Chemistry the biggest factor in Arizona’s quest for a national title

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Arizona looks to establish a camaraderie similar to that of last season’s team (Getty Images)

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.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | NBCSports Preseason Top 25 | Preview Schedule

After winning 27 games and reaching the Sweet 16 in 2012-13, big things were expected of the Arizona Wildcats in 2013-14 and Sean Miller’s team delivered. Despite having to replace three of their top four scorers the Wildcats won 33 games and a regular season Pac-12 title, reaching the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament as well. Arizona didn’t have the deepest rotation, especially after forward Brandon Ashley was lost for the season in early February with a foot injury, but they had talent, athleticism and a stingy half-court defense that was among the best in the country.

Even more is expected of the Wildcats in 2014-15, with Ashley back to full strength as he joins point guard T.J. McConnell and center Kaleb Tarczewski as the team’s returning starters. Add in the likes of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Gabe York, who were reserves a season ago, and one of the nation’s best recruiting classes, led by small forward Stanley Johnson, and on paper the depth issue that Arizona had to manage in 2013-14 isn’t expected to be an issue this season.

However, even with that being the case, and Arizona being considered to be one of the favorites to cut down the nets in Indianapolis, there are still questions to be answered. The biggest? How will Arizona account for the loss of starters Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon, with their intangibles being just as — if not more — important as the numbers they provided.

RELATED: NBCSports.com’s Pac-12 Preview

“One of the strengths of last year’s team was our team chemistry,” Miller said at the team’s media day last month. “We had a group of high-character players that were on a mission to have a successful season as a team. Obviously a year ago every one of them wanted to do well individually, but everybody understood that first and foremost we were going to do it as a team.

“And with that team success the individual accolades would follow, which is exactly what happened.”

There may have been no player who better fits into those words than Johnson, who averaged 16.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. The numbers were good but Johnson’s leadership was even better, ultimately resulting in his being named Pac-12 Player of the Year and a finalist for the Naismith national Player of the Year award. Johnson’s leadership impacted the program both on and off the court, with the camaraderie factoring into the team being able to go as far as it did without Ashley.

And in regard to Gordon, who accounted for 12.4 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game last season, the label of being a “one and done” prospect didn’t have an impact on the way he played the game. Gordon simply did the things he did best, seamlessly fitting into the Arizona attack.

“I think that one credit I give Aaron is he always was true to himself,” Miller said at Pac-12 media day last month. “We gave him a role and he did it to the best of his ability. We’re at that point now where, as we start to define roles, it’s important that guys stay within the framework of that role, embrace it, do the very best they can.”

“In Nick and Aaron’s case, part of what made them so good, they really didn’t try to be a whole lot of what they weren’t. They tried to bring their array of skills that they were already good at to the table, not just in games but every day.”

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Both players were key defensively for a team that finished the season ranked first nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency (per kenpom.com), and they were also ranked in the top ten nationally in both field goal percentage (fourth) and scoring (sixth) defense. Athleticism, which Arizona didn’t lack last season and certainly won’t in 2014-15, helps but factors such as chemistry and execution are just as important. Building a similar level of chemistry is what this current Arizona team is working to do, and the process won’t be an easy one even with the amount of individual talent on the roster.

In addition to the starters, players such as junior Gabe York, sophomore Elliott Pitts and freshman Craig Victor will look to earn opportunities as well. With Ashley out of the lineup York made 12 starts, reaching double figures in five of those games and finishing the season with an average of 6.7 points per game. Perimeter shooting, a sore spot for the Wildcats last season, remains an issue that needs to be addressed with the hope being that players such as York can step forward.

Talent is a required attribute of any team looking to put together an exemplary season. But even for the most talented of teams it’s the intangibles like leadership and chemistry that separate a good season and a special one. As is the case for any team, Arizona will need time to establish roles and camaraderie as they look to take that next step, with the ultimate goal being to duplicate the feat accomplished by the 1997 team (they won the national title in Indianapolis, cite of this year’s Final Four). And therein lies the greatest challenge facing Arizona this season.

“It’s up to guys like Brandon now, myself, to rekindle that [chemistry of last season’s team],” Miller noted last month. “We find ourselves as we try to do it, it doesn’t happen in 12 days. It certainly doesn’t happen when you’re welcoming such a big group of new players into a cast that has a big group of guys that have been there before.

“I think part of it is the quest of bringing everyone together, a big challenge for us at this point.”

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.