Seven things to know about college basketball now that football season is done

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Now that the Super Bowl is in the past and football is in our rearview mirrors, let’s get you caught up to speed on the college basketball season.

Here are seven things you need to know to know this season:

1. Kentucky should be undefeated entering the NCAA tournament: That’s how good Kentucky is this year, particularly when compared to the rest of the SEC. We’re midway through the regular season, and the Wildcats already hold a three-game lead over everyone in the league except for Texas A&M. No other SEC team is ranked, and while the Wildcats will likely have some battles on their hands — particularly when they have to play on the road — there isn’t anyone in the conference that has the talent, depth or size that should allow them to beat the nation’s best team.

That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kentucky does suffer a loss at some point. There have been times during league play where they have looked almost bored. When there isn’t one game on your regular season schedule to circle or to look forward to — when the highlight of your regular season is playing in the Champions Classic or a non-conference game against Louisville — it’s hard to be amped about traveling to Baton Rouge to play LSU.

2. The ACC’s obscenely loaded at the top: Virginia may be coming off of a loss at home to Duke, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Cavaliers are the best team in the ACC this season. They’re probably the best team this side of Kentucky, which should tell you a thing or two about the Blue Devils, who now own wins at Louisville and at Wisconsin, in addition to at Virginia.

But that’s not it. Notre Dame is one of the nation’s most potent offenses this season while Louisville has seemingly found a rhythm offensively and North Carolina has bounced back from a rough start to the year. The ACC has five of the top 11 teams in the country playing in their conference, and they may not have another NCAA tournament team.

3. The Big 12 is the toughest conference, but do they have a title contender?: Kansas is once again the best team in the Big 12 and look like they’re on track to win yet another regular season title in the league. But they also are anything-but a finished product at this point in the season, as consistency from Kelly Oubre, Cliff Alexander and Wayne Selden is not something that they’ve been able to consistently get.

And beyond that, the conference is loaded with good teams, none of which look like a favorite to make the Final Four. Iowa State is entertaining to watch but doesn’t play all that much defense, and West Virginia is a nightmare to play against but they can go through scoring droughts when their press isn’t effective. Texas has fallen off the map to start league play. Oklahoma’s inconsistent and doesn’t quite have enough depth. I’m not sold on Baylor or Oklahoma State being a second-weekend team, and Kansas State is in a bad spot if they are going to make the tournament.

T.J. McConnell (Getty Images)

4. Gonzaga might be a No. 1 seed, but the title Best of the West still runs through Tucson: I know you probably feel like we say this every year, but this is the best team that Mark Few has ever had at Gonzaga. That includes the Adam Morrison years and the 2013 season, where the Zags were a No. 1 seed and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Kevin Pangos is as good as any point guard in the country, the Zags have size, athleticism and scoring on their wings, and their front court is as deep and as balanced as anyone in the country. They may not lose another game before the NCAA tournament, so a No. 1 seed in the West is attainable.

But Arizona is the best team on the left coast, and I’m not just saying that because they beat Gonzaga in Tucson earlier this season. Stanley Johnson is starting to come into his own, their front line is overpowering and T.J. McConnell is making plays and scoring at the point guard spot like he’s still at Duquesne. Gonzaga may be the higher seed, but Arizona will be the favorite to run through the bracket.

5. The Player of the Year race has just four contenders: Duke’s Jahlil Okafor has been the favorite pretty much all season long, with Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky right on his heels. Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant is as important as any player in the country — and could very well be the nation’s Most Valuable Player — while Ohio State’s D’Angelo Russell is the nation’s most entertaining player.

6. The Big Ten makes no sense after Wisconsin: The Badgers are going to win that league title. There aren’t many people that are going to dispute that notion. But after that? Who is the second-best team in the conference? Is it Maryland, who just lost by 24 at Ohio State? Is it Ohio State, who is 5-3 in the league and winning right now because of just how good Russell has been this season? It’s not Iowa, not the way they’ve played the last two weeks. And it’s not Michigan, not with their injuries. Indiana is streaky, and Michigan State has some talented pieces but they’ve yet to play as tough as Tom Izzo teams generally do.

7. A number of elite programs aren’t elite this season: UConn, UCLA, Memphis, Michigan and Pitt are destined for the NIT this year. Syracuse and Florida have some issues to work out and some wins to land before they’re considered anything more than a bubble team. Even Texas is a question mark to make the tournament at this point. That’s a lot of name programs struggling this season.

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.