No. 12 Utah’s rebounding concerns in conference play proved costly Saturday night

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The Utes fell in Tucson, but they’ll be fine (AP Photo)

TUCSON, Arizona — After dispatching of Arizona State Thursday night, then-No. 8 Utah’s attention moved to their game at Arizona two days later, the first matchup of Pac-12 teams ranked in the AP Top 10 since March 2008, back when it was still the Pac-10.

Armed with an offense led by one of the nation’s best players in Delon Wright and a defense that’s gotten even better thanks in part to the addition of freshman 7-footer Jakob Poeltl, the Runnin’ Utes arrived at McKale Center intent on making a statement that would resonate nationally.

Not only were they capable of competing with the reigning kings of the conference, but they were also capable of dethroning them. And early on Utah looked the part, scoring ten of the game’s first 12 points with Wright scoring seven himself and assisting on a Brandon Taylor three-pointer. But as the game wore on the Wildcats played at a level expected of them before the season began, with T.J. McConnell punishing Utah in pick and roll situations and their big men dominating the glass on both ends of the floor.

Add in Stanley Johnson, who sat out most of the first half with two fouls, going off for 18 second half points and what had the looks of a tightly contested game turned into a 69-51 Arizona rout. Those looks Utah had little trouble finding in the game’s first ten minutes weren’t as plentiful as the game progressed, as they made just two field goals over the final 5:49 of the first half and shot 7-for-21 in the second.

But even with their offensive issues being what they were, with Utah also failing to cash in some of the open looks they did find, it was the fact that the Utes struggled mightily on the glass that had the greatest impact.

“Early on in the game things were rolling right along,” Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said after the defeat. “It’s an interesting situation, because I thought defensively we got stops but couldn’t we get rebounds. They were getting second shots, and I thought this was a case of our inability to get a rebound carrying over to the offensive end of the floor to where it was too much to overcome.”

Arizona rebounded more than 53 percent of its missed shots, a season high for a team that hasn’t been as good on the offensive glass as they were a season ago. That percentage is also a season-worst for Utah, which prior to Saturday hadn’t surrendered an offensive rebounding percentage above 40 percent the entire season. Utah’s first-shot defense was solid on Saturday, as it has been all season long, but it was their inability to complete those possessions with a rebound that did them in.

So often it’s discussed that when a team is struggling offensively they can save themselves either in a single game or throughout the course of a season on the other end, buckling down to get stops that can lead to better scoring opportunities. But there’s also something to be said for the impact that defensive issues can have on the offense, which is what happened to Utah Saturday.

While their performance in non-conference play has resulted in Utah putting together solid numbers on both the offensive (33.3% OR rate) and defensive (73.2% DR rate) boards, the Utes are ranked tenth in the Pac-12 in defensive rebounding percentage in conference games (67.2%). That may have been lost in the fact that Utah won its first four conference games, including blowout wins over UCLA (who they’d yet to beat as a member of the Pac-12) and Colorado.

While neither the Bruins nor the Buffaloes hurt Utah on the glass, grabbing a combined 16 offensive rebounds, USC (14 offensive rebounds) and Arizona State (13) did. The only difference is that Arizona had the talent to make Utah pay for those mistake, giving the Utes a valuable lesson that if used properly will only help them down the road.

“We’ve been talking about rebounding. Arizona State had 13 offensive rebounds against us, so that was a point of emphasis,” Krystkowiak noted. “We couldn’t, on Friday, all of a sudden do a bunch of rebound/block out drills but that’s what you need to do, get back to the drawing board with some physicality. We’ve got too much finesse going on right now with our guys, and it’s got to improve.”

As a member of the Pac-12, Saturday night was unchartered territory for a program with a history that includes a national title in 1944 and a national runner-up trophy in 1998. Even with prior games against San Diego State, Wichita State and Kansas, which helped prepare Utah for conference play, that isn’t the same as looking to knock a reigning champion off of its throne. But even with Utah receiving that bitter reminder, how far they’ve come since entering the conference cannot be forgotten.

From six wins in their inaugural season to last year’s NIT berth, slowly but surely Utah has grown into a program that can not only enjoy more success this season but use that as a springboard into the future. To take that next step something more is needed, and the areas that can be overlooked by the casual observer become even more important when that’s the case. Utah will get another shot at Arizona in late February when the Wildcats visit Salt Lake City, and maybe in the Pac-12 tournament as well.

Utah knows what needs fixing, and better attention to detail on the defensive glass is something that will help them against the rest of the Pac-12 as well. How far they go this season will depend upon whether or not the Utes take that step.

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.