Green Bay’s Keifer Sykes maintains the chip on his shoulder

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Keifer Sykes (AP Photo)

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Keifer Sykes always knew that he was talented at basketball but it took the offseason between his junior and senior seasons at John Marshall Metropolitan High School in Chicago to realize how much work it would take to succeed at the college level.

After a breakout junior season of high school basketball in which the point guard helped lead Marshall to a third-place finish in Illinois’ Class 3A, Sykes joined the Mac Irvin Fire in the Nike EYBL for the spring and summer. But instead of starting and shining in big moments like he was accustomed to doing during his junior year, Sykes was relegated to coming off of the bench.

It wasn’t like the demotion to the bench for Sykes was unwarranted. On paper, the Mac Irvin Fire that summer had one of the most loaded groups of high-major prospects assembled in grassroots basketball. The Fire had highly-touted players who eventually committed to DePaul (Macari Brooks, Jamee Crockett), Illinois (Myke Henry, Mike Shaw), Louisville (Wayne Blackshear), Ohio State (Sam Thompson) and Oregon (Bruce Barron) on the roster during the July live evaluation period and Sykes was a 5-foot-10 point guard garnering mid-major interest.

Playing with the Mac Irvin Fire in the EYBL humbled Sykes immensely and he knew he had to work incredibly hard to make a mark in college basketball, no matter what level he ended up at.

“I think that season is what humbled me the most,” Sykes said to NBCSports.com. “I was coming off of a good junior season of high school ball and I went into club basketball with a team of high-profile, high-Division I players on that circuit you see other guys like Austin Rivers and Brad Beal and it made me want to work.

“I might have been the best guy on my [high school] team, but it showed me there are other players better than me all across the world. It just humbled me and it had me in a position where I had to work out.”

Sykes took the challenge to get better head-on, and after committing to Green Bay in late September of his senior year, had a strong senior season for the Commandos before joining his new college program.

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As a member of the Phoenix for three seasons under head coach Brian Wardle, Sykes has thrived even more. The 5-foot-11 guard has averaged double-figures in scoring in all three seasons and gotten progressively better in all facets of the game, culminating in averages of 20.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game last season while earning Horizon League Player of the Year honors.

Keifer went from Horizon League Newcomer of the Year as a freshman, to first-team All-Horizon League honors as a sophomore to the league’s Player of the Year as a junior.

But he’s more hungry for team success and making the NCAA Tournament.

While Green Bay’s record has also steadily gotten better over those same three seasons, Sykes has never had a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament and it drives him and the team to get better.

Last season’s defeat in the conference tournament semifinals at home to Milwaukee was a shocking upset for a team many expected to play in the NCAA Tournament. Even though Green Bay finished 24-7 and 14-2 in the league, they had to settle for the NIT as some writers used them as an example for how unfair the conference tournament system for winning a tournament bid can be.

MORE: Horizon League Preview: Can Green Bay take the next step, represent the Horizon League in the Tournament?

“It motivates us a lot,” Sykes said of last season.” That put things in perspective. We know how to win games. Now we know that you have a small margin of error that you have to make it. We won so many games, and we were feeling so good, but losing one game or even two or three possessions that we needed to fall our way took us out of the tournament. That motivates us more and it makes us realize that everything has to be run to perfection.”

Green Bay head coach Brian Wardle said that Sykes has not only elevated his own play over the last couple years, but that of the entire program. Sykes helped raise the play at Marshall while he was in high school and has always had a big reputation for winning games and stepping up in the spotlight. Against eight 2014 NCAA Tournament opponents, Sykes raised his scoring average to 25.6 points per game.

“We had a great year last year, we took some big steps forward,” Wardle said. “But they have a taste of it now. And now the expectation is higher in that locker room. Way higher than any media or preseason predictions. We have higher expectations and [Keifer] has driven that behind the scenes.”

Wardle challenged his senior point guard to be more of a vocal leader and Sykes has responded by being more vocal and holding other players to a higher standard. With his high-flying game that features numerous highlight reel dunks, including a self-alley-oop — in which Sykes tosses the ball high in the air from the three-point line and runs under it without bouncing for an alley-oop — Sykes has also become a popular fixture in Green Bay, signing autographs and receiving a lot of positive admiration from the local fans.

Through it all, Wardle says that Sykes remains humble because he’s still working towards achieving the goals of the team.

“He’s in the gym all the time,” Wardle said. “He’s in the weight room. Watching film. He’s talking more, leading more than ever before. He wants to bring this program to another level. And that’s what’s been driving him all offseason and it’s contagious.”

Although Sykes has accomplished a lot in his first three seasons at Green Bay, he still wants to finish off a dynamic career with one more strong season. One that includes another leap and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

“We’re held to this standard and we don’t want to fail again,” Sykes said. “We know that feeling [of coming close but missing the tournament] from last year. We definitely don’t want to feel that again.”

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.