Back at the point where last season ended, No. 2 Arizona looks to end its Final Four drought

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LOS ANGELES — The NCAA tournament, while entertaining, can also be a painful experience. While some teams are eliminated in short order, others find themselves tantalizingly close to their goal of reaching the Final Four only to have that dream shattered with the defeat serving as motivation for the following season.

For the members of this year’s Arizona squad that played last season, the date March 29, 2014 is one that brings back vivid memories of what could have been. The top seed in the West region, the Wildcats played an absolute thriller with No. 2 Wisconsin in the regional final in Anaheim. Sean Miller’s team fell short of its goal of reaching the Final Four, losing by a point in overtime.

With that result came a number of questions, focusing on the impact that the absence of Brandon Ashley had on the team offensively as well as the question of when Miller would be able to get his program over the hump. That “hump” is getting to the sport’s final weekend, with the Final Four being an event that can change the narrative that hovers over a coach and his program.

With Arizona’s last Final Four appearance coming in 2001 and Miller yet to lead a team that far in his ten-plus seasons as a head coach, it’s seen as one of the final frontiers for both coach and program. While there’s definitely motivation to exceed last season’s run, there’s also the need to acknowledge the fact that this program has reached the Sweet 16 in each of the last three seasons and Saturday’s rematch will be Arizona’s second consecutive Elite Eight appearance.

“Of course it’s motivation to see if you can get back to this level,” Miller said after the Wildcats beat No. 6 Xavier Thursday night. “Very seldom are you right there in an Elite Eight game that you lose in overtime and then the next year you’re back, let alone playing the same team. So there is some uniqueness to that.

“But I think a lot of our players were motivated this off-season to come back and make a run at this. And here we are, and that’s really to our credit. As you know, especially in this tournament, that is not an easy thing to accomplish.”

Yet in this era, simply getting to the doorstep of the Final Four isn’t enough regardless of how difficult (or unpredictable) the NCAA tournament can be. Arizona hasn’t reached the Final Four since 2001, and this current stretch represents the longest since Lute Olson led the Wildcats to their first Final Four in 1988.

The hopes and expectations heaped upon elite programs can be tough for some players and coaches to bear. But in the case of Arizona they’re looking to do their best to simply focus on the task at hand, as opposed to what it could mean to the history books and the way in which their program is presently viewed.

“Obviously, it’s a big game to return to the Elite Eight and play the exact same opponent as we did last year and come up short,” senior point guard T.J. McConnell said Thursday night. “But we’re going to take it as any game like we would be playing anyone else. It doesn’t matter if we’re playing Wisconsin or if we were playing North Carolina, we’d game plan the same, and it happened to be Wisconsin.

“So we’re not making this game any bigger than it needs to be.”

That approach is one reason why the Wildcats have lost just three games on the season, with talent and depth being others. Last year’s group, especially once Ashley went down in early February, didn’t have as many options offensively and they didn’t have an answer when it came to defending Frank Kaminsky either. Arizona shot just 38.3 percent from two in the one-point loss, with their top three players in regards to shot attempts in that game all struggling to score inside of the arc.

Arizona’s improved its shooting from both inside of the arc and from the foul line this season, and they’ll need to produce a high-level game on that end of the floor against Wisconsin. Of greater importance for the Wildcats will be the way in which they defend Kaminsky, who singed them for 28 points and 11 rebounds (seven offensive) in Anaheim. Kaminsky was able to take advantage of matchups with both Aaron Gordon (in the post) and Kaleb Tarczewski (on the perimeter) that night, and he represents the biggest matchup issue for Arizona in the rematch as well.

But this is a group that is better equipped for that particular challenge, with Ashley healthy and the versatile Rondae Hollis-Jefferson developing into one of the nation’s best and most versatile defenders. Both Arizona and Wisconsin have undergone changes to their respective rotations, with Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes becoming more integral figures for the Badgers and Stanley Johnson giving the Wildcats some more offense on the wing.

Clearly both teams have been motivated by the way in which their respective seasons came to an end. However in the case of Arizona, there’s also the added burden of ending a streak that’s been active since 2001. And while those of us on the outside remain fascinated by the “best coach to have not reached the Final Four” label, for Miller it’s simply a matter of continuing to knock on the door in hopes of it eventually opening.

“Usually you have to knock at the door a few times before you break it down,” Miller said earlier this week. “We’ll see if this is our year. But we have that opportunity. What we’re trying to do is play our best right now. If we do that, based on our season and the team we have, I think we have a chance to advance.”

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.