Now healthy, surging Boise State a Mountain West title contender

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Derrick Marks has played at a high level for Boise State (AP Photo/Otto Kitsinger)

Despite losing all-conference forward Ryan Watkins at the end of last season, Boise State was picked to finish second in the Mountain West’s preseason media poll, with seniors Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks expected to lead the way. But rarely is a season straightforward, and in the case of Boise State they had to deal with significant health issues in non-conference play.

Drmic struggled with back and ankle injuries, with the latter ultimately requiring season-ending surgery, and players such as Marks, Nick Duncan and James Webb III also struggled with health issues. Boise State’s 48-45 loss to Loyola-Chicago in the Las Vegas Classic final was the first of four straight defeats, with the last three being conference games.

To their credit the Broncos refused to use the injuries as a crutch, and as they’ve returned to full strength Leon Rice’s team has been among the hottest in the country over the last month. Boise State has won eight straight games since falling at Wyoming January 10, and while there are a variety of reasons why the Broncos are now a contender to win the Mountain West the simplest one is that outside of Drmic everyone is back to full strength.

“Injuries,” Rice told NBCSports.com Friday when asked what the issues were during the aforementioned losing streak. “[Nick] Duncan was out with an ankle injury and probably shouldn’t have played a couple games, Derrick missed the Loyola game and probably shouldn’t have played at Colorado State.

“Also it was the schedule. We played at Colorado State when they were undefeated, and we played at Wyoming when they were ranked. Those are some pretty tough places to play.”

That begins with Marks, who spent much of his offseason rehabbing from a torn meniscus suffered in May and then injured his ankle in a win over Houston that forced him to miss the aforementioned loss to Loyola. After missing that game and playing at Colorado State when he wasn’t at full strength, Marks continued on the path that has made him a much-improved player even with the solid numbers he put up as a junior.

Last season Marks averaged 14.9 points per game, but he did so shooting 44.1% from the field and just under 29 percent from beyond the arc. As a senior, without the versatile Drmic to draw attention, Marks is up to 19.5 points per game while shooting better than 50 percent from both the field and from three. After ranking tenth in the Mountain West in offensive rating per kenpom.com (amongst players involved 24% of possessions), Marks is currently tops in the conference in that particular category.

“He just put in a lot of time, effort and energy into becoming a better player,” Rice said of Marks. “When he got hurt [during the summer] he studied the game in a different way, and he spent a lot of time shooting. Even when he couldn’t move, he took shots while sitting in a chair.”

The hard work has paid off for him individually, and it’s also led to Boise State entering Saturday’s game at Fresno State with an 18-6 record (8-3 Mountain West; a half-game behind San Diego State). The numbers are just one part of the equation for Marks, who’s also improved as a leader for Rice’s Broncos.

“I just wanted to focus on being the best leader I could be,” Marks told NBCSports.com. “Because after last year we lost our leader in Jeff [Elorriaga], and that was one area in which I knew I had to do if we were to win. It hasn’t been easy, but my coaches and teammates have helped me be a better leader.”

With Drmic going down others needed to step up as well, and that’s been the case during Boise State’s eight-game win streak. In conference play the Broncos are ranked third in field goal percentage, second in three-point percentage and first in free throw percentage, and as a result Boise State has the most efficient offense in the conference per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers. With multiple players stepping forward, and Boise State’s penchant for taking care of the basketball, the Broncos have been a tough team to slow down over the last month.

One of the players who has stepped up is sophomore forward James Webb III, who began a run of eight double-figure outings in nine games (the lone exception was Boise State’s 86-36 win over San Jose State) in a 65-54 loss at Wyoming. However according to Rice, the true breakthrough for Webb occurred in Boise State’s close loss at NC State in late-Novmeber. After playing a total of 13 minutes in the five games prior (missing two), Webb accounted for 12 points and four rebounds in 14 minutes of action.

“The game that got him going was the NC State game, and from there he hasn’t looked back,” Rice noted.

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Boise State’s James Webb III (AP Photo)

The 6-foot-9 Webb (11.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg) has been a key figure for a team looking to account for the loss of a player in Watkins who was their best rebounder in 2013-14. Webb’s produced six double-digit rebounding efforts this season, most recently going for 17 points and 15 rebounds in a comfortable win over Air Force Wednesday night.

“He’s playing hard,” Marks said of Webb. “He’s rebounding the ball like Ryan did last year, and that’s something we needed, and the rest of us are chipping in as well. He’s also shooting the ball well and playing good defense for us.”

While Webb has been their clear leader on the glass five other players are averaging between 2.6 and 3.5 rebounds per game for Boise State, which currently ranks third in the Mountain West in defensive rebounding percentage in conference games (73.2%). And that percentage isn’t far off from the 75.4% defensive rebounding percentage they produced a season ago.

Guard Mikey Thompson gives Boise State another experienced perimeter player, and forward Nick Duncan can pose problems matchup-wise due to his ability to step out and knock down perimeter shots. In total Boise State has nine active players averaging at least 11 minutes per game, and those numbers have been a factor in the Broncos’ climb from 0-3 to tied atop the Mountain West standings in the loss column.

Boise State wasn’t healthy in January, and when combined with an early conference schedule that included trips to fellow NCAA tournament hopefuls Colorado State and Wyoming there were bound to be issues. Now that their key players, save Drmic, are healthy, Boise State is looking to make a run at its first regular season conference title since 2008 (when they were in the WAC).

In the midst of a stretch in which four of their six games are on the road, including a meeting with the Aztecs February 28, the Broncos won’t lack for challenges in their quest for a title.

“It’s a tough stretch, anytime you’re playing a Mountain West road game,” Rice said when asked about the current portion of the schedule. “We’re going to have to play our best basketball these next few weeks to stay in the race.”

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.