Seven takeaways from the AAU weekend at Nike EYBL, UAA and adidas Gauntlet

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Dennis Smith (Kelly Kline/adidas)

The second live evaluation period of April is in the books. With the Nike EYBL (Lexington), Under Armour Association (Louisville) and adidas Gauntlet (Indianapolis) all within approximately three hours of one other it was a great chance to check out all three shoe-company events and evaluate the top players in the country — as well as the ever-evolving landscape of major grassroots basketball.

1. The big names in the 2016 class came up with some signature performances this weekend

One of the fun things about player rankings is the debate that comes with it. With some of the best players in the 2016 class putting up big numbers this weekend, that debate will only continue to rage on. Whether it was five-star wing Josh Jackson’s 41-point outing in the Under Armour Association, Malik Monk putting up multiple big scoring outings, Jayson Tatum doing some great things in a high-profile game against Michael Porter Jr.’s team or Dennis Smith leading his Team Loaded to the title at the adidas Uprising event, a lot of the top dogs had themselves a nice weekend. Those four players, plus Class of 2016 forward Harry Giles, have positioned themselves to be in the discussion for No. 1 in the class by the end of the summer. Others like Kobi Simmons (who unfortunately got hurt and couldn’t play when I attended adidas on Sunday) Lonzo Ball and Terrance Ferguson (to name a few) could certainly enter that equation, but those aforementioned five are off to a strong start this spring.

2. For the second consecutive class, there is a drought in high-level point guards

The Class of 2015 didn’t have a lot of point guards for high-major programs and it led to a lot of coaches offering combo guards or scrambling to find anyone who could effectively run a team. It appears that the 2016 class doesn’t have a lot of great high-major point guard options either. All three shoe company circuits had a number of 2017 prospects starting at point guard on some teams and the amount of high-level floor generals is once again down. There are some really good combo guards out there in the 2016 class, but very few players who can actually step up and run a team entering major college basketball next season. It’ll be intriguing to see if some other names step up this spring and make a play for some of these spots because many college coaches were quick to mention the lack of options.

3. The 2017 class is trending in the right direction for high-level players

Because of adidas adding a lot of 17U teams to their adidas Gauntlet this season, there appears to be even more younger prospects playing up in major events then ever before. Members of the 2017 class playing up on the 17U level seemed to acclimate well in the games I took in over the weekend. The heavy hitters like five-stars Michael Porter Jr., Troy Brown, Jarred Vanderbilt and Wendell Carter all had strong performances while plenty of other younger players playing up started to make a name for themselves on the national scene. The 2017 class is intriguing because it already features some great big men, some good wings and some talented guards. The class doesn’t appear to have a defining positional group yet and that speaks to the balance we’ve seen so far.

4. De’Aaron Fox will be in the discussion for best two-way guard in the Class of 2016

While many of the five-star 2016 prospects had themselves strong offensive outings this weekend, none of them displayed the defensive intensity of Texas native De’Aaron Fox. The duo of Fox and 2017 wing teammate Jarred Vanderbilt were a two-man wrecking crew on the defensive end for Houston Hoops in Lexington and Fox uses his quickness and tremendous natural instinct to make plays in passing lanes that few others can make. Fox told me after the game that he loves the intensity of Russell Westbrook on both ends of the floor and that kind of passion shows especially on the defensive end.

5. The best Class of 2018 prospect might currently reside in the Class of 2016

Utah native Frank Jackson is a rising senior guard who is also rising up the Class of 2016 rankings thanks to a complete scoring package and an ability to play a bit of both guard spots. He’s also being recruited, heavily, because he’s looking to take a two-year mission trip before he enters college basketball. That effectively makes him a member of the Class of 2018 and coaches are already enamored with the prospect of landing a potential All-American guard and then giving him two additional years to develop further. As one college coach put it to NBCSports.com, “There will be better long-term prospects in 2018, but nobody will be more ready for college basketball in that class then Frank Jackson.”

6. There are still plenty of big men who want to play near the hoop

Over the last few years there’s been an abundance of big men trying to develop perimeter games so that they can be the next stretch four or the next Kevin Durant. At all three events, there were also plenty of classic back-to-the-basket big men who seemed to have no desire to shoot the ball outside of 15 feet. This is encouraging to watch because some of these younger big men need to focus on improving near the basket first before worrying about stretching the defense. If you’re a high school basketball player pushing 7-feet tall, you should dominate in the paint and there were plenty of bruising big men with

7. Things continue to get better in the shoe-company circuit (for all three companies)

The modern “shoe wars” are only going to continue to grow and it’s because all three major brands competing for American grassroots supremacy keep making changes to enhance the scene — and the game — even further.

The Nike EYBL continues to be at the forefront of the scene thanks to its longevity, history and overall approach to spring basketball. While adidas and Under Armour have done a great job to catch up as best they can with Nike these last two years, Nike is still the king in the equation thanks to owning the deepest amount of overall talent, the best quality of basketball and the backing of the EYBL’s name brand.

The Kentucky Basketball Academy in Lexington was probably a bit too small to house an EYBL event, but it showed that casual basketball fans will continue to attend these events no matter where the location. Having now attended EYBL events in Hampton, Dallas, Minneapolis and Lexington the last few years, the crowds for EYBL events is bigger and there’s more local buzz surrounding the events. Having EYBL alums — like Kentucky players in Lexington –show up to watch games also enhances the credibility of the league going forward.

That’s not to say the other companies aren’t doing tremendous things in their own right.

Under Armour continues to be at the forefront of innovation by adding iPhone apps, advanced film breakdown and analytics in Synergy sports to cover games and by putting 15U, 16U and 17U games under one roof for the same event. They’ve also done a nice job of building fun player profile pages where you can find out a player’s favorite pre-game song and basketball movie. They do a nice job of treating each player more as individuals, where as the other leagues focus more on the overall teams and the top players.

The consensus opinion among coaches and media for adidas, meanwhile, seemed to indicate that the Gauntlet has improved greatly since last year from a talent perspective. Having seen the games on Sunday, I tend to agree with this assessment and there’s a lot to like going forward with the Three Stripes as well. Synergy is also working with adidas and their overall branding around the event and the league was significantly up compared to last year. The only thing holding adidas back was the confusing nature of their scheduling, which sent many coaches and media members scrambling on the final day of the event. But that’s a small change to make going forward and not too big of a deal.

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.