Sweet 16 Preview: Breaking down what’s left of the Midwest Region

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The Midwest Region is the bracket that makes the least amount of sense as we head into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. No. 11 seed Gonzaga steamrolled Seton Hall and Utah to get this far, while No. 10 Syracuse dispatched Dayton and then took care of a Middle Tennessee State team that knocked off tourney favorite Michigan State.

No one outside of Murfreesboro was happier about MTSU’s win than Virginia. The Wahoos had lost to the lower-seeded Spartans in the last two tournaments, and it looked like they were headed down that road again. Now, they look like the favorites to get out of the region. Here is the full Midwest preview:

KEY STORYLINES

  1. Is this the year that Tony Bennett’s system finally pays off?: If you include the two wins that the Cavaliers landed last weekend, Bennett now has five NCAA tournament wins in seven seasons in Charlottesville. The past two tournaments, he got knocked out in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed and the second round as a No. 2 seed. That system that he’s become so well-known for hasn’t exactly produced tournament results, but the draw he got this season couldn’t possibly be any better. Get past Iowa State and he’ll be playing a double-digit seed for the right to get to Houston.
  2. Depth, depth, depth, depth, depth: That’s unequivocally this biggest issue for Iowa State, right? They play seven guys, and while there are six of them that get the majority of the minutes, legs isn’t really the biggest issue here. It’s the number of fouls. The only big man they have in that rotation is Jameel McKay. Virginia loves to throw the ball into Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey in the post. Gonzaga, if they face off with the Cyclones in the Elite 8, has Domas Sabonis and Kyle Wiltjer. Can McKay be a defensive presence and avoid fouling out for the fourth time in the last 11 games?
  3. Can a double-digit seed actually get to the Final Four?: There are two in the Midwest, and they’ll be playing each other in the Sweet 16, meaning that we’ll have at least one double-digit seed with a Final Four berth on the line on Sunday. Can Syracuse or Gonzaga pull it off?
Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon (15) and forward Anthony Gill (13) cheer their team during the second half against Georgia Tech in an NCAA college basketball game in the Atlantic Coast Conference men's tournament, in Washington on Thursday, March 10, 2016. Virginia defeated Georgia Tech 72-52. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon (15) and forward Anthony Gill (13) (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

WHY THEY’LL GET TO THE FINAL FOUR

No. 1 Virginia: The Cavaliers are the best team in the region and they have the best player in the region. No one in college basketball can do the things that Malcolm Brogdon can do. He can take over a game offensively — he’s the best in college hoops when it comes to reading screens off the ball — and he’s capable of totally shutting down just about any opponent that’s not a true center. He’s locked up everyone from star point guards to Duke’s Brandon Ingram to Butler’s Andrew Chrabascz. When will he get a crack at Georges Niang?

No. 4 Iowa State: The Cyclones have the ability to be absolutely lethal offensively. Monte’ Morris and Georges Niang are flat out studs. They can take over a game offensively and carry Iowa State to a win individually. And that’s before you factor in the likes of Matt Thomas, Abdel Nader and Deonte Burton, all of whom are capable of going off for 20 points on any given night. When the Cyclones get it rolling offensively, they’re very difficult to stop.

The Cyclones also matchup really well with Virginia’s defense; the things they do well are what you have to do to be able to beat the Pack-Line. They can hit threes over the top of it, they have a talented four-man that can create a mismatch and they play in transition, which would let them get down the floor before UVA can set their defense.

No. 10 Syracuse: The 2-3 zone that Jim Boeheim has made famous is not an ideal matchup for the Zags given their issues in the back court this season. Can they avoid turnovers? Will they make enough shots to create space for Sabonis in the paint? And if the Orange can get to the Elite 8, all they have to do is win one game to get to the Final Four.

No. 11 Gonzaga: The Zags arguably have the best front line left in college basketball. Kyle Wiltjer is a nightmare to try and cover on the perimeter for opposing big men, and he’s not even the best big man on the roster. Domas Sabonis is. And while their guard play has been inconsistent, it doesn’t necessarily have to be all that great for them to advance. That’s the luxury of having a front line that can go for a combined 55 points and 25 boards without surprising anyone.

Gonzaga forward Domantas Sabonis, front, drives past Utah forward Jakob Poeltl during the first half of a second-round men's college basketball game Saturday, March 19, 2016, in the NCAA Tournament in Denver. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
Gonzaga forward Domantas Sabonis (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

BUT THIS IS WHY THEY WON’T

No. 11 Gonzaga: The resurgence that Gonzaga has made in the last three weeks has been the result of much-improved back court play. Eric McClellan has scored more than 20 points in three of the last five games, while Josh Perkins is finally starting to show some of he’s able to do as a former top 50 prospect. When those two play well — when they hit jumpers and avoid turnovers — the Zags are dangerous. But if the only time that they’ve played that well has been recently. Will they stay hot, or will they regress back to the mean.

No. 10 Syracuse: The only thing that Syracuse doesn’t do well defensively is rebound the ball. They’re one of the 15 worst teams in the country when it comes to corralling an opponents’ missed shots. The Zags have one of the best rebounders in the country in Domas Sabonis, and it’s not outlandish to think he could get 10 offensive rebounds. The Orange also rely heavily on shooting threes, and like Oklahoma, they’re one off-night away from getting smacked around.

No. 4 Iowa State: I hate to belabor the point, but Iowa State’s front court depth is a real issue. Virginia has one of the most underrated front courts in the country — Anthony Gill is a nightmare to try and guard while Mike Tobey is a 7-footer that has NBA-level low-post moves — and we all know how good Gonzaga’s big men are.

No. 1 Virginia: Slowing down the tempo plays into the hands of a team trying to land the upset. It’s simple math. The fewer possessions that are played, the more likely it is that the lesser team can keep a game close. Virginia is the slowest team in college basketball. Literally. 351st.

THE X-FACTORS

  • Malcolm Brogdon vs. Georges Niang: The most fascinating part of the most interesting Sweet 16 matchup is going to be this particular one-on-one battle. Brogdon can shut anyone down that doesn’t play the five. He did it against Brandon Ingram. He did it against Andrew Chrabascz of Butler. He’s not going to keep Niang scoreless, but at some point he’s probably going to have to be the guy tasked with guarding him. When does that happen, and how successful will Brogdon be? That could be the difference in the game, and for my money, the winner of that game will be the team that is headed to the Final Four.
  • Eric McClellan and Josh Perkins: We touched on it a little bit earlier, but the difference between this Gonzaga team and the Gonzaga team that we had seen for much of the season has been the play of McClellan and Perkins. When they’re offensive threats, Gonzaga is a far more dangerous team.
  • Tyler Lydon, Syracuse: Lydon is the guy that makes Syracuse hard to guard. He can play the five for the Orange because of his length, but he’s also a sniper from three. The one issue? His ability on the glass. He weighs roughly 78 pounds. If he can hold his own on the defensive glass, the Orange might have a shot of getting out of the region.

CBT PREDICTION: Virginia cuts down the nets in Chicago.

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.