St. John’s seniors say they ‘grew up’ against Minnesota, but have they?

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D’Angelo Harrison (AP Photo)

NEW YORK — For 20 minutes on Wednesday night, we got a glimpse of just how good this St. John’s team can be.

For 20 minutes, the talent and athleticism on Steve Lavin’s roster overwhelmed Minnesota, spurring the Johnnies to a 70-61 win in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT at Madison Square Garden.

For 20 minutes, D’Angelo Harrison was hitting clutch shots, and Sir’Dominic Pointer was making energy plays all over the floor, and Chris Obekpa was turning the paint into an area that Minnesota was scared to enter.

And once those 20 minutes were finished, Harrison and Pointer were open and emphatic about the fact that they “grew up”, as Harrison put it, during halftime. That the Tale Of Two Halves was the Johnnies, during the break in the action, found the maturity and intensity needed to beat an undermanned Minnesota team.

“We played like little kids in the first half,” Pointer said.

They’re right. They did play timid in the first half, and that did change during the second half, but the jury is still out on whether or not this group has actually “grown up”.

Because if St. John’s is only going to show up for a half at a time, they’re going to be in trouble.

This program has the pieces to be an NCAA tournament team. They have the talent to finish in the top three in a Big East that has greatly exceeded expectations through the season’s first two weeks. Obekpa is the nation’s best shot-blocker, a 6-foot-9 athlete whose arms are as long as his shorts are short. Not only did he block three shots on Wednesday night, but he changed at least four times¬†that many. With every touch that a Minnesota big man got in the post, he was cognizant of where Obekpa was. Every driver that got all the way to the rim had to try and finish knowing that Obekpa was lurking somewhere, waiting to pin his shot up against the backboard.

Having a presence like that around the basket means that the Johnnies can get out and pressure in the half court. They can gamble for steals and try to create turnovers because they know that anyone that gets by them will have to deal with the big fella. And when you have a team with as many athletes as St. John’s has playing in front of that presence, it creates a situation where you can force 20 turnovers and gather 16 steals in one game.

For that defense to be effective, all the Johnnies have to do is play hard, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a team that plays harder than them when they want to

“That’s who we have to be if we’re going to have to have a special season,” Lavin said.

“We did it on the defensive end,” Harrison added. “We’re a defensive team.”

But, as the first half indicated, that’s not always the team that shows up.

There is not a program in the country that consistently makes head-scratching plays more than the Johnnies. You never quite know what is going to happen when Rysheed Jordan or Harrison has the ball in their hands, and, sometimes, that is a good thing. They’re talented kids that can make things happen in the open floor. But when Jordan starts trying to prove that he’s a future lottery pick — he’s not — and Harrison starts chucking up quick, contested shots, things can go south in a hurry.

And therein lies the biggest issue for St. John’s. Their two most talented players are also their two most unreliable, and that’s never a good combination.

This sounds like I’m being overly negative about a team that just put on an impressive second half performance in a huge win for their season’s end goal. That’s not my intention, because I’m actually bullish on this group after seeing them play and hearing them talk.

Let me explain.

This is an important season for Harrison and Pointer. They were part of Lavin’s massive, nine-man 2011 recruiting class, the one that he brought in to replace the guys that left after their trip to the 2011 NCAA tournament. That group has never reached the Big Dance, and this year is the last chance for the guys that are leftover — Harrison, Pointer, Phil Greene IV.

Their legacy is on the line here, and that’s only half of the battle.

It’s hard not to think that Lavin’s job is on the line this season as well. He’s been in Queens for five seasons now, making just one NCAA tournament. That was in his first season, the year that he was beating cancer and Mike Dunlap was coaching the senior class that Norm Roberts left when he was fired. He’s now had a full four-year recruiting cycle, and, with that group, all he has amassed is a pair of trips to the NIT.

That’s only the half of it. St. John’s missed on two of their most important recruits during Lavin’s tenure, losing Isaiah Whitehead to Seton Hall this season and Isaiah Briscoe to Kentucky in the Class of 2015.

What that means is that there is a lot riding on this season, and based on the way that Harrison and Pointer were talking in the press conference, they seem to understand this.

“It’s time for us to grow up,” Pointer said. “We’ve been here for four years and we’ve got a good team this year.”

“This was one of the biggest games of our careers,” Harrison said, doubling down on a point he made earlier in the week when he said, “to come out 2-0 in this tournament would be big for this program in making people take us seriously.”

The Johnnies seem to believe that they have turned a corner this season, that they have grown up and are ready to finally live up to the hype they had when they entered the program more than three years ago.

“We showed it in the second half,” Harrison said, “and when we put together two halves like the second half, we’re going to be tough.”

Only time will tell if we actually see those two halves in the same game.

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

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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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

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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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.