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A failed alley-oop is proof Marcus Paige is back for No. 9 North Carolina

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — To get an idea of just how much No. 9 North Carolina’s tilt with No. 2 Maryland meant to the Tar Heel faithful, you first need to understand how often their most famous fan makes it out to the Dean E. Smith Center to see a game these days.

Never.

At least not in the four years that Marcus Paige has been in Chapel Hill.

But on Tuesday night, sitting right there in the floor seats, close enough to trip Melo Trimble if need be, was rapper J. Cole. He showed up early in the first half and didn’t leave until he had a chance to meet the team and take a picture with them after the game.

How much did that mean to them?

On one of the first possessions that Cole was court side, North Carolina’s Joel James hit a turnaround jumper over a Maryland defender and, on his way back down court, winked and pointed at the Fayetteville native.

Kennedy Meeks’ reaction was even better.

“Kennedy pointed it out to me in the middle of a defensive possession!” noted hip-hop head Marcus Paige said with a laugh after the game. “I’m talking to get through a screen and he’s like, ‘J. Cole walked in! He’s sitting right over there.'”

“Lemme tell you,” Paige continued, “everyday I play J. Cole stuff. He’s like No. 1 for me in terms of hip-hop artists.”

“We’re always hoping, since he’s from North Carolina and stays around here, that he’d come through. That was really cool.”

He did come through.

And what he saw was the Tar Heels beat their former ACC rivals, 89-81, in a game that drove home a point: When they’re healthy, when Paige is himself, North Carolina may very well be the best team in the country.

—————–

“Was all over, reflectin’ my life, boy, you heard me

Top it off I throw on my Carolina jersey” – J. Cole, ‘I got it’

—————–

Marcus Paige is back.

For the first time this season, Paige donned a North Carolina jersey, which is huge for the Heels. He’s their leader and their star and their all-american. He was all three of those things on Tuesday. He was a creator. He was a calming presence on the offensive end. He dove on the floor defensively and was a constant voice in his teammate’s ears. He was everything that you could ask a senior all-american to be.

“I like my team,” head coach Roy Williams said after the game. “I like my team a lot better when No. 5 is out there.”

More importantly, however, this was the first time in more than a calendar year that Paige stepped onto the floor of the Dean Dome without a bad ankle. Or plantar fasciitis. Or any of the pain that bothered him throughout his disappointing junior season.

On Tuesday night, he “only” had a taped up right hand to protect a bone he broke four weeks ago.

It didn’t take Paige long to find the form that made him the NBCSports.com Preseason National Player of the Year prior to the 2014-15 season. On the first Tar Heel possession, he came off of a ball-screen, drove the lane and found Meeks at the rim for a layup. Not 30 seconds later, he came off of a down screen and buried a three. He would finish with 20 points and five assists, shooting 7-for-12 from the floor and 4-for-5 from three while committing just a single turnover.

But if you ask his teammates, the moment that they realized that Paige was back — that their all-american was back to being an all-american — came midway through the first half.

Paige had stripped Trimble at midcourt, the ball ending up in Brice Johnson’s hands on a 3-on-1 break. Paige — who is known for his savvy and shooting ability, not for his athleticism — was streaking up the right side of the floor, calling for a lob. Johnson’s pass was low (there’s a reason centers don’t lead fast breaks) and Paige ended up giving him the ball right back for a dunk that pushed UNC’s lead to 11 points, sent the crowd into hysterics and forced Maryland into a timeout.

The play was a turning point in the half, but what went overlooked in that moment was that Paige was calling for a lob.

That never happens.

“No,” Johnson said matter-of-factly when asked if he’s ever seen Paige do that before. “First time.”

“Maybe in pickup over the summer,” Joel Berry II said, “but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in an actual game.”

So when was the last time he called for a lob?

“Probably on the playground back in high school,” Paige said, adamant that he would have finished the play if the pass had been better. (Again, there’s a reason centers don’t lead fast breaks.)

And why was he calling for lobs?

“My body felt better than I thought it would,” he said, noting that he also tried to dunk on Maryland’s entire front line in the second half, drawing a foul in the process. “I was worried about how I would be conditioned because I only had one full practice of up and down.”

And that, more than anything, is the story from Tuesday night, that the Marcus Paige that Roy Williams currently has at his disposal is the Marcus Paige that took the ACC by storm as a sophomore; the Marcus Paige that was so dominant late in games that he earned the nickname ‘Second Half Marcus’. When he’s healthy, he’s far more athletic and dynamic that he gets credit for, and part of the reason for that is our short-term memory.

When we think of Paige, we think of the player we saw last season, the kid that failed to live up to the hype that he had entering the year. What we don’t think about is the fact that the kid was playing through plantar fasciitis in one foot and an ankle injury in the other foot that required offseason surgery. He didn’t complain about it. He didn’t use the injuries as an excuse or a crutch.

But the simple fact is that dealing with that pain in both feet — pain bad enough to relegate him to a stationary bike instead of the practice floor, pain that left him constantly limping around the apartment he and Johnson share — took away his quickness and explosiveness.

It’s back now.

“People don’t realize it, when Marcus is healthy?” Berry said, “I’ve seen it personally. In warmups today he did a windmill. Easy. Like it wasn’t nothing.”

So while we can sit here and listen to his teammates and coaches praise how valuable his presence is on the floor and what his leadership means to them and all those clichés and generalities that get thrown around by the sports media, what’s indisputable is that when Paige is healthy, he’s one of the best players in America. And missing one of the best players in America is the reason that North Carolina spent the first three weeks of the season looking like something other than the best team in America, or at least one of them.

Paige knows that.

He also knows that is what cost them that No. 1 ranking, that a 16-point collapse in a road game against one of the best mid-major programs in the country — a collapse that he could have helped prevent in a game that was scheduled to be his Iowa homecoming — is the reason that Tuesday night’s game didn’t feature the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country.

And that bothers him.

“I didn’t get a chance to stay No. 1,” Paige said. “Personally, I [do want it].”

“But I’m not too worried about that if we’re playing like the best team in the country.”

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

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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.