Kentucky still has one more major test to pass this season and it might not come against Louisville

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CHICAGO — If you try to compare the 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats to something else in the world of sports, you might be best served linking them to the early version of Mike Tyson from the ’80s.

Before Tyson ran into problems with arrests and issues with outside influences later in his boxing career, he was the “Baddest Man on the Planet” often destroying the confidence of opponents before they even stepped in the ring. Tyson’s ferocious combinations — and the fear he generated before the fight itself — often left opponents on the mat within the first few rounds of the fight.

Sound familiar?

It should.

Because Kentucky is currently knocking opponents out before the Wildcats even get a chance to break a sweat.

Saturday’s 83-44 drubbing of UCLA at the United Center was just the latest example of the Wildcats’ quick-strike ability. Much like the Kansas game in the Champions Classic in late November, Kentucky ended the game before the other team could even get acclimated. The Wildcats jumped out to a 24-0 lead that grew to 41-7 by halftime and a reeling UCLA never recovered.

The win moved No. 1 Kentucky to 12-0 on the season, and although the Wildcats had some first-half battles with the likes of Buffalo, Boston and Columbia earlier this season, they’ve won every game by double digits in 2014-15.

If there is still one thing we have yet to see Kentucky face this season, it’s how they will handle the pressures of being in a close game late in the second half. At some point this season, it’s bound to happen, and it could change the chemistry of the team just enough to throw things off.

Kentucky has already handled the preseason hype of being No. 1, the unique concept of platoons to get 9-to-10 talented players nearly equal playing time while also overcoming the loss of junior starting forward Alex Poythress to a season-ending knee injury. But Kentucky hasn’t been punched in the mouth and tasted their own blood late in a game yet.

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Willie Cauley-Stein (AP Photo)

“We were down 11-0 to Columbia, we were down five to Buffalo at the half. We were down to Boston. They’re not machines and they’re not computers. They don’t play great every time out,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said of his players after the win on Saturday.

Calipari is correct, his players can’t be counted on to bring their ‘A’ game every single time, they’ve just been so good at bringing waves of athletic players at opposing teams that they really haven’t been seriously tested yet. So what happens if an opponent faces Kentucky on an off night and a veteran team with some hot perimeter shooting keeps the game close? History showed last season that returning Wildcat players like Andrew and Aaron Harrison will step up their play in big games, but there are still four freshmen — two of them “starters” — who have yet to play in a close game in their college careers.

“Clutter” was a word that Calipari often threw around during Saturday’s press conference. If the Wildcats can continue to avoid the pitfalls from pressure and hype generated by those that watch them, they are less likely to come out flat and avoid a letdown. So far this season, it seems like the only team that might be able to beat Kentucky is themselves.

“Jay Bilas gave a great talk about the clutter. That the media will try to break you down, how they’ll evaluate one against the other,” Calipari said. “They’ll really promote one guy to try to separate the team and make the other guy out to be a schmo. I’ve got no schmos on this team.”

This week could be the biggest test of all for Kentucky before the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Not only will the Wildcats face their biggest rival in No. 4 Louisville, but their players will go home for Christmas and hear the outside influences within their own circles. Family and friends will question each player on why their individual numbers are so small, or how they can give up minutes and shots when NBA millions are so close.

Going back to Tyson, he didn’t get upset by Buster Douglas in 1990 because he was the inferior fighter — Iron Mike was 37-0 and the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world entering the fight while Douglas was a 42-to-1 underdog.  Tyson lost the fight because he let outside distractions seep in and gave a ‘C’ effort while his opponent fought the fight of his life.

Even if the Louisville game turns out to be another blowout Kentucky win — which is doubtful, but could happen — every opponent Kentucky faces this season is going to circle their name on the calendar and give their best effort facing the Wildcats. There is going to be some game when Kentucky goes cold from the field, comes out flat and an opposing team will run clock and keep it tight in the second half.

So far, nothing has been able to distract Kentucky from its quest of a national championship, and a potential perfect season, but there are plenty of talented teams featuring future pros that won’t be intimidated by Kentucky. All that it takes is for one off night to happen and the dream of a perfect season — and a national title — could be ruined.

It doesn’t look like anyone can beat Kentucky at their best this season, but things can change quickly when things aren’t going as planned. Will Kentucky still buy into the team concept if times get tough and a limited rotation is forged at the end of a close game? Will certain players be upset not being able to take big shots in key moments? How will John Calipari’s coaching style change if he has to worry about subbing individual players instead of line shifts.

“I don’t have to worry about subbing. Think about taking that off of a coach’s plate,” Calipari said.

Those are questions that still remain unanswered about Kentucky this season, and minor as they might appear on the surface, they could still come up at any moment and change the delicate complexion of the team dynamic.

All eyes will continue to be on Kentucky this season as they’ve already made national headlines for blowing out two storied programs, but all it takes is 40 minutes of mediocre play for everything to change.

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

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.