The story in Memphis isn’t Austin Nichols’ transfer, it’s if we’ve already seen Peak Pastner

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Josh Pastner (AP Photo)

Here’s what we know about Austin Nichols’ decision to request a release to transfer out of the Memphis program: He has asked to leave and the powers that be at Memphis, including head coach Josh Pastner, have decided against granting him a release.

Beyond that, rumors run deeper than details.

Is Nichols upset with the way that he’s developed under Pastner’s tutelage the last two seasons? Is he sick of losing and convinced things aren’t going to change in the near-future? Is he bothered having watched Duke, who Nichols passed on coming out of high school, win a national title while sending three guys to the first round of the draft? Is he worried about playing time if Memphis turns to ‘Daddy Ball’ with the Lawson brothers coming into the program? Is his dad the one pushing him to make this decision? Did Nichols just break up with his girlfriend?

Is it all of the above?

Perhaps the more relevant point of discussion here is whether he would be able to get that release through a simple sitdown with the coaching staff — something that, according to Pastner, has not yet happened — because in the end, that’s the big-picture issue here. A coach with a multi-million dollar contract denying an amateur student-athlete a transfer release, forcing the kid to play tuition during his mandatory redshirt season.

That’s shameful.

It’s inherently wrong.

And if Pastner doesn’t change his mind eventually, he’ll rightfully get ripped. But his anger — and his desire for vengeance, which is what this is — is also understandable. Losing a kid to a transfer in March is one thing. Having them decide to leave in July is entirely different. Learning about the transfer via an email from the kid’s dad? Yeah. I’d be mad, too.

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Austin Nichols (AP Photo)

But at the end of the day, what we’re talking about is the Nichols family being forced to pay tuition at their new school for one year, a year he’s going to have to redshirt regardless of whether or not he gets a release. It’s a significant financial hit, but one that can be supplemented by student loans, generous financial aid packages and perhaps even a rogue booster or two. Considering Nichols’ future probably holds a significant professional basketball career, I have a feeling he’ll end up just fine either way.

To me, the most significant part of this decision by Nichols is the negative light that is once again being shined on Pastner’s program. Nichols was the leading scorer and second-leading rebounder for the Tigers in addition to being one of the best shot-blockers in the country, and he’s leaving a team that went 18-14 overall and 10-8 in the thoroughly mediocre American last year.

Adding Alabama transfer Ricky Tarrant should help solidify the point guard spot, and a freshmen class that includes Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson and Nick Marshall should provide Pastner with plenty of front court depth, but what about this roster is intimidating? Shaq Goodwin regressed last season and Tarrant averaged 2.0 assists for a team that went 8-10 in the SEC in 2014-15.

In other words, it’s very possible that Memphis ends up missing their second straight NIT in 2015-16.

It would be one thing if these issues were cyclical. Billy Donovan went to two straight NITs with Florida after Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Al Horford went to the NBA. They also won back-to-back national titles. Kentucky went to the NIT in 2013, the outlier in a four-year run that included a national title and three Final Fours. UConn missed the tournament in 2007, 2010 and 2013. They also won national titles in 2004, 2011 and 2014, reaching another Final Four in 2009.

Pastner?

He has the same number of NCAA tournament wins — two in six seasons — as years that his teams have missed the tournament altogether.

But it gets worse.

Nichols is the fifth member of Pastner’s loaded, six-man 2013 recruiting class that has transferred. Nick King, a former top 50 recruit, transferred out in March. Kuran Iverson, another former top 50 prospect, left in the middle of the 2014-15 season. Dominic Woodson was a top 100 recruit that lasted a year before he was shown the door. Pookie Powell nearly transferred after his freshman season before leaving this spring. The only kid left is Markel Crawford, who saw less playing time than overweight and out of shape Kedren Johnson and Southeastern Louisiana transfer Avery Crawford.

Now to be fair, not all of those transfers are a bad thing. Sometimes showing a knucklehead the door is addition by subtraction, but that doesn’t change the fact that there was ‘subtraction’ in the first place. What made Fred Hoiberg great at the college level is that he brought in knuckleheads and got them to buy into his system, to play hard and play to win. Royce White has played one season of basketball since graduating high school in 2009, and Hoiberg made him an all-american and a first round pick in the 2012 draft that season.

Woodson seemingly spent his entire Memphis career suspended. Iverson transferred about a week after ripping his coach on twitter. He, too, was suspended at the time.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of this entire soap opera is that Memphis seemingly turned a corner during the 2013-14 season. Pastner not only won a game against a top 25 team for the first time in his career, he did it in a rematch against a Marcus Smart-led Oklahoma State team that had just beaten the Tigers by 21 points 12 days earlier, a loss that convinced just about every fan in the city to call for his job. He’d eventually go on to win five games against top 25 opponents that season — including a sweep of Louisville — and eventually won a game in the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season.

It was the first season that Memphis was a member of the American Athletic Conference, making it unequivocally the best season in his tenure with the Tigers.

That season — and that win over Oklahoma State — was supposed to change the narrative for these Tigers.

And it did, but what if it wasn’t a sign of which way Pastner’s program was trending?

What if that was Peak Pastner?

And in a city that cares as much about their college basketball as Memphis does — a city that got used to the success of John Calipari, Pastner’s predecessor — how much longer will Peak Pastner be acceptable?

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

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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.