Behind Thompson and Comer, Dunk City looks to take flight once again this March

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Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

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Bernard Thompson received an alert from his phone on a Friday afternoon.

It was March 21, and the message was from the SportsCenter app, informing him that Mercer had defeated Duke, 78-71, on the second day of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Thompson, the all-Atlantic Sun guard from Florida-Gulf Coast, had elected not to watch the game after Mercer had dashed his team’s hopes of a return trip to the NCAA tournament by winning the A-Sun title on Florida Gulf Coast’s home floor 13 days earlier.

Moments after the monumental upset over the Blue Devils, Mercer cemented itself as the tournament darlings. Reserve guard Kevin Canevari did the Nae-Nae dance, head coach Bob Hoffman had an epic post-game interview and Coach K stopped by the Mercer locker room to personally congratulate the team.

The roles had been reserved for the two rival A-Sun programs. In 2013, Florida Gulf Coast went on the road and topped Mercer in the conference championship game before becoming the first No. 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16. The Eagles’ high-flying offense made them overnight sensations, being labeled forever as “Dunk City” (coined by a certain college basketball website).

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Chase Fieler has graduated, Eric McKnight and Dajuan Graf have both transferred and Filip Cvjeticanin is out for the season after undergoing back surgery, leaving the heralded senior back court of Thompson and Brett Comer as the only members from that 2013 Cinderella run on the FGCU roster this season. Despite a mostly new supporting cast, the original Dunk City duo is looking to put FGCU back in the national spotlight this March.

“I think the dynamics had changed a little. We went from a team that was really always an underdog and now the pressure had shifted. Now we were a team that had won the league,” second-year head coach Joe Dooley told NBCSports.com. “I think the experience of us having gone through that will help us this year.

“At our level it’s hard because it’s usual a single-bid league. The guys understand that trying to prepare to win the regular season in our league gives us the best change to play at home (in the conference tournament), but you can’t take anything for granted.”

Thompson, Comer and the rest of the FGCU program were fueled in the offseason workouts by the missed opportunity, understanding that a slow first half against Mercer, in which they spotted the Bears a 16-point halftime lead, meant the difference between the NCAA tournament and the NIT. Thompson, Comer and Jamail Jones, the third returning starter, give FGCU an experienced perimeter attack, but it’s the addition of the newcomers that should continue to make it an exciting brand of basketball to watch.

“I think this is going to be the most skilled team that’s been here,” Comer said. “Talent-wise it’s amazing here.”

In a league that’s thinned out as Mercer and East Tennessee State both defected for the Southern Conference, leaving the A-Sun with only eight teams, Florida Gulf Coast has stockpiled pieces around its three returning starters. Whether it be the playing style or the fact that the team’s home court, Alico Arena, is less than a mile away from the beach, Florida Gulf Coast has been a consistent landing spot for high-major transfers. Half of the roster began their college careers elsewhere before arriving in Fort Myers.

Jones (Marquette) and Nate Hicks (Georgia Tech) made their contributions last season as transfers. This year, Julian DeBose (Rice) and Brian Greene Jr. (Auburn) add depth to the perimeter. A trio of big men — all 6-foot-8 or taller — Marc-Eddy Norelia (Tulane), Eric Moeller (Central Florida/Missouri) and Demetris Morant (UNLV) give the Eagles a versatile frontline, allowing them to keep their fast-paced, highlight-filled style of play intact.

MORE: Atlantic Sun Preview Mid-Major Power Rankings | Mid-Major All-Americans

“We’re really excited about our frontline,” Dooley said. “Marc-Eddy sat out last year and was a real energy guy in practice. Nate played a lot of minutes. Demetris we were fortunate he was given a waiver by the NCAA, and he is long and as athletic as any guy I’ve coached. Then, Eric Moeller has very good skills and I think he has a big upside. They’re all young, they’re all sophomores. We have a bright future on our frontline.”

Dooley, who took over this team in 2013 after Andy Enfield left for USC, spent 10 seasons on the bench at Kansas. Despite the decade of dominance the Jayhawks have put forth in the Big 12, Dooley isn’t sure if he’s every coached a pair of first-team all-conference players in the same back court before. It’s a luxury to have, the foundation for the future with multiple high-major transfers is set, coupled with the experience of two of the most decorated players in the program’s brief history in Thompson, the school’s all-time leading scorer and Comer, the all-time leader in assists.

“It’s vital,” Dooley added. “Their our best players, their who were building around. They’ll carry us as our frontline big guys catch up.”

Despite not watching a minute of the Mercer-Duke game, both Thompson and Comer understood what their rivals were experiencing, as both can recall the sights and sounds from the Wells Fargo Center locker room after FGCU knocked off Georgetown and San Diego State in a three-day span back in March 2013.

“I was actually happy for them,” Thompson said. “I felt the moment. I know how it feels. I know the excitement and what they were going through. You live for moments like this, to upset big teams. Just to be in that type of atmosphere, it’s a great feeling.”

Just like how the whole Dunk City phenomenon began, two of the last remaining pieces want to go out with a bang. Come March, Thompson doesn’t want to follow the NCAA tournament through his phone like he did this past spring. He’d rather have his cell on ‘Airplane Mode’ because Dunk City intends on taking flight one more time.

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.