While a major question remains unanswered, No. 4 North Carolina can be special in 2015-16

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LOS ANGELES — There’s no denying the fact that the 2014-15 season was a difficult one for North Carolina head coach Roy Williams. There was the passing of his friend and mentor Dean Smith, and there was also the NCAA investigation that’s still ongoing. Add in the fact that his team didn’t truly hit its stride until March, and Williams certainly had his hands full throughout the 2014-15 campaign.

North Carolina’s season came to an end Thursday night in the Sweet 16, as they fell 79-72 to West regional champion No. 1 Wisconsin, but the finish to the season is something that Williams and his players can build on this offseason. The Tar Heels hung with the Badgers throughout, but a couple key lapses on the defensive end proved costly down the stretch. Wisconsin rebounded nearly 39 percent of its misses Thursday night, and while the Badgers scored just ten second-chance points having to defend Bo Ryan’s team for longer stretches than one would want can add up over the course of a game.

North Carolina played arguably its best basketball of the season in March, winning three games in Greensboro before falling in the ACC tournament final to Notre Dame and then beating Harvard and Arkansas to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2012. Outside of center Desmond Hubert, who missed the final 16 games due to a torn ACL, everyone should be back next season led by guard Marcus Paige, wing Justin Jackson and big men Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks.

With that being the case the Tar Heels will be one of the early favorites in the ACC. And as we’ve seen, being a favorite in the ACC means that you’re a national title contender as well.

“If you think about it, you take away six minutes in the Notre Dame game and we would have had a great run here in the end, but you can’t take away the six minutes,” Williams said following Thursday’s defeat. “You take away the 7- or 9-0 stretch (in the second half), and we had a great run today.

“I want them to use this as fuel. The little lapses that Justin mentioned and that I mentioned to a failed boxout here or missed free throw there were important,” Williams continued. “And if we can take care of those little lapses, then we’ve got a chance to be one of those teams that has a chance to talk about winning the whole thing.”

The biggest development for North Carolina was the growth displayed by some of their supplementary options, with Johnson and Meeks being two of those players. While Meeks was hobbled by a sprained knee suffered against Arkansas Johnson played well against Wisconsin, accounting for 15 points and four rebounds despite playing just 22 minutes due to foul trouble. Both players made noticeable strides this season, with Johnson (13.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg) raising his scoring and rebounding averages by nearly three points and two rebounds per game and Meeks (11.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg) improving his scoring by nearly four points per contest while also being able to play more minutes.

Receiving increased offense from those two, not to mention the freshman Jackson (10.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.3 apg), ensured that North Carolina would have a fighting chance against quality competition on nights in which Paige wasn’t at his best offensively. Against Wisconsin the junior guard scored six of his 12 points in the final two minutes, with the shots keeping the Heels within striking distance, but it was the play of players such as Johnson and Jackson (15 points) that kept North Carolina afloat.

That should only help the program moving forward, as a more potent rotation means that Paige won’t be required to save the day as often as he has in the past. What will also help North Carolina is the bond they managed to create in the midst of what was a tough season for reasons both on and off the court.

“It was a tough year for us as a program and for coach especially with everything that happened,” Paige said. “But we have a great group of kids that enjoy being around each other more so than my freshman year, more so than last year. And we’re going to have a lot of the same kids next year.

“It hurts for the seniors because they don’t get another opportunity at this, and in college it goes so fast in those four years. You only get four cracks at it,” Paige continued. “Obviously it hurts right now because we’re such a close group of guys. But for the guys that do get to come back next year, we’re going to try to come together even more as a team and try to execute better and make something special out of it.”

North Carolina had to navigate a lot this season, including multiple injuries and an NCAA inquiry that has yet to be completed, but by the end still managed to finish a couple plays away from the Elite Eight. And the status of that NCAA inquiry will have an impact on what the Tar Heels are able to do next season.

But even with that cloud hovering over the program, with no one having much of an idea as to what will happen, the players can’t control that. What they can control is how they prepare for 2015-16, a year in which much will be expected of them. The depth and talent are there for North Carolina to put together a special season. What the Tar Heels do this offseason will determine whether or not that turns out to be the case.

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.