Final Four Previews: The x-factors in play on Saturday

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We kicked off our Final Four previews this morning with a look at the six story lines that are going to be beaten to death by the time the first Final Four game is tipped off. We’ll continue today with a look at the x-factors, key players and key matchups for Saturday night:

So can people shoot in NRG Stadium or nah?: Prior to this season, only once in the last decade had a team reached the Final Four while shooting more than 40 percent of their field goals from beyond the arc. This season, Oklahoma, Villanova and Syracuse all fire away from three at that rate. That’s entertaining to watch … when the shots are going down, and if there is any narrative that we all remember, it’s that the dome in Houston — formerly Reliant, now NRG — has not exactly been the friendly confines for jump shooters. As Ken Pomeroy explains here, in the 15 games played in this building since 2002, the teams have shot a combined 32.2 percent from three, a number that would rank 277th in Division I this season and which is, as Ken says, “only slightly easier to make three-point shots at NRG Stadium than it is on an aircraft carrier.”

Tar Heel fans are celebrating: They shoot just 26.8 percent of their field goals from three and score only 19.9 percent of their points on threes, which is the seventh-lowest total in all of college basketball. That could be bad news for Oklahoma (40.6% and 38.9%), Villanova (43.1% and 33.4%) and Syracuse (42.2% and 36.5%).

Tyler Lydon’s rebounding: The lineup where Syracuse is the most dangerous comes when they play Tyler Lydon at the five surrounded by Tyler Roberson, Malachi Richardson, Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney. That puts four shooters on the floor surrounding one of the best offensive rebounders in the country. That’s really hard to guard, and for what is the worst offensive team left in the tournament, having as many offensive weapons on the floor at the same time matters.

The flip side, however, is that lineup makes the Orange incredibly susceptible to getting obliterated on the offensive glass. As it stands, there were just 14 teams in all of college basketball that allowed opponents a higher offensive rebounding percentage throughout the season, and DaJuan Coleman — the team’s best defensive rebounder — will not be on the floor when the Orange have their best offensive lineup out there. This is particularly pertinent against North Carolina, who has the nation’s most efficient offensive attack and is the third-best offensive rebounding team in the country.

Lydon is a very intriguing prospect given his height, length and shooting ability. But he weighs 200 pounds soaking wet. Will he be able to hold his own against a team that includes first-team AP All-American Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks on the front line?

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Josh Hart vs. Buddy Hield: On paper, Josh Hart seems like he should be the perfect matchup for Buddy Hield. He’s long, he’s really athletic and he’s the kind of tough defender that drives an offensive player insane. In other words, he’s not afraid of contact or of doing the things that he has to do to get into Hield’s head. There’s a reason that Big East coaches hate to coach against him. But those aren’t necessarily the guys that give Hield the most trouble. He lit up Elgin Cook of Oregon, who has a similar physical profile to Hart, last weekend. Hield tends to struggle against quick, little guys that can chase him around screens, make it difficult for him to handle the ball and get up underneath and take away space on the catch.

Here’s the other part of it: Villanova doesn’t usually play straight man-to-man. They’ll play some different variations of zone — matchup, 2-3, 1-2-2 pressure, etc. — and they’ll also run some switching man-to-man defenses. Would they be willing to cast all of that aside to try and slow down Hield when Isaiah Cousins and Jordan Woodard have proven that they can win a game in this tournament when Hield is held in check?

And the key player on each team is

  • Kris Jenkins: Jenkins is the guy that makes Villanova so hard to guard. Prior to Saturday’s win over Kansas, Jenkins had made at least two threes in 11 straight games, scoring more than 15 points in 10 of those 11 and going for 20 in six of those 10. He’s a knockdown shooter with the best pump-fake in college basketball, one that’s good enough to allow him to get to the rim against power forwards despite the fact that he’s not overly quick. I don’t envy any coach that has to try to find a way to stop Jenkins and Josh Hart when Jenkins has it going.
  • Marcus Paige: It’s weird calling Paige an x-factor on any team, but that’s what he’s turned into with this group. And that’s also a testament to how much of a team player he is. Remember, this is a kid who was a preseason all-american as a junior, but he’s totally embraced the fact that Brice Johnson is this team’s best player and the Carolina front court is what has carried this team to the Final Four. He can still score, though. Ask Indiana, where he hit his first four threes and finished with 21 points and six assists. When he’s hitting shots from the perimeter, the Tar Heels are a different team.
  • Malachi Richardson: He scored 21 of his 23 points in the Elite 8 in the second half when the Orange erased a 15-point deficit and beat No. 1 seed Virginia. In a loss at Georgetown, he shot 1-for-8 from the floor. When Syracuse lost at St. John’s, he was 4-for-20 from the floor and 0-for-11 from three. He was 1-for-10 from the floor and 0-for-6 from three in a loss to Pitt. You see where I’m going with this? Richardson is a streaky scorer, but when he’s rolling, he’s as dangerous as anyone in the Final Four.
  • Jordan Woodard: We all know about Hield and you should know about Isaiah Cousins. But Woodard can play, too. He had 22 points in the win over Texas A&M when the Aggies sold out trying to stop Hield. If Villanova tries to do the same, the Sooners are going to need the same kind of performance from Woodard if they want to get to the title game.

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.