American Midseason Catchup: Conference looks to rebound from underwhelming start

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source: AP
UConn’s Ryan Boatright (AP Photo)

College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

MORE: All of CBT’s Conference Catchups

Today, we’ll be taking a look at the American.

MIDSEASON AMERICAN PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Ryan Boatright, UConn

Pretty easy choice at this point in the season. Boatright’s averaging 19.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game, and he’s also shooting nearly six percentage points better from the field than he did a season ago (44.9% compared to 39.1%).

THE ALL-AAC FIRST TEAM:

  • Boatright
  • Nic Moore, SMU: Averaging 15.4 points and 4.7 assists per game, the junior point guard is shooting nearly 51 percent from the field.
  • Will Cummings, Temple: Cummings (14.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.9 apg) isn’t shooting the ball particularly well (32.9%), but he leads the Owls in scoring and assists, is second in rebounding and is the heart and soul of that team.
  • Jherrod Stiggers, Houston: Stiggers (17.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.6 apg) leads the American in scoring and made three-pointers (44).
  • Shaquille Harrison, Tulsa: While teammate James Woodard landed on the league’s preseason all-conference list, Harrison (14.2 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.8 apg) is second on the team in scoring and first in assists.

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. UConn’s non-conference games at Florida (January 3) and Stanford (January 17) are of even greater importance due to their lack of a signature win. The Huskies did what they had to do from a scheduling standpoint, putting together one of the tougher non-conference slates around to account for the strength of their league. The problem: they lost the biggest games on said schedule, losing to West Virginia, Texas and Duke (with a last-second loss to Ivy contender Yale to boot). Getting a win at either Florida or Stanford (or better yet, both) will be key for UConn from an NCAA tournament seeding standpoint. And finally being at full strength should help the Huskies as well.

2. Those transfers are paying off for Temple. Fran Dunphy added three quality transfers to the program, with forward Jaylen Bond (Texas) eligible at the start of the season and guards Devin Coleman (Clemson) and Jesse Morgan (UMass) taking the court for the first time in mid-December. They’ve given the Owls much-needed depth, with Bond being one of the best rebounders in the American. Coleman’s been solid, and Morgan is averaging 16 points per game and became Temple’s best three-point shooter the moment he stepped onto the floor. Those two will make life easier for Will Cummings and Quenton DeCosey moving forward.

3. As expected, the process of getting their backcourt in order has taken some time at Memphis. The Tigers lost four experienced guards from last season’s NCAA tournament team, so their struggles early in the season weren’t a surprise. But it doesn’t help when a transfer expected to have an impact in Kedren Johnson was essentially playing his way into shape, especially when considering the fact that he had more Division I experience than any guard on Josh Pastner’s roster. The Tigers have played better of late, winning four straight heading into the start of league play, but their best win in that stretch came against USC Upstate. JUCO transfer Trahson Burrell has improved throughout the season, but those guards will need to continue to make strides if Memphis is to contend in the American.

THREE STORY LINES TO FOLLOW

1. SMU’s integration of Markus Kennedy into the rotation. Kennedy, who was academically ineligible for the fall semester, undoubtedly makes a difference in the paint for the Mustangs. And while his numbers haven’t approached what they were last season, his return is something opponents have to account for. Yanick Moreira benefits from Kennedy’s presence, as does the versatile Ben Moore. With Nic Moore and Keith Frazier among the contributors on the perimeter SMU has the talent needed to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993. How formidable they are once there will depend upon the play of Kennedy.

2. Amida Brimah’s quest for consistency at UConn. One of the most stunning performances of the season was Brimah’s 40-point, 12-rebound outing in a win over a bad Coppin State team. How did he build on that outing? Zero points, one rebound, two blocks and five fouls in UConn’s loss to Duke in East Rutherford. Brimah’s shooting 71 percent from the field but the 4.4 rebounds per game are a bit underwhelming for a player his size. Sure UConn’s guards are going to handle the majority of their scoring, and Boatright and freshman Daniel Hamilton have been the team’s best rebounders. But if UConn is to win the American and make some noise in the NCAA tournament, Brimah has to be a consistent presence in the middle.

3. Who steps forward offensively for Cincinnati. The Bearcats are without head coach Mick Cronin for health reasons, so that issue is the most important one they face entering conference play (and more important than basketball; get well soon, Coach). But on the floor this is a group that needs someone (or better yet, multiple people) to step forward offensively for a team that doesn’t have a player averaging double figures. Guards Troy Caupain and Farad Cobb are the ones who have the ball in their hands in crunch time, and forward Octavius Ellis and Gary Clark Jr. are second and third on the team in scoring, respectively. Can any of those players emerge as a consistent double-digit scorer? The answer will be the difference between going back to the NCAA tournament and winding up in the NIT.

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. The regular season title – and conference player of the year- will be determined March 1 at the XL Center in Hartford. SMU, which swept the season series last season, visits UConn on that day. The point guards on display, SMU’s Nic Moore and UConn’s Ryan Boatright, are two of the best in the country and the two best players in the American as well. Look for the winner of this game to win the conference, with its best player taking the American’s highest individual honor as well.

2. The American gets three NCAA tournament bids. While it can be argued that five teams enter conference play with a realistic shot of getting into the Big Dance, the underwhelming performance in non-conference play (things picked up late thanks to SMU’s win at Michigan and Temple blowing out Kansas) will be what hurts come Selection Sunday. Add in the fact that the teams in the bottom half of the American have suffered some bad losses, and it becomes tougher for the conference to earn respect in the room when the bracket gets filled out.

3. Once again there will be clear separation between the top and bottom of the conference. What killed the American in regards to both seeding and selection last season was how weak the bottom of the conference was, and that will once again be the case in 2014-15. USF has a ways to go under first-year head coach Orlando Antigua, and UCF is just as bad as they were last season (and Isaiah Sykes and Tristan Spurlock are gone, too). East Carolina doesn’t do much to move the needle, and the same can be said for a transfer-laden Houston squad that may be good for an upset or two in conference play. Can Tulsa and/or Tulane pick up the slack? If so, that would undoubtedly help the American as a whole, but Tulsa’s been inconsistent and Tulane’s best win to date came against Loyola (IL).

POSTSEASON

  • NCAA: UConn, SMU, Temple
  • NIT: Cincinnati, Memphis
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: Tulsa, Tulane, Houston, East Carolina, UCF, USF

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.