Final Four Previews: The six story lines you’re going to be sick of hearing about

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We’re kicking off our Final Four previews with a look at the five story lines that are going to be beaten to death by the time the first Final Four game is tipped off:

1. I hope you don’t mind righteous sanctimony about NCAA violations: Here’s the thing you have to understand about the Final Four: It’s really the only time of the year that those general columnists care about college basketball. Us basketball folk? We’ve been writing and talking about the sport for five months largely because we spend the seven months worth of offseason writing and talking about all that other stuff that goes on in major college athletics. Oh, you know, like the athletes at North Carolina taking advantages of fraudulent classes that were offered by the university and the extra benefits an academic violations that happened nearly a decade ago under Jim Boeheim’s watch.

We write about this stuff when it happens. You’ll get our reaction and opinion pieces every time there is some news coming down, whether it’s a Notice of Allegations arriving, a punishment being given or a school self-imposing a postseason ban. It’s not hard to figure out how I feel about North Carolina’s chances of getting hit with hefty violations or about how badly Syracuse got their punishment wrong last February.

But college basketball is a niche sport. It only dominates the conversation for one month out of the year, so this is when everyone paid to have an opinion will chime in on things of this nature. Throw in the fact that two of the most visible programs currently dealing with the fallout of NCAA violations will actually be playing in the event, and it’s the perfect storm. For us — meaning fans and media a like, people that track this stuff in real time — it’s a topic of conversation that’s been beaten to death. For them, it’s a chance to get on their high horse and let the peons know just how much is wrong the scourge that is college athletics.

(And for the record, I couldn’t care less about these violations. I think that the NCAA’s rules and regulations regarding amateurism are simply wrong, and if a coach feels like he needs to go outside the rulebook in order to win, I don’t have a huge issue with it. Simply put: NCAA violations don’t mean all that much to me.)

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2. It’s Buddy Hield’s world and we’re all just living in it: You saw what he did to Oregon, right? A measly 37 points on 13-for-20 shooting? That was impressive, but it wasn’t as impressive as the 36 points he scored against VCU because 29 of those 36 came in a second half where Hield scored 26 of Oklahoma’s last 31 points as VCU came storming back from a 13-point deficit.

Hield has been the biggest star in the sport this season thanks to his likeable personality and the fact that he can put up scoring numbers that rival those of Jimmer Fredette, J.J. Redick and Doug McDermott. Throw in the fact that he’s a dude that grew up in the Bahamas of all places and entered Oklahoma as someone whose jump shot was, quite frankly, a liability, and what you have is a player that fans will not quickly tire of.

Especially if he puts on another show like he did on Saturday night.

3. Will this be the last we see of Roy Williams?: I’m not going to predict that it will be, but I will tell you this much: It’s a conversation that is going to be had, both publicly and privately, over the course of the next six days. It’s not difficult to connect the dots on this. Williams is old. He’s 64, and like most 64 year olds, he’s dealing with an assortment of health issues. He’s got knees that give him pain, for one, and the vertigo that he’s dealt with for years flared up as recently as February in a game against Boston College. Throw in the NCAA’s investigation into the allegations of academic impropriety — which has worn on Williams — and what the potential for a postseason ban has done for recent UNC recruiting classes, and this year’s team may be the last time for a long time that the Tar Heels will be in a position to win a National Title.

Put all that together, and would it really surprise you if Williams decided to ride off into the sunset on top?

Again, so North Carolina fans don’t yell at me, I am not predicting or reporting that this will happen. Williams has been adamant about the fact that he does not want to leave this program in bad shape. He doesn’t want to do to his replacement what Matt Doherty did to him. But acting like this isn’t a realistic possibility is simply naïve.

4. Three-point shooting and the Dome: NRG Stadium has been the host of some ugly three-point shooting performances in recent NCAA tournament. (I’m not even sure UConn fans want to remember the rock fight between the Huskies and Butler back in 2011.) In total, in 15 games played in that building since 2002, teams have shot 32.2 percent from three, per a study from our buddy Ken Pomeroy. That could be an issue, as three of the teams in this Final Four are heavily reliant on the three-ball. Villanova, Oklahoma and Syracuse all shoot more than 40 percent of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc. Previously, VCU in 2011 was the only team in the past decade to reach a Final Four firing away from distance at that rate.

5. So our Cinderella is Syracuse?: How wild is that. The fourth double-digit seed to ever get to the Final Four, and it’s Syracuse of all teams. The Orange are an incredible story. A season after their school bans them from the postseason, the Orange go from a team that probably shouldn’t have been in the field of 68 — you can keep telling me I’m wrong, Cuse fans, and I’ll keep telling you about how the Orange had the worst RPI to ever get an at-large bid — to a team that gets to the Final Four following an impressive late-game comeback against Gonzaga and by doing the impossible in erasing a 15-point lead in less than nine points to beat No. 1 Virginia.

This run has been the script of a movie that you wouldn’t believe was real because it was just too out there. It’s not often you get the chance to revel in your program being mentioned in the same breath as George Mason and LSU.

6. Rematches!: Oklahoma blew out Villanova when these two teams played on a neutral court in December. You’re going to hear that a lot, just like you’re going to hear about North Carolina sweeping Syracuse during the regular season and about how hard it is to beat a team three times in one season. Be ready for it!

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

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.