(Photo by Jon Lopez)

Are we going to see a return of the prep-to-pro debate?

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NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — It should have been the most highly-anticipated matchup of the summer.

Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 player in the Class of 2017 was squaring off with Marvin Bagley III, the No. 1 player in the Class of 2018.

Not only were the potential No. 1 picks in the 2018 and 2019 NBA Drafts playing on the same court at the same time, they spent much of the afternoon guarding each other. At the biggest and best event in July, it was a dream scenario. And yet, in a Riverview Park Activities Center that is typically overflowing with fans, media and coaches yearning to get a peak at the Next Big Thing, the gym on Thursday was … spacious.

Part of that is because there isn’t much drama in the race for No. 1 in either class. Ayton is probably going to remain the consensus No. 1 player in his class regardless of what happens in the next year, and Bagley is so far ahead of the rest of the Class of 2018 that it’s not even a discussion. The race for the top spot matters in recruiting circles, and that race is what generates the hype for the high-profile individual battles.

But the other side of it is that there are no assurances that either Ayton or Bagley will end up playing a second of college basketball.


At the center of the question marks regarding both players is Hillcrest Prep, an institution in Arizona that fields a basketball team while sending the players to their coursework at Starshine Academy. It’s a pretty typical setup for these new-age prep school operations, except that Starshine Academy is not approved by the NCAA. A prospect with core courses coming from Starshine will not be cleared by the NCAA’s Eligibility Center.

That eligibility issue is reportedly the reason that Bagley, who transferred to Hillcrest after spending his freshman season at Corona del Sol, left for Sierra Canyon in the middle of the fall semester and was forced to sit out the 2015-16 season as a transfer. And that eligibility issue is why Ayton — who transferred into Hillcrest from Balboa City HS in San Diego, another school with NCAA question marks — made it a point to tell the media gathered in North Augusta that he is working with the NCAA to make his transcript acceptable.

The first step, he says, was to take his classes online at Arizona Communications instead of with Starshine, and that Arizona Communications has been certified by the NCAA.

“I’ve been in contact with the NCAA,” Ayton said. “They’ve given me my classes. I’m doing summer school right now. They say I’m on track. I just have to finish these classes and I’m good.”

To his credit, Ayton was adamant about the fact that he wants to play a one-and-done year.

“There’s no overseas,” he said, adding that Kentucky and Arizona had joined Kansas as the only three schools currently recruiting him. “I’m going to college.”

“I just want to have the experience. I want to win a national championship, and even though I’m one and done, I would love to be in that atmosphere.”

Bagley’s situation is different. He left Hillcrest at some point when it became clear that he would not be able to play college hoops from that school, but no one seems to know exactly when he left, how long it took for him to get from Hillcrest to Sierra Canyon or what exactly he was doing in the in-between time.

And while he was also non-committal about the prospect of playing in college — “I can’t say I want to skip college or go to college,” he said. “Whatever happens, happens.” — his father told me, very specifically, that there was no way his son would not go to college. “Never,” he said. “I don’t even entertain it. I plan on having him finish college one day.”

The evidence? Bagley cut his list to six schools — Duke, Arizona, Kentucky, Arizona State, Oregon and UCLA — to avoid the avalanche of calls he was expecting to get from staffs hoping that they had a shot.

So it’s still possible that we see both of these kids on campus.

But let’s say we don’t.

The prep-to-pros route is where this thing will get interesting, because the situations that both Ayton and Bagley have been directed into make them into prime candidates to follow in the footsteps of Emmanuel Mudiay and Terrance Ferguson.

Or Thon Maker.

And when you then consider that potential first-round picks like Trevon Duval and Billy Preston have eligibility question marks of their own, that’s when things get interesting.

Because Ayton and Bagley don’t need to play in college to be picked No. 1. Duval doesn’t need college to be a lottery pick the same way that Maker and Mudiay didn’t. Ferguson and Preston could get guaranteed money from an NBA contract without cashing a scholarship check.

And if the elite recruits following them see that these decisions don’t effect their chances to be a pro, and that going to college simply puts you at risk of slaloming down NBA Draft boards like Skal Labissiere, that’s when the concern about the reignited prep-to-pros movement becoming a trend gets validated.

Nike/Jon Lopez
Nike/Jon Lopez

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

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

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.