Quinn Cook changes position, attitude to lead Duke to the Final Four

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INDIANAPOLIS — The bond between Quinn Cook and Nolan Smith runs deep, a friendship that has blossomed since the pair first met at an AAU tournament in Memphis 15 years ago. An 11-year-old Smith walked up to six-year-old Cook and said, “you’re my little brother,” and since that moment, their friendship has grown to the point that Cook lists Smith as his god-brother on his player profile on the Duke basketball website.

The two don’t share a parent, but what they do share is a bond over the vacancy of a parent in their lives. Smith’s father, Derek, died on a family cruise when Nolan was just eight years old. A decade later, Cook’s father passed away during surgery. The two believe that they were put in each other’s lives for that very reason. Smith helps — present tense — Cook work through the tragedy of a child growing up without a father, a process that helps Smith deal with the void his father’s death left in his life just as much as it does Cook.

You can probably figure out, then, that it’s not a coincidence Cook’s career path, entering this season, had mirrored Smith’s. They played for the same AAU program, the DC Assault. They both transferred out of a Maryland basketball powerhouse to play their senior season in high school at Oak Hill Academy. They both signed with Duke as McDonald’s All-Americans, and they both donned the No. 2 in Duke blue. Smith’s senior season ended with him being named an All-American after carrying Duke through the loss of Kyrie Irving to a toe injury.

Cook?

He got demoted, as Mike Krzyzewski recruited star point guard Tyus Jones over him. Cook had a decision to make.

“Tyus was a point guard that was going to step right in and play — and most likely start,” Smith told NBCSports.com. “He had to accept that. I told [Cook], ‘you have to be ready to slide to the two’ or, you know, if he wasn’t ready, be a backup.”

There was no guarantee that Cook would buy-in. Playing the point is a mindset. It’s an identity. That’s who Quinn Cook was, and, frankly, who he believes he is today. He is a point guard, and not only is he now being asked to play a different position than he’s had in his entire basketball-playing life, but he has to do it because Coach K went out and recruited a player that was better than him.

That’s one way to get your ego put in check.

And Cook had plenty of ego to spare. He even admitted to reporters on Friday afternoon that he wasn’t always the easiest player for the coaching staff to deal with.

“It’s a lot of stuff,” he said with the laugh of a man wise enough to understand his past mistakes. “Immaturity. … Off the court stuff, like my mentality going into games, preparing the right way. I just had to grow up.”

And grow up he did.

Cook has completely bought into the idea of playing off the ball, and to hear Smith tell it, he didn’t need any coaxing or any convincing. “We talked about that at the end of last season,” he said. “It was easy. He was ready. He just wanted to win this season, whether he was starting at the point or starting on the wing, he was just tired of losing in the first round. He wasn’t going to let that happen this year.”

“We talked about the fact that here is this class that’s coming in,” Coach K added. “Tyus is one of the really good point guards. People think of you as a point guard. They just put you in there. But you have been a guard for us. You’re our best shooter. You’re going to be our oldest player. Where does that fit? How does that fit?”

“I tried to explain what I thought. And he said, ‘Yeah, that’s how I would fit’. I said, ‘I’m going to depend on you.'”

The result?

“My MVP of that team is Cook,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said on Friday, and while he’s not entirely accurate, Izzo’s far from alone in that belief.

Jahlil Okafor is Duke’s most valuable player simply because there is no one else that can do what he does the way he does it in the country. He’s an unstoppable force in the paint. That’s not replicable. Justise Winslow is just as valuable as Okafor because of what he allows Duke to do defensively. He can guard point guards and he can guard power forwards, and, when he starts at the four, he creates all kinds of matchup nightmares on the offensive end of the floor.

But what Cook provides goes beyond the box score, although his 15.5 points, 2.7 assists and 40.1 percent three-point shooting is pretty darn important. Throw in Jones, and the three biggest names on this Duke roster are freshmen. The adjustment from high school superstar to college freshman with impossible expectations is not an easy one to handle, and Cook has played a major role in that learning process.

Particularly for the guy that took his job.

“He’s had a good teacher,” Coach K said of Jones, “and it hasn’t been his coach. It’s been primarily Quinn.”

“Myself and Tyus, a lot of people try to make a big deal about us playing the same position, us not playing together,” Cook added. “That’s made us closer.”

And that leadership, that ownership of the program, has made Duke better. Think about the tone that sets for the rest of the roster. Cook was willing to make major personal sacrifices for the betterment of his team. He also stepped up when Duke’s season appeared to be in dire straits. They had just lost back-to-back games to N.C. State and Miami and were getting lit up by talented back court playmakers, so Cook decided that it was time for him to become the team’s elite on-ball defender, playing the biggest role in Duke slowing down the likes of Delon Wright, Kevin Pangos, Jerian Grant and Marcus Paige.

“He’s really stepped up and wanted to take the challenge of being the defender,” Smith said. “I’m not sure who else would have did it, and he took it upon himself to say, ‘alright, I’m going to be that guy.'”

And to show for it, Cook now has his first banner to hang in Cameron Indoor Stadium. Prior to Sunday’s win over Gonzaga in the Elite 8, Cook had never actually won anything while at Duke, no ACC tournaments, no ACC regular season titles, no Final Fours. Nothing.

It bothered him.

He didn’t want that to be his legacy.

Technically, however, he still hasn’t won anything yet.

“I think getting to the Final Four is a sigh of relief,” Smith said, “but [now that he’s here], he’s not done. He’s like, ‘well, now I gotta get the whole thing.'”

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.