Michigan State gears up to slow down Jahlil Okafor (and his teammates) the second time around

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INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan State knows they need to slow down freshman center Jahlil Okafor in order to beat Duke on Saturday.

Putting a roadblock down in front of the potential No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft isn’t some kind of Earth-shattering game plan, but Okafor’s opening flurry against Michigan State in the Champions Classic in November left the Spartans staggering and they never recovered. Okafor scored eight of Duke’s first 14 points in the game’s opening 4:30 in the November contest — also in Indianapolis — and found Amile Jefferson for an assist on another bucket.

Only first-half foul trouble slowed down Okafor and the Spartans never held a lead during the Champions Classic after taking the first punch and dropping to one knee. Okafor finished with 17 points and five rebounds, but he was 8-for-10 from the field and Michigan State did little to slow him down.

With two of Duke’s premier perimeter threats, senior Quinn Cook and freshman Tyus Jones, struggling to shoot in football stadiums during the 2015 NCAA tournament — as Saturday’s Final Four will be played in the domed Lucas Oil Stadium — the Spartans expect Okafor to get active and involved early just like he did in November.

“That’s where he made his money last time, so I wouldn’t see why they wouldn’t try that again,” Michigan State junior big man Matt Costello said of Okafor setting the tone early.

It might seem easy for Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo to throw on the tape from November and see what the Spartans did wrong against Okafor, but both teams have evolved and adapted from the beginning of the season. The Spartans are more at full strength after early-season injuries to guards Bryn Forbes and Alvin Ellis and Duke has also shortened its rotation after booting Rasheed Sulaimon from the program.

Michigan State has watched some film from the Champions Classic loss but they’ve mostly focused on tape of Okafor from the end of the season to get a clearer picture of how Duke is using him differently within its offense.

“They’re a very different team now. Maybe you can watch some of [Okafor’s] individual moves because they haven’t changed that substantially, but as far as the team? They’ve changed a ton since we’ve played them,” Michigan State junior Colby Wollenman said. “They’re almost a completely different team.”

With Duke opting to go small and starting Matt Jones as another perimeter threat, instead of Amile Jefferson, it changes how often teams can collapse on Okafor with the smaller lineup. The Spartans have also noticed that Okafor has looked even better with the additional spacing than he did earlier in the season.

“We watch a lot of film [on Okafor]. Just the different things we’ve picked up: he’s much more aggressive, much more confident in what he’s doing. We have to take that away,” Costello said.

Costello and sophomore big man Gavin Schilling will be a key in Michigan State’s game plan on Okafor. The Spartans opted not to double team him that much in November and they hope that they can get away with a similar defensive style at times on Saturday. With so many shooters on the floor for Duke, Michigan State is keenly aware that Okafor can score in single digits and Duke could still win.

“We have to be careful of that,” Costello said of the shooters. “But coach has a game plan and if we stick to that plan we have a chance to win.”

With Duke inserting Matt Jones into the starting lineup instead of Jefferson, it’s also made freshman wing Justise Winslow another unique matchup problem for Michigan State. Cook and Tyus Jones are a combined 12-for-37 from the field and 2-for-11 from the 3-point line in the two games Duke played in football stadiums in the NCAA tournament, so it makes Winslow’s recent stretch of strong play that much more important for the Blue Devil offense. Winslow’s power drive game helped close out the Spartans in November as the Houston native had 15 points and six rebounds — going 6-for-9 from the free-throw line.

“A lot of [Duke’s offense] starts with [Okafor] but Justise Winslow has been playing much better throughout the tournament,” Wollenman said. “He was very young at the time [of our first game]. There’s a chance they try to put us in foul trouble with [Okafor], but they do have so many weapons.”

Duke’s offensive firepower lies in the balance of its offense, but Izzo can say the same for his defense, which has greatly improved, from an overall team perspective, since November. Individually, Michigan State offers little resistance to stop future pros like Okafor and Winslow, but as a team, they believe their defense gives them a chance.

“We weren’t real physical. We weren’t as strong as most of my teams have been. We just kind of rallied around,” Izzo said of his team’s defense. “My assistants did a great job of getting guys to buy into the team — team defense. You always play some team defense, but we’re almost strictly team defense. Individually we’re average.”

A group of “average” individuals for Michigan State are going to have to collectively form an elite defense to slow down a couple of future lottery picks. Given Tom Izzo’s track record of teams peaking in March, would it shock anyone if it happened?

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

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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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

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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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

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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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.