Pac-12 Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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Arizona hasn’t won the Pac-12 tournament since 2002 (AP Photo)

For the second consecutive season the Arizona Wildcats convincingly won the Pac-12 regular season title, beating Oregon and Utah by three games. Sean Miller’s team is poised to play well into March and maybe even the first weekend of April, as they have all the qualities that a championship-caliber team possesses. The biggest boosts of the last month have been the improved play of center Kaleb Tarczewski and the bench scoring of Gabe York.

READ MORE: NBC Sports’ latest Bracketology

With leading contributors such as point guard T.J. McConnell and wings Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson, Arizona has the tools needed to win their first Pac-12 tournament title since 2002. The Wildcats will be the clear favorite in Las Vegas, but there are multiple teams that harbor thoughts of winning the title themselves. Utah has one of the nation’s best players in Delon Wright, and Oregon’s headliner is senior guard Joseph Young. Like Arizona, the Utes and Ducks will hear their names called Selection Sunday.

That brings us to the team that’s under the greatest pressure when it comes to the NCAA tournament: UCLA. While the Bruins are the four-seed there’s still work to be done when it comes to their at-large resume, and that’s what makes this week so important for them. Stanford, at one point considered to be a safe bet to return to the NCAA tournament, is now in a spot where they likely need the automatic bid to do so.

While every team has hopes of cutting down the nets Saturday night, there’s a clear favorite to accomplish that. But with Arizona not having the best fortune in this event, it wouldn’t be wise to rule out the field.

Bracket

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MORE: NBCSports.com’s 2015 Conference Tournament Previews

When: March 11-14

Where: MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas

Final: March 14, 11:00 p.m. (ESPN)

Favorite: Arizona

The last time Arizona won this event was in 2002, one year after their most recent Final Four appearance. If any motivation was needed for the Pac-12 tournament the conference’s coaches likely supplied that in their choices for the league’s top individual honors. Point guard T.J. McConnell, the heart and soul of this team, missed out on Pac-12 Player of the Year (Young won that) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson wasn’t named Defensive Player of the Year (Oregon State’s Gary Payton II won). Those two along with Stanley Johnson, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski make up one of the most talented starting units in the country and they’ve received solid contributions from the bench as well.

And if they lose?: Utah

Of Utah’s 13 conference wins just one was by fewer than ten points (at Washington State), but they didn’t finish the regular season playing their best basketball. Larry Krystkowiak’s Runnin’ Utes dropped three of their last five games, and they need junior guard Brandon Taylor to get back on track offensively. This is a group with depth and versatility, and with freshman Jakob Poeltl in the middle there’s skill in the post as well.

Other Contenders:

  • Oregon: Picked to finish eighth the Ducks are the two-seed in Las Vegas, and despite questions about the depth Dana Altman’s received contributions from a number of players. Joseph Young leads the way, but fellow vet Elgin Cook’s been good as have freshmen Jordan Bell and Dillon Brooks.
  • UCLA: Tony Parker’s been their barometer throughout Pac-12 play; when he’s engaged and productive inside the Bruins can be a handful. Norman Parker’s been outstanding and Kevon Looney is one of the best freshmen in the country. The key for UCLA’s guards this week: shot selection. When they remain under control and work the ball inside, good things tend to happen.

Sleeper: Arizona State

Given the number of new pieces it took some time for Herb Sendek’s team to mesh, but they arrive in Las Vegas having won five of their last seven. Tra Holder’s been good at the point as a freshman, and Gerry Blakes, Shaquielle McKissic and Savon Goodman are the leading scorers. They don’t match up particularly well with Utah, which won both meetings comfortably, but they lost two games to Oregon by a total of four points and have wins over Both Arizona and UCLA.

Deeper Sleeper: Stanford

Having lost three in a row and five of their last seven, the Cardinal stagger into Las Vegas. But they have experience in seniors Chasson Randle, Anthony Brown and Stefan Nastic, and Marcus Allen has earned more minutes as the season’s progressed. If Stanford is to have any hope of making a run they need Randle to shoot at a higher clip than the 39.3 percent he’s making for the entire season.

Pac-12 Player of the Year: Delon Wright, Utah

Wright’s one of the most versatile players in the country, as he’s averaging 14.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.1 steals per game game. And despite dealing with defenses that tend to dare him to shoot the three, Wright’s still shooting 52.2 percent from the field.

Pac-12 Coach of the Year: Dana Altman, Oregon

Oregon was picked to finish eighth and wound up tied for second, so from that angle this is an easy choice. And with their resume being what it was in early February, Altman’s Ducks arrive in Las Vegas as a lock to return to the NCAA tournament.

First Team All-Pac-12:

  • Wright
  • T.J. McConnell, Arizona: Competitor. Leader. Winner. McConnell averaged 6.3 assists per game and without him a very talented Arizona team isn’t as good as it currently is.
  • Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona: Averaging 11.2 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, Hollis-Jefferson is right there with Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein when it comes to the nation’s best (and most versatile) defender).
  • Joseph Young, Oregon: Young was the Pac-12’s leading scorer, averaging 19.8 points per game in addition to 4.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists.
  • Stanley Johnson, Arizona: The conference’s top freshman is averaging 13.9 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, leading the Wildcats in both categories.

Second Team All-Pac-12:

  • Tyrone Wallace, California
  • Norman Powell, UCLA
  • Anthony Brown, Stanford 
  • Gary Payton II, Oregon State 
  • Kevon Looney, UCLA 

Defining moment of the season: Gabe York’s offensive rebound in Arizona’s win at Utah

York was at the line for two free throws with Arizona trailing 57-55 with 1:39 remaining, less than 20 seconds after a Brandon Taylor free throw gave the Runnin’ Utes the lead. After making the first free throw, York followed his own miss to give the Wildcats a lead they would not relinquish. That sealed the game and another Pac-12 title for the Wildcats.

CBT Prediction: The motivated Wildcats win their first Pac-12 tournament title since 2002, beating Utah in the final.

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.