2016 NCAA TOURNAMENT PREVIEW: The unsung heroes for national title contenders

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By this point in the season you know the stars in college basketball, be it Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield, Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine or another marquee player who’s been in the highlights on a nightly basis. But even with stars doing the heavy lifting, there will be games in which the contributions of a non-star are needed to ensure victory.

Below are ten players capable of stepping forward and being “unsung heroes” for their teams during the NCAA tournament.

Derek Willis, Kentucky: Willis is fifth on the team in scoring, as he’s averaging 8.0 points per game. But his improved play is one of the reasons for the Wildcats’ late-season resurgence that resulted in a share of the SEC regular season title and an SEC tournament crown. At 6-foot-9 he’s capable of stepping out beyond the three-point line, giving the Wildcats valuable spacing on the offensive end of the floor. That will be key as they look to get to Houston.

Kris Jenkins, Villanova: During last season it was Josh Hart who stepped out of the shadows for the Wildcats. This season Jenkins has been that guy, as he’s now second on the team in scoring with an average of 13.3 points per contest. Like Willis, Jenkins can hit shots from beyond the arc and that opens up driving lanes for one of the best two-point shooting teams in the country. Jenkins’ scoring ability is key, but when he rebounds at a solid clip the Wildcats get even better defensively.

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Eron Harris, Michigan State: The West Virginia transfer was pegged as an impact addition before the season began, but while he’s certainly contributed to one of the best teams in America he has the skill to do more than he has. With Denzel Valentine’s versatility and Bryn Forbes’ shooting ability, those two will draw a lot of attention from opponents. That could open some things up for Harris, who’s averaging 9.3 points per game and shooting 42.7 percent from the field and from three.

Landen Lucas, Kansas: Lucas isn’t much of scorer, and he doesn’t have to be given the options at Bill Self’s disposal. But his abilities as a rebounder and defender are what allowed Kansas to take off once he was placed in the starting lineup for good. Kansas has won 14 of its last 15 games and are a favorite to cut down the nets in Houston. And if Lucas can continue to contribute as he has, the Jayhawks have a good shot of reaching those expectations.

Mike Tobey, Virginia: Tobey’s an interesting cog for the Cavaliers. He struggled early in the season on both ends of the floor, with the graduation of Darion Atkins proving to have a greater impact on Tony Bennett’s team than some may have expected. The senior big man has been inconsistent, but he’s capable of having an impact as evidenced by his 15-point, 20 rebound performance in Virginia’s win over Louisville in the regular season finale. At some point Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and London Perrantes will need someone else to step forward. Can Tobey be that guy?

Jabari Bird, California: The former McDonald’s All-American didn’t really get going this season until he returned to the starting lineup with Jordan Mathews moving into the sixth man role. At 10.4 points per game he’s Cal’s fifth-leading scorer, and with shooting percentages of 46.1 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from three, Bird is definitely capable of making shots. He’s the kind of scorer who can get hot and left his team to a win, something Cal may need as the look to navigate the top half of the South bracket.

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O.G. Anunoby, Indiana: Yogi Ferrell is Indiana’s most valuable player and Troy Williams may be their most important option, as the Hoosiers are at their best when he’s fully engaged. And as the season’s worn on Anunoby, a freshman who didn’t play all that much during non-conference play, has developed into an important piece for Tom Crean’s team. They don’t need him to score much, but Anunoby’s activity and willingness to defend has helped make Indiana a better team.

J.P. Macura, Xavier: The Big East Sixth Man of the Year combines with James Farr to lead one of the better benches in the country. Macura can score both inside and outside of the arc, and defensively he’s a pest. When the Musketeers go to their 1-3-1 zone Macura’s usually at the top of it, and while the zone hasn’t been as good as it was last season it’s an alignment that can still cause some trouble. As for Macura, his ability to be a spark off the bench will be big for Xavier in the tournament.

Dwayne Benjamin, Oregon: Benjamin is one of many Ducks who can fill multiple roles, thus making a seven-man rotation just a little deeper that one would anticipate. Averaging eight points per game off the bench, Benjamin’s capable of contributing double figures on any given night. They didn’t need him in their Pac-12 tournament final whipping of Utah, but Benjamin came up big with 12 points and nine boards in the Ducks’ overtime win over Arizona in the semis.

Khadeem Lattin, Oklahoma: Ryan Spangler has once again been the stalwart in the front court for the Sooners, who have rated amongst the best teams in the country all season long. But if Oklahoma is to get to the Final Four they’ll need consistent contributions from Lattin, who’s a Houston native. With Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Jordan Woodard and Spangler handling the scoring Lon Kruger won’t need much in that area from Lattin. What he will need is Lattin reaching the 5.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks he’s averaging on the season consistently.

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.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.