(Chris Steppig/NCAA Photos via AP, Pool)

North Carolina beats Syracuse for third time this season to advance to national title game

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HOUSTON — North Carolina struggled to make perimeter shots and took some time to figure out the 2-3 zone, but the Tar Heels still put together a strong effort in an 83-66 win over ACC-rival Syracuse in the second national semifinal on Saturday night.

The Tar Heels started 0-for-13 from 3-point range and only mustered 12 fast-break points but led for the final 28 minutes of the game despite the Orange’s best efforts for another comeback tournament win.

Syracuse went on a 10-0 run to cut North Carolina’s lead to seven on a Malachi Richardson 3-pointer with 9:51 left but the Tar Heels responded with their first 3-pointer of the game as senior Marcus Paige’s jumper pushed North Carolina’s lead back to 10.

“You’ve gotta keep shooting sometimes; you can’t just stop shooting,” North Carolina sophomore guard Joel Berry II said. “That’s what Marcus kept on doing.”

On the ensuing North Carolina possession, senior Brice Johnson established deep post position on Syracuse freshman Tyler Lydon and hammered a two-handed dunk off a feed from Theo Pinson, letting out a huge scream and igniting the final North Carolina push. After a Pinson 3-pointer on the next possession, North Carolina was back ahead by 12 as the quick flurry of points finished off the Orange for good.

“A little run like that can hurt,” North Carolina sophomore Justin Jackson said. “I think we did a good job of not turning down [our intensity].”

Johnson (16 points, nine rebounds) and junior Kennedy Meeks (15 points, eight rebounds) combined to go 13-for-20 from the field as they had an easy time scoring on the interior for North Carolina while Paige (13 points) buried three crucial second-half 3-pointers to help the Tar Heels advance to their 10th NCAA title game in program history.

At halftime, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams encouraged his team to keep shooting from the perimeter, but also stressed how much damage the Tar Heels were doing inside.

“Coach said, ‘You know what, we’re 0-for-10 from the 3-point line,’ when we came in a halftime,” Berry said. “And I think we were shooting 50 or 60 percent from inside the arc. He gave us that stat line just to get in our head. If we can continue to get it inside, we have more success in there.”

Jackson also added 16 points for North Carolina (33-6) as the Tar Heels have now won 10 consecutive games. Berry II finished with eight points, seven rebounds and 10 assists.

Syracuse (23-14) struggled to 11-for-31 shooting (35 percent) from the field and 3-for-10 shooting from the free-throw line in the first half as North Carolina jumped out to a 39-28 halftime lead.

The Orange tried to utilize a full-court press to get back in the game with just over six minutes left, but the Tar Heel press break didn’t fold like when the Orange had comeback wins over Gonzaga and Virginia the previous weekend in Chicago.

“Honestly, we thought that they weren’t going to press at all,” Jackson said. “But I guess once we were up quite a bit, you figure they’re going to try to get some type of pressure. But we do a good job of getting the ball up the floor.”

“We had that [Virginia comeback] in the back of our heads. I know I did,” Berry said. “I was like, you know, we can’t let that happen. They got on that roll and it was tough for Virginia to stop them. The difference is that we want to play an uptempo game.”

Senior Trevor Cooney led the Orange with 22 points while Richardson finished with 17 points. Michael Gbinije also added 12 points for Syracuse, as the senior struggled to a 5-for-18 shooting night.

The Orange were the first 10 seed to ever make the Final Four, and many believed that they didn’t belong in the tournament in the first place, but Jim Boeheim’s team put together a great few weeks of play by stepping up on the defensive end and getting timely shooting.

The Syracuse comeback wins over Gonzaga and Virginia will certainly be memorable. For the Orange to make the Final Four a year after their self-imposed postseason ban shows how determined this team was to put that in the past.

“Obviously it’s tough right now. But I’m still proud of these guys,” Cooney said. “I mean, coming into the tournament, we weren’t even supposed to be in there, what you guys said. We just kept battling, fighting. We were down in so many games throughout this tournament.

“You have to give credit to North Carolina, they’re a hell of a team. They played really well today. For us to beat them, we would have had to have played perfect and we just didn’t today.”

These two teams matched up twice during ACC play with the Tar Heels sweeping the season series. Although it’s always difficult to beat any team three times in one season, North Carolina was never seriously threatened in the second half.

Much like Syracuse, the looming threat of NCAA sanctions is hanging over the North Carolina program, but the Tar Heels have been able to come out focused during the NCAA tournament and they’re playing some of their best ball of the season. Although the hot perimeter shooting didn’t continue for North Carolina on Saturday, they still shot 53 percent from the field on offense and they really seem to be clicking at the right time.

“It took a lot of ups-and-downs but we’re finally here,” Berry said. “We’re finally in the game we want to be in and we have to be ready to play.”

North Carolina now advances to face Villanova in Monday night’s championship game in Houston. With the Wildcats coming off of the largest victory in Final Four history over Oklahoma in the first national semifinal, it’ll be intriguing to see if Villanova continues their hot shooting in the title game. The Wildcats would appear to have a better feel for shooting in NRG Stadium after their blistering 71 percent shooting against Oklahoma, but North Carolina can also put up points with the best of them.

“Those guys are a very good team. They’re really hot right now,” Johnson said. “They held one of the best players in the country to little or nothing today. They all play together. They space the floor. We’ve just got to go out there and play.”

The win on Saturday gives North Carolina a chance to win their first national championship since 2009. Villanova and North Carolina also played during that 2009 Final Four, in the national semifinals, as the Tar Heels took home an 83-69 win.

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.