(Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP)

North Carolina prepared if Syracuse switches to full-court press

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HOUSTON — Jim Boeheim is known in the basketball world as one of the gurus of the 2-3 zone.

The 71-year-old Syracuse head coach has almost strictly used the 2-3 as the Orange’s base defense and he estimated on Friday that he’s coached over 200 clinics on his defensive principles over the years.

“You know, it’s pretty much standard. Like this is Jim Boeheim, this is all he knows, so we’re going to have him talk about the 2-3 zone,” Boeheim said of the clinics. “I tried one clinic to start with something else. There were 400 coaches there. They started getting restless. I knew right away, okay, we’ll talk about it.”

Coaches at all levels of basketball know about Boeheim’s nearly exclusive reliance on the 2-3 zone. So when the Orange threw a full-court press at Gonzaga and Virginia in the second half of comeback wins last weekend in Chicago, people noticed. As Syracuse prepares to face North Carolina for the third time this season in the second national semifinal on Saturday, the Tar Heels are working on a press break in case the Orange start defending the length of the floor.

“I feel like most of us have never seen Syracuse play any type of defense other than that 2-3 zone,” North Carolina point guard Nate Britt said. “So it was a bit of a surprise. But obviously it worked. We did prepare for that and we expect them to go to that if they need to.”

North Carolina took some time to go over its press break during practice this week as the Tar Heels would occasionally throw six players on the floor to mimic Syracuse’s length and aggressiveness in trap situations. The Orange have yet to use the full-court press on North Carolina in the two meetings the teams had during ACC play, but the Tar Heels saw the damage that the press did against a familiar foe in Virginia and they payed attention.

“They were falling into that methodical Virginia style early in that game,” Tar Heel guard Marcus Paige said of Syracuse’s recent press. “If you don’t do anything about [Virginia’s slow pace], it can be the death of you in basketball terms. For them to speed them up like that, a team that never really gets sped up, is pretty impressive. They’re very aggressive at it.”

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But will Boeheim even try to use the full-court press against North Carolina?

Gonzaga had guards that could be unreliable and Virginia had trouble speeding up its slow pace, but playing fast fits right into the hands of what the Tar Heels want to do offensively. With multiple ball handlers like Paige, Britt, Joel Berry, and even guys like Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson, Boeheim downplayed the press returning against North Carolina on Saturday.

“We used to press all the time. We had better personnel for it. Our personnel is not suited for it right now,” Boeheim said. “It was good for four minutes against Virginia and two minutes against Gonzaga. I wouldn’t trust it too much longer than that. I didn’t.

“We took it off when we took the lead with five minutes to go in the Virginia game because I didn’t think it was that good, even though we got a couple steals. Virginia shot themselves in the foot. They missed a layup. They walked. They made a bad turnover. They did the right things, they were in the right position, but they didn’t execute.”

Whether you want to call it good defense or bad offense, Virginia’s lack of execution in its press break undoubtedly gave the Orange enough of a boost to take the game over in the second half. But North Carolina’s guards feel like they can execute if Syracuse goes to the press.

“We feel confident that any team that presses us is giving us an advantage,” Paige said. “We like to play in the open court and play uptempo. We have our regular press break planned for it if they try to press us and trap us. Until someone stops us from doing that, we’re ready.”

North Carolina might feel confident breaking a press, but they have lost this season to a team that isn’t shy about defending the length of the floor in Louisville. When you consider that Syracuse trots out a bigger and longer defense than the Cardinals in the backcourt, that could be an interesting wrinkle if the Orange fall behind on Saturday.

“It’s been causing a whole lot of problems so apparently they’re doing something well,” Pinson said. “They do a really good job, if you get past them, of coming back and causing deflections and tipped balls and [Syracuse big man Tyler] Lydon is doing a really good job at the rim.”

Boeheim isn’t saying a lot of positive things about the Syracuse full-court press heading into Saturday’s Final Four game, but it was certainly a game-changer in the Orange’s last two wins. Whether we see it on Saturday will probably be dictated by how close the game is and if North Carolina is able to hit shots from the outside.

If the Orange is packing in the 2-3 and forcing Tar Heel misses from the perimeter, they might not even need the press. But if Syracuse finds themselves down in the second half, it’s been an effective weapon for them over the last week.

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.