Twelve round of 32, Sweet 16 match-ups we crave

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The NCAA tournament is the greatest event in the modern sports calendar. Other postseasons, from the professional ranks to the BCS, are facile when compared to the NCAAs, a tournament with a level of complexity unseen in any other championship setting. Not only do teams have to prep for their first-round opponent, they also have to additionally gameplan for the two teams they may face should they win, contests that happen as short as 48 hours in the future.

Save the 16-1 games, it is hard to predict the other 63 outcomes. While we love those first round games, and have highlighted which ones have attained ‘must see’ status, here are twelve round of 32 and Sweet 16 match-ups we hope materialize in the coming weeks.

MORE: The Dummy’s Guide to filling out a bracket

ROUND OF 32

The winner of No. 5 VCU/No. 12 Stephen F. Austin vs. the winner of No. 4 UCLA/No. 13 Tulsa — South — March 23

This is a great pod, including one squad contending for this year’s ‘Florida Gulf Coast’ distinction (Stephen F. Austin), three teams that like to run (Tulsa, UCLA, and VCU all use 68-plus possessions), and an offense (the Bruins) which thoroughly embarrassed the nation’s stingiest defense. All four programs also sport defensive turnover rates that rank within Ken Pomeroy’s top fifty, and whichever two teams advance to the second round game will engage in an up-tempo, steal-laden affair, so we humbly beseech the assigned officiating crew to swallow their whistles and let those two teams play.

No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 10 Saint Joseph’s — East — March 22

When Villanova traveled roughly seven miles to play Saint Joseph’s in early December, the game’s final score, a 30-point thumping by the Wildcats, gave little indication both teams might meet again in the postseason. However, St. Joe’s is brimming with offensive confidence following their Atlantic 10 tournament title. Langston Galloway (57.5 percent from three during the conference tournament) and Halil Kanacevic (back-to-back double doubles against St. Bonaventure and VCU) are carrying a team that is finally living up to the potential expected of the Hawks a year ago, and freshman DeAndre Bembry could be one of the tournament’s breakout stars. This game could be a classic Big Fiv … er … tourney tilt.

PREVIEWS: East Region | South Region | Midwest Region | West Region

No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 7 New Mexico — South — March 23

Sure, everyone is waiting for New Mexico to again break hearts and exit the tournament early for the second straight season, but UNM has a massive chip on its collective shoulder this year. New Mexico was comically underseeded — apparently beating San Diego State twice (including in the Mountain West title game) and Cincinnati during non-conference play was insignificant to the selection committee — and has one league player of the year (Kendal Williams, 16.4 ppg) and one player of the year snub (Cameron Bairstow, 20.3 ppg). Similarly to last year’s team, UNM continues to relish paint touches, but the current Lobo iteration actually makes those interior looks (51.8 percent, as opposed to 46.1 in 2013). It is unclear whether Kansas big Joel Embiid (8.1 rpg, 2.6 bpg) has recovered from his back injury and will play, a development that could drastically hamper KU’s efforts. While Kansas’ efficiency ratings haven’t budged much without the freshman center, opponents are grabbing 69 percent of KU’s misses (up from 62 percent with Embiid in Big 12 play) and the Jayhawks still struggle to defend without fouling.

No. 1 Arizona vs. the winner of No. 8 Gonzaga/No. 9 Oklahoma State — West — March 23

It is too difficult to pick which match-up we’d like to see more, so we’ll describe both! Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart (17.8 ppg) is in the midst of playing himself back into the hearts of NBA GMs, and a strong showing against the Wildcats could springboard Smart into consideration for a lottery pick. Gonzaga, and particularly its bigs, presents defensive problems for Arizona. Sam Dower (15 ppg, 7.1 rpg) thrives on pick and pop jumpers, and consistently knocks down twos from 10 to 15 feet out, an ability which should create halfcourt spacing for Zaga’s talented guards. The head-to-head potential for TJ McConnnell (Arizona) and Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga) would also be a highlight of a Zona-Zags match-up.

No. 3 Creighton vs. No. 6 Baylor — West — March 23

Baylor recovered from a midseason swoon — the Bears lost two of eight over the course of a month — to reach the Big 12 tournament final, and as neither team plays much defense, this game would be decided by whichever squad scores more points. Baylor’s defense enabled conference opponents to score 1.08 points per possessions, likely the worst defensive efficiency rate of any power six conference at-large team, and though Creighton’s Doug McDermott (26.9 ppg) still needs 500 or so points to catch career scoring leader Pete Maravich, he might come close to the record while playing the Bears. Teams dependent on three-point production typically do very well against Baylor — Scott Drew’s squad allows league opponents to convert nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc — and the Bluejays might also set some shooting records in San Antonio. Kenny Cherry is key for Baylor — the guard, and his 35 percent assist rate (ranked eighteenth nationally), is extremely underrated.

