Seven Takeaways from Pittsburgh Jam Fest

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PITTBURGH, Pa. — There was only one live period in the spring this year, making last weekend all the more important for college coaches and the recruits that want to play for them. Here are seven takeaways from a weekend at the Hoop Group’s Pittsburgh Jam Fest:

1. Athleticism gets you noticed, but it only gets you so far: Seventh Woods (No. 5 in Rivals’ Class of 2016) and Derrick Jones (No. 25 in Rivals’ Class of 2015) are two of the most explosive athletes that you’ll ever see at the high school level. Jones’ exploits in layup lines drew bigger crowds than any game this weekend. And Woods? Well, he’s this guy.

The problem comes when a player relies strictly on his athletic ability to get by. That works at a younger age against lesser competition, but as the competition gets better, simply running past or jumping over defenders isn’t as simple. That’s part of what frustrated people watching Woods and Jones this weekend. Woods is naturally a scoring guard. He’s at his best when he’s trying to beat people off the dribble, attacking the rim, drawing fouls. He needs to be aggressive to be effective, and he spent much of the weekend trying to prove that he’s a point guard by … playing passive? He settled for jumpers and opted to distribute the ball around the perimeter instead of trying to break down defenses, which wouldn’t have been a terrible thing if he didn’t turn the ball over so much or struggle with his perimeter shot.

I get it. He’s just a sophomore. It’s a learning process, and he’s still learning how to play a different role. He’s still got a ways to go.

As far as Jones is concerned, he’s a defensive playmaker and a threat on the offensive glass that hasn’t gotten much better offensively. He still needs to improve his handle. He still needs to add weight and strength. He’s still a liability as a jump shooter. His ceiling will land him at a marquee program, but he’s got a long way to go before he’s an impact player at the high-major level.

2. MJ Walker was the best prospect at Pitt Jam Fest: Want to know what kind of physical specimen Walker is? He’s still a freshman in high school (Class of 2017) and hasn’t played football since 2011, yet when word spread that he would be suiting up with his Jonesboro HS (Ga.) team next season, Clemson and Miami offered him scholarships sight unseen.

That’s not all. The 6-foot-4 shooting guard led his high school basketball team to the Georgia 4A state title this past season. His strength and athleticism are despite his age, and his game is more well-rounded that you would expect from a player that only completed his freshman season. He can handle the ball, he can attack the basket, he’s got range on his jumper, he’s willing to get after it defensively. And high majors are only now starting to take notice. Auburn is the only school that’s offered him, but Ohio State and Iowa State are starting to show serious interest.

Walker told NBCSports.com his goal for the summer is to get an invite to the U-16 Team USA event this summer.

3. New Heights’ Mike Nzei and Dupree McBrayer were the two best Class of 2014 players at the event: McBrayer was lights out over the course of the first two days. The 6-foot-3 lefty combo-guard showed off a knack for being able to get into the paint and knocked down perimeter jumpers more consistently than he has in the past, but he’s primarily a scorer that can spend too much time dominating the ball and strongly favors going left. McBrayer holds a number of low- to mid-major offers in the Class of 2014, but he told NBCSports.com that he’s going to prep school. He wants to go high-major, and even claimed an offer from Seton Hall.

“What I need to do is put on some strength and strength my right hand,” he said.

Nzei is an interesting prospect in that he’s an active and athletic 6-foot-8 forward that showed off a nice perimeter touch this weekend. He holds offers from Iowa and St. Joseph’s, among others.

4. Pitt is doing everything they can to keep Moustapha Heron’s commitment: Heron was arguably the MVP of the New Heights team that won the 17u title, which certainly made Pitt fans that were in attendance giddy. Heron, the No. 19 player in the Class of 2016, committed to the Panthers last fall. But there’s a catch: Heron was recruited by Barry ‘Slice’ Rohrssen, and Slice has since taken a job at Kentucky. Pitt had an assistant tailing him all weekend and came full staff on Sunday. “Family-wise, we had a real close tie to [Slice],” Heron told NBCSports.com. “Right now, we’re just working on building a good relationship with Coach Dixon.”

Heron is a powerful, 6-foot-5 guard that butters his bread attacking the rim off the dribble. He’ll need to develop his handle and his perimeter stroke for the next level.

5. Dewan Huell or Juwan Durham?: Team Breakdown’s 16s has the best kind of problem: two top 50 recruits in their front court. Juwan Durham is the more highly-regarded of the pair — he’s a bit taller and longer and more athletic — but Huell’s more physical and more aggressive around the rim. He outplayed another top 25 forward, Justin Jackson of Findlay Prep, on Sunday morning.

6. Keep an eye on Danjel Puriefoy: Tevin Mack was the best scorer in Pittsburgh this weekend — we wrote about him here — but Puriefoy might have been the best wing at the event. He’s 6-foot-7, powerful and athletic, making him tough to keep out of the paint, but he’s got a knack for being able to create offense for his teammates. He needs to add some range on his shot, but he reminded me a bit of Pitt’s Lamar Patterson, the senior season version.

7. Mike Watkins will be a player for Penn State: Watkins is still learning how to be a basketball player and not just an athlete, but his athleticism and effort level on the glass and the defensive end will make him a capable Big Ten post presence for four years. He’s currently ranked 123rd in the Class of 2015.

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.