Player of the Year Power Rankings: This four-man race will be special to follow

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The race for National Player of the Year has been whittled down to four players with just over a month left in the regular season, and it’s to the point that I think all four would end up being consensus first-team all-americans if the season were to end today.

Appreciate this season. We’re looking at what could end up being one of the best Player of the Year races this side of J.J. Redick vs. Adam Morrison and Kemba Walker vs. Jimmer Fredette:

1. Jahlil Okafor, Duke: At this point I’m going to leave Okafor at the top of the Player of the Year rankings because, quite simply, I think that he is the best player in college basketball. He has his flaws defensively, and he may not be as important to his team’s success as some of the other guys on this list, but if you are tasked with starting a team from scratch, you’re picking Jahlil Okafor.

Okafor struggled to find a rhythm in the win over Virginia — he finished with 10 points on 5-for-7 shooting and didn’t get to the free throw line — but it’s important to note that the Cavaliers focused their defensive gameplan on taking him away. No one in the country is better at doubling the post on the catch than Virginia, and it completely took Okafor out of a rhythm. But more than anything, Duke’s struggles offensively for the first 30 minutes of that game should highlight just how much of their offense runs through the big fella.

It also should be noted that Okafor had a couple of critical offensive rebounds and second chance baskets during their run, and his pass out of a double-team resulted in what amounted to the game-winning bucket:

He was fired up about it:

2. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: Is it just me, or does it feel like Kaminsky has been completely overlooked this season? Maybe it’s because we expected this kind of season out of him, that the 17.6 points, 8.9 boards and 2.3 assists he averages while shooting 41.1 percent from three as a seven-footer don’t blow us away. Maybe it’s because Wisconsin plays the 340th fastest pace in the country, according to Kenpom, so his stats aren’t eye-popping enough unless you’re a tempo-free diehard. Tyler Haws leads the nation in offensive rating for players that use more than 28.0 percent of their team’s possessions at 122.5. Kaminsky’s offensive rating is 125.7, and he uses 27.8 percent of Wisconsin’s possessions.

What Kaminsky does is rarely flashy, and Wisconsin’s system has a way of bogging down a star’s overall numbers. But rest assured, Kaminsky is having a terrific season as the clearcut No. 1 option for a team on pace to be the most efficient offense of the Kenpom era.

3. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: I wrote a long piece last week on why Jerian Grant is a legitimate National Player of the Year contender and the Most Valuable Player in college basketball. You can read that here.

The one thing I’ll add? Despite playing poorly in a loss at Pitt on Saturday, if Steve Vasturia had hit an open three with less than five seconds left in that game, Grant would have single-handily lead another impressive, come-from-behind Notre Dame win:

It was the exact same shot that Vasturia had made three days earlier to ice the win over Duke, also set up by … Jerian Grant:

4. D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State: Russell is the single-most entertaining player in college basketball this season. He’s so smooth it hardly looks like he’s breaking a sweat, but he can drop you with ankle-breaking crossovers, make you look foolish with ridiculous ‘How did he see that?’ passes, beat you to the rim or drill a pull-up three in your face.

And over the course of the last five games, he’s played absolutely out of his mind, posting averages of 24.2 points, 9.0 boards, 6.0 assists and 1.8 steals while shooting 55.1 percent from the field and 47.5 percent (19-for-40) from long distance. Ohio State is 4-1 in that stretch, with wins over top 25 teams Maryland and Indiana.

On the season, he’s averaging 19.4 points, 5.6 boards, 5.2 assists, 1.8 steals and shooting 47.7 percent from the floor and 45.4 percent from three, and that’s including a stretch early in the year where he was an utter disaster against elite competition. His first four games against high major program — Marquette, Louisville, North Carolina and Iowa — he averaged 11.8 points and had 13 turnovers while shooting 27.6 percent from the floor and 22.2 percent (6-for-27) from three.

And then there is everyone else:

5. Delon Wright, Utah

6. Justin Anderson, Virginia

7. Stanley Johnson, Arizona

8. Georges Niang, Iowa State

9. Melo Trimble, Maryland

10. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky

OTHERS THAT WERE CONSIDERED: Ron Baker (Wichita State), Ryan Boatright (UConn), Rakeem Christmas (Syracuse), Kyle Collinsworth (BYU), Tyler Haws (BYU), Montrezl Harrell (Louisville), D’angelo Harrison (St. John’s), LaDontae Henton (Providence), Buddy Hield (Oklahoma), Jonathan Holmes (Texas), Jarell Martin (LSU), Jordan Mickey (LSU), Larry Nance Jr. (Wyoming), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), Bobby Portis (Arkansas), Juwan Staten (West Virginia), Brad Waldow (St. Mary’s), Ty Wallace (Cal), Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga), Joseph Young (Oregon)

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.