SEC Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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Kentucky vs. The Field has been a popular debate among college basketball for much of the season, but first, the Wildcats have to get out of the SEC Tournament. At 31-0, John Calipari’s team is the heavy favorite to win the auto bid and it will be interesting to see if Kentucky continues its trend of playing well in big games on national television.

As long as Kentucky stays healthy and fully engaged, there’s no reason they shouldn’t win in Nashville.

Arkansas is the only other top-25 team in the SEC and the Razorbacks are coming off of a late loss against LSU as they’ve faltered a bit down the stretch. But the Razorbacks feature the SEC’s Player of the Year in sophomore Bobby Portis and he’s been fantastic during SEC play.

READ MORE: NBC Sports’ latest Bracketology

From there, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss and Texas A&M are still fighting for NCAA Tournament bids and/or better seeding. The Aggies and Tigers, in particular, could use a win or two to help get them into the field of 68 while Georgia and Ole Miss could use some wins to get out of the near double-digit seeding range they currently sit.

Some other dangerous teams lurk in the lower seeds as Vanderbilt is playing much better late in the season after some close losses and Florida has enough talent to at least put a scare into Kentucky if they play in the quarterfinals and the Wildcats have an off-night.

Bracket

source:

MORE: NBCSports.com’s 2015 Conference Tournament Previews

When: March 11-15

Where: Bridgestone Arena, Nashville

Final: March 15, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

Favorite: Kentucky

Like there was any doubt? The Wildcats have rolled to a perfect 31-0 record before heading to Nashville to begin the postseason and it seems as though Kentucky plays even better when the game has national significance. Defensively, Kentucky can be as dominant as any team in the country, and offensively, they have so many different weapons and ways to get shots that they’re tough to stop.

And if they lose?: Arkansas

The Razorbacks benefited from only facing Kentucky once in the SEC and they’re the only team in the conference to be consistently featured in the top 25 during league play. Led by third-team All-American Bobby Portis, the Razorbacks have been more consistent away from home this season and can intimidate teams with their athleticism on both ends of the floor. But can Mike Anderson’s team bounce back from a 3-2 end of the conference season that also included some narrow wins?

Other Contenders

  • Georgia: Besides being swept by South Carolina and losing to Auburn at home, the Bulldogs have been rather strong in SEC play and have only lost to the conference’s top-four teams outside of that. Plus, Mark Fox’s team has actually given Kentucky a real test this season.
  • LSU: The road win at Arkansas to end the season was a big one and sophomore Jarell Martin is playing tremendous down the stretch. The Tigers are certainly talented enough to make a run in the postseason if Jordan Mickey is healthy and playing at full speed.

Sleeper: Vanderbilt

The Commodores are surging down the stretch and the experienced pieces are finally gelling with the freshmen. Sophomore big man Damian Jones has generated some early NBA buzz while freshman guard Riley LaChance is one of the most underrated freshman among power conferences in the country. As a team, Vanderbilt shoots 39 percent from 3-point range, and if they get hot, they can be tough to stop.

SEC Player of the Year: Bobby Portis, Arkansas

A third-team NBCSports.com All-American, Portis was the most important individual player on any team in the SEC this season. Averaging 17.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game on good shooting splits (56% FG, 42% 3Pt, 74% FT), the 6-foot-11 sophomore scored in double figures in all but one game this season as the Razorbacks’ go-to guy. In SEC play Portis played even better, as he averaged 18.6 points and 9.3 rebounds per game while also blocking 2.8 shots a game in league play.

SEC Coach of the Year: John Calipari, Kentucky

Kentucky has answered every question about its use of one-and-done players and the platoon system this season by dominating opponents and playing mostly selfless basketball. Calipari is a huge reason why. The head coach has gotten nine McDonald’s All-Americans to put aside ego for the greater good of the bigger picture (a national title) and the result has been one of the best college basketball teams in recent memory.

First-Team All-SEC:

  • Portis
  • Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky – An NBCSports.com first-team All-American, the junior center is the country’s best defensive player, covering an incredible amount of ground on the perimeter while also protecting the rim as well as anyone in the nation.
  • Karl Anthony-Towns, Kentucky – The potential top-3 pick in the NBA Draft has played his best ball down the stretch. The freshman center only plays an average of 20 minutes a game but has at least 12 points in eight of his last 11 games.
  • Josh Richardson, Tennessee – It’s hard to imagine how bad Tennessee basketball would have been this season without Josh Richardson. The senior used a great 2014 NCAA Tournament as momentum for a tremendous senior year.
  • Jarell Martin, LSU – Coin flip between Martin and sophomore teammate Jordan Mickey based on numbers. Mickey has many more blocks, but Martin has been huge down the stretch, including 27 points in a road win at Arkansas that might have saved LSU’s season.

Second Team All-SEC:

  • Jordan Mickey, LSU
  • Danuel House, Texas A&M
  • Damian Jones, Vanderbilt
  • Stefan Moody, Ole Miss
  • Devin Booker Kentucky

CBT Prediction: Kentucky stays unbeaten entering the NCAA Tournament and beats Georgia for the title.

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.