The difficulty in asking whether this Kentucky team is the best team ever

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INDIANAPOLIS — The conversation will be had regardless of what happens this week in Indianapolis. Whether or not Kentucky actually leaves Lucas Oil Stadium with a pair of wins, an unblemished record and a national title, the question is going to eventually be asked: where does this team rank among the greatest college basketball teams ever assembled?

Are they the best ever?

There’s no easy answer, but this is what happens when you are the first team in 24 years to enter the Final Four without a loss. It’s what happens when you are the first team to ever start a season 38-0. And it’s what happens when you do all of that with nine players that will likely end up playing in the NBA one way or another, some as lottery picks and potential all-stars.

But there probably isn’t a right answer, either, because comparing teams across eras is not only difficult, it may not be possible.

It starts with the obvious: players don’t stay in college as long as they did 20 or 30 years ago. Take, for example, Jerry Tarkanian’s 1990-91 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels squad, the last group to reach the Final Four without a loss. That team was led by Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon, all of whom were seniors and top 12 picks in the 1991 NBA Draft; Larry Johnson went No. 1 overall. George Ackles, a second round pick in 1991, was a senior, too. Anderson Hunt, a junior that season, was the youngest member of the starting lineup. Indiana’s 1975-76 team, the last one to finish a season undefeated, was led by four seniors — Scott May, Quinn Buckner, Tom Abernathy and Bob Wilkerson — and junior Kent Benson. May, Buckner and Wilkerson were all picked in the top 11 of the 1976 NBA Draft, and Benson went No. 1 overall in 1977.

This Kentucky team? They’re considered “old” because they start junior Willie Cauley-Stein and sophomores Andrew and Aaron Harrison. They’re “veteran-laden” because their rotation includes four sophomores and Cauley-Stein in addition to Karl Anthony-Towns, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles and Tyler Ulis.

For comparison’s sake, if early entry wasn’t a thing and college basketball players still spent four years in college, Cauley-Stein — a first-team all-american — and Towns — the potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft — wouldn’t be playing all that much because Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel, Julius Randle and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would all still be in college.

The development curve of an athlete is never steeper than when they are in their late-teens and early-20s. It’s when they go from a prospect to a player, and while Coach Cal has worked his magic with these prospects, we’ve never actually seen what happens if he was able to coach them as “players.”

But there’s another level to this. Player development happens at an earlier age these days, whether it’s the result of specialization in one sport or more emphasis on time spent in the weight room or the age at which these kids get thrown into the fast track towards being a professional. In other words, freshmen get to campus better prepared both physically and from a skills standpoint to be able to contribute when they set foot on campus. It’s not as simple as saying  the best seniors on the best teams in the 80s are unequivocally better than the best freshmen on the best teams today.

Another question that needs to be asked is just how good these kids end up being as pros. There’s no question that Towns has a chance to be a franchise player in the NBA, but who else on this Kentucky team will end up being an NBA All-Star? Trey Lyles, maybe. Devin Booker’s got a shot, and so does Willie Cauley-Stein. None of those are locks, however, and fair or not, the way that we will remember this team 15 or 20 years down the road will largely depend on just how good these kids end up being at the next level.

Think about it like this: there’s an argument to be made that this isn’t even one of Cal’s top two teams that he’s had at Kentucky. Some will tell you that it was the 2012 team that won the national title, the one that had Kidd-Gilchrist and Davis, but how much of that is a result of the fact that Davis has turned into one of the NBA’s top four players? Others might tell you that it’s the 2010 team, the one that featured John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and Patrick Patterson on the same roster. That’s a direct result of Wall, Cousins and Bledsoe have all become max — or near-max — NBA players, because that year the Wildcats finished the season ranked 27th in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and lost in the Elite 8 to West Virginia because they simply were not able to shoot the ball from the perimeter.

So you tell me.

John Wooden’s UCLA teams from the ’60s. Indiana’s 1975 and 1976 teams. Georgetown’s Hoya Paranoia teams from the mid-80s. What about the 1991 UNLV team, or the Duke team that beat them and repeated in 1992? Kentucky in 1996. Duke in 1999 or 2001.

Where does this Kentucky team rank among that group?

Who knows.

We’ll never be able to reach a consensus.

But I will say this: a loss on Saturday or Monday night shouldn’t change how you feel about this group historically, but if they do end up winning the title, Kentucky will have undoubtedly completed the greatest season in the history of our sport.

And that may actually mean more than being the greatest team of all-time.

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.