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Villanova, Wright chasing title repeat with lessons from run

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VILLANOVA, Pa. (AP) Jay Wright slipped in and out of his competitive consciousness in the national championship game. He cringed as a coach as Villanova’s late lead trickled away against North Carolina. He loved the frenzy as a basketball fan watching the Wildcats and Tar Heels go shot-for-shot in one of the NCAA Tournament’s classic finals.

“This is what it’s like when you’re in the final and playing the best team in the country,” Wright said. “Little times it hits you like, wow, this is a great game.”

Little times. Like when North Carolina’s Marcus Paige hit a double-clutch 3 to tie the game at 74 with 4.7 seconds left.

“When Paige hit that shot, I had a second or two to think, this game is unbelievable and it could go into overtime and make it even more amazing,” Wright said.

Oh, the game got more amazing – no overtime necessary.

Kris Jenkins squashed the OT bid with a shot forever engraved as the biggest one in Villanova – heck, maybe March Madness – history. Jenkins spotted up behind the right side of the arc and buried a 3 at the buzzer to deliver Villanova to a 77-74 victory.

A miracle shot? Not quite. The Wildcats practiced that play for years and used a variation to reach the 2009 Final Four. The Wildcats were squashed by the Tar Heels in `09 and crashed into a March funk that lingered until last season.

With a championship banner to match one from 1985 nestled in the Pavilion rafters, the Wildcats must now hope that championship revelry doesn’t equate to a follow-up hangover.

The Wildcats suffered from a whopper following the 2009 run. The Wildcats dropped from 30 wins in 2009 to 25, 21 and then bottomed out at 13-19 and no postseason in 2011-12. Wright could not say no to friends or speaking engagements in the immediate aftermath of 2009 and the program seemed to waver from its recruiting foundation. He chased McDonald’s All-Americans or transfers who didn’t necessarily fit the program and it took a few seasons to stabilize.

“There were definitely times at the end of that, it was spiraling,” Wright said. “It really didn’t affect us until a couple of years later. I knew it then. … We were really preparing for that this time.”

As distractions mounted, Wright vowed this summer to stay connected to his family, players, coaches and recruits. Yes, there were stops at the ESPYs and a trip to the White House, but the big picture of staying focused on this season and beyond was not lost on Wright. Wright, 354-157 with two Final Fours in 15 seasons at Villanova, reigned in his commitments even as charities and corporations wanted a piece of the championship `Cat.

Wright tightened control this summer and even closed down the basketball office for a week in August for the first time so the entire staff could relax and regroup.

“I’ve had to say no to a lot of people, and I’ve probably disappointed a lot of people and I feel bad about that, I really do,” he said. “But the last time, I felt like it was my responsibility as the Villanova coach to do everything I was asked to do at Villanova. I did it. It got a little out of control. No, it got out of control.”

The Wildcats had not advanced out of the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2009 and lost two straight seasons in the opening round as a 1 or 2 seed.

In March, they were in a pressure spot again: a No. 2 seed about to play pesky Iowa with a Sweet 16 berth at stake and a potential burden lifted. Wright sensed pressure had seeped into the Big East powerhouse’s environment.

“Our fans were tense. Our families were tense. The Philadelphia media was tense,” Wright said.

Wright couldn’t even break that tension with his confidants. Wright likes to linger in the locker room during pregame warmups and talk life with Villanova’s team chaplain and sports psychologist. All Wright found were a bundle of nerves under the collar of Rev. Rob Hagan.

“I could even sense he was nervous for me,” Wright said, laughing. “This is big.”

The Wildcats instead cruised past Iowa. They followed with wins over Miami and Kansas, crushed Oklahoma by 44 in the Final Four and made first-weekend flops a distant memory.

“They didn’t fear that failure,” Wright said. “But everyone else did. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a little bit of concern for them. I was not worried about it. But I was worried for them and everyone else.”

The Wildcats quickly learned being called champs comes with more than a ring and a banner. It means mingling with the president and getting hounded for autographs and photos on social outings.

“I definitely feel like we’re treated differently,” Wright said. “I can see it. I can feel it. All the time. I don’t want to be different. I enjoyed the way we were doing it. Even losing in the second round, I was loving those teams.”

So the question looms, armed with a heap of expectations, can Villanova repeat?

“We could,” Wright said. “But we could lose to anybody again. We’ve made it true. We’ve lost to everybody and we’ve won it all. But I think we’re good enough.”

Jenkins, Jalen Brunson, preseason All-American Josh Hart and the rest of the returning core should keep the Wildcats on track to try and become college basketball’s first repeat champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007.

Villanova President Rev. Peter Donohue bellowed to fans last week at a kickoff celebration that “Villanova is going to do it again!”

“That’s pressure from the boss!” Wright said with a smile over the house mic.

Again the Big East favorites and ranked fourth in the AP preseason Top 25, the Wildcats won’t judge this season on a banner-or-bust scale.

“The only way we can top that or be better than that is to be the best team we can be by the end of the year,” Jenkins said. “If that wins us another national championship, then cool.”

More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org

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

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

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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.