MORE: 8 teams that can win it all | TV times | Bracket contest

No. 3 Syracuse vs. No. 6 Ohio State — South — March 22

Both Ohio State and Syracuse are in dire need of redemption. At certain points of the season, the two programs were considered shoo-ins for the Final Four, and now both have many question marks. Since the Cuse started the year with a 25-0 record, they have lost four of six (which doesn’t include their opening ACC tournament loss), but the presence of freshman Tyler Ennis (12.7 ppg, 5.6 apg) and C.J. Fair (16.7 ppg) cannot be discounted. The Buckeyes nearly made the Big Ten tournament final, and appear to have righted themselves, but how far can a stellar defense carry a suspect offense? Even if this game is decided well before the final buzzer, the match-up of Aaron Craft against Ennis will be satisfying.

No. 3 Iowa State vs. No. 6 North Carolina — East — March 23

Fans of fast-breaks — which, aren’t we all? — will love this pairing. The Cyclones and Tar Heels are listed thirteenth and eighteenth, respectively, in Pomeroy’s tempo rankings, and we again hope the officiating crew lets this contest play out. As expected for two teams that each use more than 70 possessions per game, both are led by stellar backcourts, including UNC’s Marcus Paige, a 6-foot-1 guard who takes an equal amount of twos (49 percent of his 200 attempts) and threes (39.1 percent of his 202 attempts), and DeAndre Kane, a Cyclones guard who plays basketball like a running back, ping-ponging off defenders until finishing at the rim.

No. 4 San Diego State vs. No. 12 North Dakota State — West — March 22

Of all the NBA prospects in this year’s tournament field, North Dakota State’s Taylor Braun is the most interesting. The 6-foot-7 forward is the prototypical stretch-4, primarily operating within the arc (51 percent from two) but possessing the capability to convert from the perimeter (42.2 percent from deep). Since San Diego State is one of the tourney’s stingiest teams, how Braun fares against a defense which easily handcuffs an opposing player’s scoring will be closely monitored.

SWEET 16

No. 1 Wichita State vs. No. 4 Louisville — Midwest

It is universally agreed that Wichita State received the toughest draw of any number one seed in recent memory, and it isn’t a foregone conclusion that the Shockers will even reach the second weekend, but if Gregg Marshall’s squad does face Louisville, the rematch of last year’s Final Four will be entertaining. This is a much stronger Shocker squad — Fred VanVleet (5.3 apg) is a pass-first point guard propelling a more offensively efficient team (1.15 PPP, as compared to 1.07 in 2013) — and one used to the Cardinals’ trademark defensive intensity. Louisville shouldn’t have been a top seed, but like New Mexico, UL was unfairly underseeded. The improved play from Montrezl Harrell (61.4 percent from two), Luke Hancock (32 percent from three since February 1st), and the continued stellar offensive performance from Russ Smith (52 percent from two, 41 percent from three, and an assist rate of 32 percent) could prove a challenging match-up for WSU’s grinding and physical defense.

No. 1 Florida vs. No. 4 UCLA — South

Much like the Pac-12 final, this contest would pair a top-rated defense against an otherworldly offense. UCLA’s Kyle Anderson (14.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg) has proven to be arguably the nation’s most challenging cover, but Florida coach Billy Donovan has numerous options at his disposal to blank Anderson, including the uber-athletic Casey Prather and Michael Frazier II.

No. 3 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan — Midwest
A rematch from earlier this season, Duke was able to easily dispatch the Wolverines and their ridiculously efficient offense. However, UM has made some subtle tweaks to further offensive production — for starters, Nik Stauskas (17.5 ppg) has left the corner and now plays more on the ball; Caris LeVert, the team’s best iso option, now attempts the third highest percentage of shots — and despite their performance in the Big Ten tournament final, reprising this non-conference tilt could result in a Sweet 16 classic.

No 1. Arizona vs. No. 4 San Diego State — West

Highly ranked defenses combined with world class athletes who thrive both in transition and in the halfcourt. This game fills all the requirements for a GOAT Sweet 16 match-up. The defining match-up could be SDSU’s Josh Davis against the Wildcats’ frontcourt. Davis went from severely underrated at Tulane to now the Aztecs’ interior anchor, so while his efficiency has slipped (which isn’t a knock on Davis — he just gets fewer touches than he did at Tulane), his ability to battle with Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon will help deflect defensive pressure and haul in crucial additional possessions.

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.