Burning Questions: Most intriguing storylines, best conference races and Kentucky’s biggest threat

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With there being just one more football game of high importance left on the schedule (sorry, Pro Bowl fans), casual observers are beginning to pay a little more attention to college basketball. With that in mind, the College Basketball Talk staff has decided to answer a few burning questions beginning with what they view as the most intriguing storyline in college basketball to this point in the season.

1. What has been the most intriguing storyline to date in college basketball?

Rob Dauster: Just how good is Duke this season? They have the best player in the country and they’re supposed to be the only team that is actually good enough to knock off Kentucky — winning at Louisville and Wisconsin in the same season just doesn’t happen — but they also have such massive defensive issues they’ve had to make the switch to a zone defense.

Raphielle Johnson: I’d have to say Kentucky’s rotation. Even with the loss of Alex Poythress, John Calipari still has nine players who many project to get drafted at some point in their respective careers. I’m not going to write the word that was overused like a pop music hit (you know, the “P-word”), but having the number of options that Kentucky has helps them adjust to whatever opponents throw at them. But will there be any changes moving forward, especially in the backcourt? Will there need to be any changes? Right now, they look fine.

Scott Phillips: The number of All-American candidates and teams in and out of the top 25 from week-to-week has been really interesting to keep track of. So many for both. I feel like with so many quality players and teams having similar resumes, it’s going to be a really difficult NCAA Tournament to predict.

Terrence Payne: Kentucky’s pursuit of perfection. No team has gone undefeated since the 1975-76 Indiana Hoosiers. The Wildcats are one of two remaining teams without a loss, and kenpom.com gives Kentucky a 36.6 percent chance to run the table heading into postseason play. The SEC is still a weak conference, but just like Ole Miss and Texas A&M, the Wildcats are going to get everyone’s best shot as they continue to rack up the wins.

2. Which conference will have the best race heading into March? 

RD: The Big 12, and it’s not going to be all that close. That league could end up sending eight of the ten teams to the NCAA tournament, and while Kansas is always going to be the favorite to win the conference until they leave the conference, this is the year to pick them off. A lack of true rim protecter and the issues that Self has had with Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander has made this group vulnerable. Iowa State, Oklahoma and Texas will all make a run at the title.

RJ: The answer here has to be the Big 12, for historical reasons. Kansas has won at least a share of the last ten regular season titles, which is an incredibly impressive run put together by Bill Self’s program. I wouldn’t say that the Jayhawks are “vulnerable” this season, so much as it would be a case of their challengers having both the talent and belief needed to break through. As Rob noted Iowa State, Oklahoma and Texas will all have their say, and I would include West Virginia in that mix as well. Can K-State, Baylor and/or Oklahoma State get involved too? It wouldn’t shock me if those teams did just that.

SP: The Big 12 is just so good and so deep. With the true home-and-home conference schedule it means that nobody is hiding from anyone. Kansas having won the league for a decade straight makes for an enticing storyline as so many try to unseat the Jayhawks.

TP: The Big East. In the fall, we were wondering if Villanova could go unbeaten, now look at mess. DePaul in the top half of the conference, St. John’s in ninth place. Who would have predicted that? At the moment, 70 percent of the league is separated by less than two games, and that’s not including a talented St. John’s team.

3. Who is Kentucky’s biggest challenger nationally?

RD: I thought it was Duke, but then Duke decided they weren’t going to be able to get stops while playing man-to-man. I think that at this point, the team that matchups up with Kentucky the best is Virginia. They won’t get rattled by UK’s defensive pressure, they won’t get overwhelmed on the glass and they’ll make Kentucky beat them with threes over the top of the pack-line.

RJ: While the names have changed to a certain extent (first Arizona, then Duke) the Wildcats have remained in their perch. I think there will be multiple teams capable of beating them in the NCAA tournament, but I’ll take Virginia. This is one of the most efficient teams in the country on both ends of the floor, and they’ve got one of the most improved players in America in Justin Anderson. With options such as Anderson, Malcolm Brodgon and Anthony Gill, the Cavaliers have the pieces needed to win a national title.

SP: Besides themselves, Kentucky’s biggest outside challenger is Duke. Recent poor play aside, the Blue Devils have the size to match up with Kentucky on the interior and Jahlil Okafor is the rare inside presence who could give the Wildcats problems. With nine McDonald’s All-Americans on each roster, this would be a heck of a title game or Final Four matchup.

TP: Despite its recent slump, I’ll still say it’ll be Duke come March. They’ll have the national player of the year inside to battle Kentucky’s deep frontline and are equipped with shooters

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.