ten rebounds). Delaney, starting in place of the injured Hugh Greenwood, tallied a double-double in his first start at New Mexico and like Neal he’ll be an important piece moving forward.

“I think that he’s a guy we always expected to play like that,” the elder Neal said of Delaney. “I think we’ve been getting him into the flow of things, and trying to figure some things out in the offensive schemes and the defensive schemes.”

The senior trio of Williams, Kirk and Bairstow will be expected to lead the way for New Mexico, but it takes more than three players to win a championship. Without one of their starters New Mexico was able to pick up a needed resume-builder, and Cullen Neal snapping out of his shooting slump was a big reason why.

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.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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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.