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Big Ten Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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The Big Ten enters conference tournament week with some intriguing storylines after an unbalanced league schedule and a lot of competitive teams towards the top of the standings. Indiana took home the conference’s regular-season title by two full games, but the Hoosiers played a much weaker schedule than many of their top Big Ten counterparts as this conference tournament should truly tell us where Indiana is at heading into the Big Dance.

Michigan State is also peaking at the right time as Denzel Valentine looks like a potential National Player of the Year and the Spartans look like a major national-title contender. Besides the top two seeds, Maryland, Purdue, Iowa and Wisconsin will all try to improve their NCAA tournament seeding with strong showings in Indianapolis while Michigan and Ohio State try to do everything they can to claw their way into the at-large discussion.

The Bracket 

2016mbbtournamentbracket

When: March 9-13

Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Indiana

Final: Sunday, March 13, 3:00 p.m. (CBS)

Favorite: Michigan State

Would you want to bet against Michigan State in March? Yeah, me neither. The Spartans have won six consecutive games entering the Big Ten Tournament (by an average of 21.1 points per game) as they’re playing perhaps their best ball of the season. Denzel Valentine is one of the best players in the country, Bryn Forbes is a great second option and one of the nation’s best shooters and the Spartans might have more talent on this roster than last year’s Final Four team.

And if they lose?: Indiana

The No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, the Hoosiers played an easier schedule than some in the conference this season, but they still deserve plenty of credit for winning the league by two full games. Winners of five consecutive games, Indiana has improved immensely on the defensive end since the start of the season and they feature one of the most potent offenses in the country. Although Indiana is the No. 1 seed, they’re 0-1 against No. 2 seed Michigan State this season, suffering an 88-69 loss in East Lansing on Feb. 14.

Other Contenders:

  • Maryland: The Terps are 2-4 in their last six games, but they have enough talent to compete with any team in the league if they come together.
  • Purdue: Purdue’s front-court depth makes them a tough out in a tournament setting, but the Boilers have to hit perimeter shots to beat the Big Ten’s elite teams.

Sleeper: Wisconsin

Entering as the No. 6 seed, it’s hard to call the Badgers a “sleeper” in this since they’re safely in the NCAA tournament field, but they do have the kind of team that can make a run in Indianapolis. If the Badgers get Maryland in the quarterfinals, they gave the Terps everything they could handle in splitting during the regular season. Wisconsin also owns a win over the conference’s top two seeds, Indiana and Michigan State, this season.

The Bubble Dwellers:

  • Michigan: The Wolverines have dropped four of their last five entering the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan has to beat Northwestern in its opener on Thursday and then follow that up by beating No. 1 seed Indiana on Friday. Even if Michigan wins those first two games, they probably wouldn’t truly feel safe unless they win another game to make the tournament title game.
  • Ohio State: Ohio State is doing everything they can to stay relevant on Selection Sunday, but they’re going to have to win multiple games to get in as an at-large team. The Buckeyes have to beat Penn State on Thursday and probably need another win against Michigan State after that to even be considered. Much like rival Michigan, Ohio State is going to need as many wins as possible next week to feel comfortable as a credible at-large threat.

Big Ten Player of the Year: Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

The runaway winner of this award is Valentine, who is also a strong contender for National Player of the Year. The 6-foot-5 senior was simply dominant whenever he took the floor this season, as Valentine averaged 19.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game. While filling up the box score every night, Valentine was also ruthlessly efficient, as he improved all of his shooting splits from his junior season (47% FG, 84% FT, 45% 3PT). Besides putting up big numbers, Valentine is perhaps the country’s most important emotional leader, as he gives the Spartans the kind of attitude that makes them legitimate national title contenders when he’s on the floor.

Big Ten Coach of the Year: Greg Gard, Wisconsin

You could just as easily give this award to Indiana’s Tom Crean for the tremendous job he’s done this season, but Indiana was supposed to be good. Wisconsin was in shambles when Greg Gard took over for Bo Ryan on Dec. 15. It took awhile for the Badgers to adjust to the veteran assistant — and overcome the emotional departure of Ryan — but Gard has coached Wisconsin to the point of making a NCAA tournament at-large bid when they were only 9-9 on Jan. 12. That’s a remarkable turnaround, and now, the Badgers are a team that nobody wants to play in March again.

First-Team All-Big Ten:

  • Denzel Valentine, Michigan State (POY)
  • Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa: One of the nation’s most versatile forwards, the senior was top 15 in the Big Ten in scoring (second), rebounding (11th), free-throw percentage (ninth), 3-pointers made (13th) and blocked shots (first). Uthoff’s improvement made Iowa a legitimate threat in the Big Ten and he gave the Hawkeyes a rim protector that they needed.
  • A.J. Hammons, Purdue: Among Purdue’s loaded frontcourt, the senior was the toughest cover, as he averaged 15.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game in Big Ten play while shooting 57 percent from the floor. Hammons’ numbers are even more impressive when you consider the limited minutes that he played compared to many starting-caliber players in the Big Ten.
  • Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: Another senior to make the All-Big Ten first team, Ferrell was sensational as Indiana’s team leader and point guard. Ferrell continued to improve his all-around numbers while also stepping up as a better defender and team leader. During a season in which the pressure was on Ferrell to win, he guided Indiana to a Big Ten title.
  • Melo Trimble, Maryland: Although some of his numbers went down after a breakout freshman season, Trimble became more of a point guard in his second season in College Park. Trimble averaged 5.2 assists per game after only 3.0 per game as a freshman, as he had more weapons around him this season. Still one of the game’s great clutch players, Trimble has ice in his veins with the game on the line.

Second Team All-Big Ten:

  • Peter Jok, Iowa
  • Bryn Forbes, Michigan State
  • Malcolm Hill, Illinois
  • Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
  • Matt Costello, Michigan State

Defining moment of the season: Indiana clinched the outright Big Ten title on Iowa’s home floor. It’s the second time in four years that Tom Crean has won an outright Big Ten regular season title.

CBT Prediction: Michigan State beats Indiana

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.