Defense carries the day for an Arizona team that’s still a work in progress offensively

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TUCSON, Arizona — Tuesday night No. 1 Kentucky put on one of the more impressive shows you’ll see from a team at this juncture in the season, throttling No. 5 Kansas at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis. Games like that can raise the bar, not only for the team in question but also for other squads viewed by the masses as national title contenders.

That was the case for No. 2 Arizona, which took on Big West preseason favorite UC Irvine in a game some would expect the Wildcats to have little issue with based on name recognition alone. Things didn’t work out that way for Arizona, despite what some may be led to believe when seeing the 71-54 final score. Russell Turner’s Anteaters led 29-26 at the intermission and didn’t relinquish the lead for good until the 7:53 mark of the second half.

So what did we learn about the Wildcats? Two things: that their offense is still a work in progress, and that defensively Miller’s Wildcats took a small step towards being a unit similar to the one that ranked among the nation’s best in 2013-14.

Looking at this game offensively has to be done with the understanding that in UC Irvine the Wildcats were facing a team that was the best in the country at defending teams inside of the three-point line last season. With 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye anchoring their imposing zone, UC Irvine limited teams to a nation’s-best 39.2% shooting on two-point field goals. And Arizona struggled with the UC Irvine zone in the first half, playing tentatively and shooting 5-for-14 inside of the arc.

In the second half Arizona was more aggressive in looking for the openings in the UC Irvine zone, and it paid off. Arizona shot 50 percent inside of the arc in the final 20 minutes, and all ten of their two-point field goals were scored in the paint. Add in a 22-for-26 half from the foul line, and the numbers back up the idea of Arizona being a more aggressive team.

The biggest reason for that? The play of sophomore forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Of course there was his second half dunk that nearly blew the lid off of McKale Center, but the more important development was how often Hollis-Jefferson went to the foul line.

Of his game-high 19 points 11 were scored from the charity stripe, with Hollis-Jefferson shooting 10-for-12 from there in the second half. For some talented players the prospect of being the sixth man can be a difficult one to absorb, as the “thrill” of hearing one’s name called before the game even begins overrides the understanding that it’s what the team needs that truly matters.

However through three games, that hasn’t been the case for Hollis-Jefferson.

“I had a talk with Rondae between our last game and tonight, and I really left it up to him because he’s clearly one of our five best players,” Miller said of Hollis-Jefferson. “He’s earned that through practice, and everything he’s done this year and last year. He told me that he felt that coming off the bench was not only good for him but good for our team.

“Now I say that because there are a lot of these guys who will ‘talk the talk,’ say ‘sacrifice’ and beat their chest when things are going well,” Miller continued. “There aren’t a lot of kids who would come off the bench if [they were in his position]. It wasn’t as if I even had to sell it. That’s who he is, it’s his greatest strength. He’s unselfish to the core, and I also believe it’s one of the reasons why he’s playing so well because he’s not caught up in himself, he’s caught up in the team.”

Arizona ended the game on a 30-8 run, with their defense serving as the catalyst for a team that was scuffling on the other end of the floor. And to be frank there’s a lot for this group to figure out offensively, with point guard T.J. McConnell being the leader. Arizona doesn’t lack for talent offensively, but finding the right mix is something they’ll attempt to do as the season wears on.

Can Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson (ten points, ten rebounds) man the wings at the same time? There were instances in which they were asked to do this against the Anteaters, and the results were mixed. Gabe York and Elliott Pitts may be the best bets to provide consistent perimeter shooting, but that hasn’t been the case thus far.

Essentially, Arizona’s progress will be similar to that of a road under construction. Things won’t come to a halt for the Wildcats as they look to straighten things out offensively, but if they defend and rebound Arizona can continue to rack up wins.

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.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.