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College Hoops Contender Series: Here are seven Final Four Sleepers

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Who are the favorites to win a national title? Who can legitimately be called a contender? Who has the pieces to make a run to the Final Four? We’ll break that all down for you over the next three weeks in our Contender Series.

First up: Final Four Sleepers

It takes a certain amount of talent to be able to win a national title in college basketball, even if that talent doesn’t always show up every night. Winning four games in two weeks to get to the season’s final weekend can be done by a team with a handful of future pros and 10 losses on the season. We see it all the time.

Here are seven teams that have the tools to make a run to the Final Four even if they don’t have a real shot at winning their conference and will likely enter the NCAA tournament outside the top four seeds.

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Steve and Bryce Alford (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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UCLA Bruins: Do you know what to make of this UCLA team?

Seriously.

I’m asking for your help.

Because I have no idea what to expect.

On the one hand, the Bruins have as much talent as on their roster any just about anyone in the country, save for Duke. Lonzo Ball is an intriguing talent that some believe will be the most exciting Pac-12 freshman since Jason Kidd, and he may not even be the best point guard on the roster with Aaron Holiday by his side. Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton are both all-Pac-12 talents, while T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu join G.G. Goloman and Thomas Welsh to give Steve Alford some lineup versatility up front.

There are the pieces on that roster to be a Pac-12 champ and a Final Four team.

But …

What has Alford done at UCLA to make us believe that he can make all those pieces fit together? He reached two Sweet 16s in his first two years after relatively disappointing regular seasons and followed that up by going 15-17 in 2015-16. There are some new and talented pieces on the roster, but there are just as many question marks. Will Bryce be able to cede some control of the lead guard duties to more talented, younger teammates? Will the Bruins staff find a way to utilize Ball, who has never played for a team that wasn’t built entirely around him? Will egos be pushed aside for the betterment of the team?

Talent usually wins out in college basketball.

Usually.

Syracuse Orange: I initially thought the people ranking Syracuse after their run to the Final Four were crazy. They lost two fifth-year guards in Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinije, who was criminally underrated last season, and watched the guy that sparked their Final Four run, Malachi Richardson, bolt for the NBA. They had two guards slated to be on their roster once Kaleb Joseph transferred.

But then Tyler Lydon decided to come back to school while the Orange dabbled in the transfer market, adding a pair of fifth-year grad transfers in John Gillon and Andrew White. Throw in a talented freshman like Tyus Battle and all 7-foot-2 of Providence transfer Paschal Chukwu, and suddenly things don’t look quite as bleak.

I’m still not convinced that the Orange actually have a point guard on this roster, but this may be the longest team that Jim Boeheim has ever had at his disposal. If Lydon takes a step forward, if Battle can be a significant contributor off the bat, if White can embrace playing a role, if this team can find a way to get a defensive rebound …

That’s a lot of ‘ifs’. I know. But Jim Boeheim is a Hall of Famer, and on paper, this group looks the kind of team he has success with.

Creighton Bluejays: The value of a talented, veteran back court during the month of March cannot be overrated, and there may not be a team in the country that has a better back court this season than the Bluejays. I don’t say that lightly, either, but I certainly mean it. It starts with fifth-year senior point guard Mo Watson, a dynamic-albeit-diminutive lead guard that averaged 14.4 points and 6.5 assists last season, his first playing at the high-major level. He has to get his turnovers down and his three-point shooting up, but he the talent is there.

Marcus Foster (Creighton Athletics)
Marcus Foster (Creighton Athletics)

And he may not even be the best guard on the Creighton roster. That title likely goes to Marcus Foster, the former Kansas State scoring guard that left the program after his sophomore season. You should remember Foster. He burst on the scene as a freshman, averaging 15.5 points, before a falling out with his coaching staff resulted in a transfer out of Manhattan. He’ll have something to prove.

There’s more to this roster as well. Justin Patton is a former top 50 recruit that redshirted last season and will join a veteran front line. Isaiah Zierden is a dangerous shooter. And then there is Cole Huff, a talented but inconsistent forward that will be the difference-maker for this team. He had a couple huge nights last season — 35 points against Seton Hall, 28 points against DePaul, 26 points against Rutgers — and also had stretches where he seemed out of favor. If he can pick up where he left off last year, reaching double-figures in eight-of-nine games before the start of the NIT, Creighton has the pieces to be quite potent.

Florida State Seminoles: How many teams are going to have more talent on the floor on a nightly basis than Florida State will? Dwayne Bacon has the physical tools of a first round pick, averaged 15.8 points as a freshman and is a consistent jumper away from being a nightmare to deal with. Xavier Rathan-Mayes probably doesn’t have the same upside as Bacon, but he’s a talented lead guard that is in his fourth year on campus and once scored 30 points in less than five minutes. Then there’s Terrence Mann, a sophomore that was productive and efficient in limited minutes playing behind first round Malik Beasley as a freshman.

