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Conference USA Preview: UAB and Middle Tennessee try to keep shocking the world

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Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing Conference USA.

Nobody respected Conference USA entering last season’s NCAA tournament and it helped contribute to No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee’s shocking upset of Final Four contender Michigan State. The Blue Raiders followed in the footsteps of UAB after the Blazers’ win over Iowa State and both teams will once again be in the mix for what will likely be the league’s only tournament bid. But besides the top two contenders, there are a lot of talented teams in the equation this season.

It will be NCAA tournament or bust for preseason favorite UAB as they fell short of the Big Dance after falling to Middle Tennessee in the C-USA Tournament. The Blazers have a new coach in former assistant Robert Ehsan, but they return five starters from a 26-win team — including three all-league players. Middle Tennessee lost some key pieces from that tournament team but sharpshooting guard Giddy Potts and senior forward Reggie Upshaw return along with an intriguing graduate transfer in Arkansas forward JaCorey Williams.

The Stith brothers will lead the charge for Old Dominion as forward Brandan Stith returns after averaging nearly a double-double per game. He’s joined by Virginia transfer and younger brother Bryant Stith and all-freshman selection Zoran Talley to form an intriguing nucleus that could contend immediately. Dan D’Antoni brings back four scorers to a high-scoring Marshall team that went 12-6  in league play. The trio of Jon Elmore, Ryan Taylor and Stevie Browning can put up a ton of points but the Thundering Herd have to get stops to be among the league’s elite.

Western Kentucky will be fascinating under new head coach Rick Stansbury. While Stansbury is generating headlines for his Class of 2017 recruiting efforts, the team he’ll put on the floor this season includes some talented graduate transfers including Pancake Thomas (Hartford), Que Johnson (Washington State), Junior Lomomba (Providence) and Willie Carmichael (Tennessee). Those newcomers with returning forward Justin Johnson make for a talented team. Louisiana Tech loses talented point guard Alex Hamilton, but they get all-conference forward Erik McCree back along with guard Jacobi Boykins. Miami transfer Omar Sherman and the return of injured guard Qiydar Davis could be the key to the Bulldogs’ season.

Four starters are back for North Texas including the potent trio of Jeremy Combs, J-Mychal Reese and Deckie Johnson. The Mean Green also get former McDonald’s All-American Keith Frazier (SMU) after first semester, but they have to be more consistent to beat the league’s top teams. UTEP will have to replace some key pieces but Dominic Artis, Omega Harris and Terry Winn are returning double-figure scorers. If the Miners can get more consistent play from their frontcourt, they could be a sleeper in this league. Rice has a potential league Player of the Year candidate in high-scoring sophomore guard Marcus Evans and he’ll receive help from guard Marcus Jackson this season as Jackson returns from injury.

Charlotte is still very young and perimeter-oriented by all-freshmen guards Jon Davis and Adrien White are back along with senior guard Braxton Ogbueze. Florida Atlantic has four starters back as they boast one of the league’s most productive front courts. FIU has senior guard Donte McGill back but no other returning player averaged more than eight points per game. UTSA has a new coach in former Oklahoma assistant Steve Henson as he inherits some talented pieces including the backcourt trio of Christian Wilson, J.R. Harris and Gino Littles. Southern Miss is finally finished with its two-year postseason ban but the roster still has a long ways to go to be competitive again.

MORE: 2016-17 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

PRESEASON CONFERENCE USA PLAYER OF THE YEAR: William Lee, UAB

The reigning Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year, Lee is a pogo stick forward who is one of the best shot blockers in the country. The 6-foot-9 junior averaged 2.9 rejections per game last season in only 24.8 minutes per contest to go along with 10.6 points and 6.2 rebounds. Lee also shot 49 percent from the field and 34 percent from three-point range as he projects as the league’s best long-term prospect. If Lee sees more minutes this season he could be among the nation’s leaders in blocked shots as he’s trying to get the Blazers back to the NCAA tournament.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON CONFERENCE USA TEAM:

  • Marcus Evans, Rice: Coming off of a freshman season in which he averaged 21.4 points per game and won C-USA Freshman of the Year honors, Evans will try to improve his three-point shooting (30 percent).
  • Giddy Potts, Middle Tennessee: Before his starring role in the win over Michigan State, Potts shot a national-best 50 percent from three-point range while averaging 14.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
  • Chris Cokley, UAB: A productive sophomore campaign saw the 6-foot-8 Cokley averaged 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game while shooting 57 percent from the floor as he had some big games against good teams.
  • Reggie Upshaw, Middle Tennessee: The 6-foot-7 senior burst into the national spotlight with his postseason performances as he won C-USA Tournament MVP and scored 21 in the upset of Michigan State.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @Conference_USA

PREDICTED FINISH

  1. UAB
  2. Middle Tennessee
  3. Old Dominion
  4. Marshall
  5. Western Kentucky
  6. Louisiana Tech
  7. North Texas
  8. UTEP
  9. Rice
  10. Charlotte
  11. Florida Atlantic
  12. FIU
  13. UTSA
  14. Southern Miss

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

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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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

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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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.