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MAC Preview: A league on the upswing looks wide open

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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 the MAC.

The MAC was represented by Buffalo once again in the NCAA tournament last year but the league appears wide open and on the upswing.

Akron leads the East Division and the conference overall as they return three of their top four scorers from a 26-win team. Center Isaiah Johnson is a load to handle inside and Antino Jackson and Noah Robotham are both capable scorers. The Zips have 11 straight seasons of 20-plus wins and could represent the MAC in March. Ohio could be Akron’s biggest challenge in the East Division and in the conference as reigning MAC Player of the Year Antonio Campbell is joined by junior point guard Jaaron Simmons. The Bobcats will put up points with anyone, but getting stops will be a key this season.

Buffalo shouldn’t be counted out of the MAC race either as they make the East Division race a tough one. Point guard Lamonte Bearden transferred to Western Kentucky but the Bulls get back senior wing Blake Hamilton and talented two-way guard Willie Conner. Leading the West Division race is Eastern Michigan as they get back freshman center James Thompson IV and three more double-figure scorers. If the Eagles bring more consistency and defensive prowess they could easily be the best team in the MAC with the returning talent they have.

Northern Illinois is another intriguing team in the West Division as they get back three key double-figure scorers. Junior forward Marin Maric, senior wing Aaric Armstead and sophomore shooter Marshawn Wilson give the Huskies as good a trio as any in the league. Western Michigan has a strong one-two punch in junior guard Thomas Wilder and senior wing Tucker Haymond as both of them are capable of 20-point games and big nights. If the Broncos find more help in the frontcourt, they could make a big rise up the standings.

Things start to drop a bit with Toledo as they get back all-conference guard Jonathan Williams. The Rockets need some new pieces to step up, mainly Marquette transfer Steve Taylor and redshirt freshman big man Luke Knapke. Kent State is a bit of an unknown with nine new players on the roster but all-MAC forward Jimmy Hall is a new player to focus around. Hall produces from all over the floor and should make things easier on his new teammates.

Ball State will have tons of shooting but its question remains up front. Ryan Weber, Jeremie Tyler, Francis Kiapway and Sean Sellers are all talented shooters but they need someone besides Franko House to produce inside. Bowling Green made a surprise run to the MAC tournament semifinals last season as they’re hoping to build on that. Senior shooters Zack Denny and Wesley Alcegaire are both back from a team that had a lot of freshmen and sophomores contribute last season.

Central Michigan is in rebuild mode but they do have an all-MAC player in senior guard Braylon Rayson. Miami is relying on eight new players from a team that struggled last season. Nobody returning from last season averaged more than six points per game for the RedHawks.

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

PRESEASON MAC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Antonio Campbell, Ohio

The reigning MAC Player of the year was an easy choice for this as the 6-foot-8 senior was dominant at times last season. Campbell had a breakout season to average 17.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game while shooting 56 percent from the field. Campbell also shot 36 percent from three-point range and his versatility gives the Bobcats the option to space the floor.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON MAC TEAM:

  • Jonathan Williams, Toledo: The talented 6-foot-3 guard averaged 17.6 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 37 percent from three-point range.
  • Thomas Wilder, Western Michigan: Born to score, Wilder led the MAC in free throw attempts and makes as a sophomore as he averaged 18.0 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.
  • Jimmy Hall, Kent State: A big junior season from the 6-foot-8 forward as he averaged 16.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game while shooting 48 percent from the field.
  • James Thompson IV, Eastern Michigan: The MAC’s leader in field goal percentage as a freshman last season, Thompson shot 64 percent from the field and put up 14.8 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW: @MACSports

PREDICTED FINISH

  1. Akron
  2. Ohio
  3. Buffalo
  4. Eastern Michigan
  5. Northern Illinois
  6. Western Michigan
  7. Toledo
  8. Kent State
  9. Ball State
  10. Bowling Green
  11. Central Michigan
  12. Miami

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
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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.