Both Bacon and Rathan-Mayes have some efficiency issues to work through — they shot under 29 percent from three combined — but if that perimeter attack can somehow put all the pieces together, they will be a problem.

And that’s before you factor in Jonathan Isaac. Isaac is a bit of a unknown commodity at this point. He’s a 6-foot-11 combo-forward with a combination of skill and fluidity that has him projected as a lottery pick. But he also weighs a Chipotle burrito over 200 pounds and is still figuring out how to use his length to be effective. There are going to be growing pains, especially if the Seminoles cannot find anyone to make a jumper, but if we’re picking teams that can win four straight games in March, the ‘Noles have the talent to be on that list.

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Rhode Island Rams: Last year was supposed to be the year for the Rams, as they had as much talent on their roster as we’ve seen in an Atlantic 10 program in a long time, but injuries just obliterated what should have been a wildly successful season.

URI should be back at full strength this season, which means that they’ll have one of the best perimeter attacks in all of college basketball. Jarvis Garrett and Jared Terrell are both back, Indiana transfer Stanford Robinson is eligible and E.C. Matthews, a potential NBA Draft pick that averaged 16.9 points as a sophomore, will be back after tearing his ACL.

Power forward Hassan Martin, who may be the best pound-for-pound defender in the sport, should be back and healthy as well, as he missed the last month of the season with a knee injury. Front court depth is going to be an issue, as the Rams have a lot of bodies but not much experience, meaning the x-factor is likely going to end up being Kuran Iverson. A 6-foot-9 small forward, Iverson was at one point considered to be a top five prospect in his recruiting class. But after a disappointing conclusion to his high school career and an unimpressive layover at Memphis, Iverson churned out a modest 9.8 points, 7.1 boards and 1.2 blocks as a junior, shooting 39.0 percent from three.

If Iverson can play the four defensively, if he can be a guy that rebounds and blocks shots while creating a mismatch on the offensive end of the floor, URI will a nightmare to stop and a pleasure to watch on the offensive end of the floor.

Virginia Tech Hokies: I’m all in on Buzz Williams’ boys this season. There isn’t a coach in the country that is better at slapping together a group of players that were overlooked, under-recruited and are hungry-to-prove-themselves and winning with them. He did it at Marquette for years, and the result was a whole lot of wins and guys like Jae Crowder, Jimmy Butler and Wesley Matthews in the NBA.

That’s precisely who he has on his roster this year. I’d be willing to bet even die-hard ACC fans can’t name more than one player on Virginia Tech’s roster right now, but Buzz has some guys that can play. Zach LeDay and Seth Allen are probably the two best players he has at his disposal, but Buzz has talent, depth and grit up and down his roster.

Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams celebrates a play in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Virginia, Monday, Jan. 4, 2016, in Blacksburg, Va. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP) LOCAL STATIONS OUT; LOCAL INTERNET OUT; LOCAL PRINT OUT (SALEM TIMES REGISTER; FINCASTLE HERALD; CHRISTIANSBURG NEWS MESSENGER; RADFORD NEWS JOURNAL; ROANOKE STAR SENTINEL; MANDATORY CREDIT
Virginia Tech head coach Buzz Williams (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)

The Hokies got off to a rough start last season — they lost to Alabama State at home, which is … yuck — but they finished with 19 wins and a 10-8 record in the ACC. That includes wins at home over Virginia and Miami, who was a top ten team at the time.

And they bring everyone back from last season while adding a healthy Ahmed Hill and Ty Outlaw to the mix.

The Hokies aren’t “win the ACC” good, not with how loaded the ACC is this season, but they are “win four games in March” good.

St. Mary’s Gaels: There is going to be a lot of hype surrounding Gonzaga as we head into the college basketball season, but the WCC is going to be more than just the Zags this season. BYU will be dangerous in their own right, but I’m going to talk about the Gaels in this space.

St. Mary’s went 29-6 last season, sweeping Sweet 16-bound Gonzaga during the regular season and picking off Stanford at home. They missed out on the NCAA tournament because they didn’t leave the state of California until the end of January and lost to the Zags in the WCC tournament final, but this was a good basketball team that returns everyone from last season.

They’re old — they start a redshirt senior, regular senior, two redshirt juniors and a redshirt sophomore — and they’re deliberate, but they play a super-efficient brand of basketball on the offensive end of the floor and shoot the hell out of the ball from three. They’ll need the right matchups to make a run, but teams that don’t make mistakes and do make threes are always a tough out.

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.