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Michigan State is a team going through growing pains

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NEW YORK — This year’s iteration of the Champions Classic was weird, to say the least.

The No. 1 team in the country, Duke, lost in a thriller to a team that was already 0-1 on the season, and not only did the performance assert why that 0-1 team – No. 7 Kansas – is a national title contender – because #BIFM – but it also was proof positive that the Blue Devils are the best team in the country. That’s what happens when you take a team like Kansas to the wire, erasing a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes, without Harry Giles III, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden.

And then there is Kentucky.

The No. 2 Wildcats played their best game of the season, dominating No. 13 Michigan for 40 minutes, beating Tom Izzo’s team by 21 points and doing so while their front line failed to look anything close to dominant. The Wildcats all-but ensured that they will be the No. 1 team in college basketball come Monday morning, and yet, it seems like it’s something that we’re all glossing over.

And, frankly, there’s a reason for that: Michigan State just isn’t very good right now.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but by far the biggest issue is on the offensive end of the floor. The Spartans managed all of 48 points against Kentucky after they struggled to find any kind of offensive rhythm after the opening minutes against Arizona. They shot 32 percent from the floor. They were 5-for-26 from three. they had nine assists and 19 turnovers.

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“I think this is one of John (Calipari’s) best defensive teams,” head coach Tom Izzo said. I’d quibble with that assessment – three times in his Kentucky tenure Coach Cal has fielded a team that finished first or second in KenPom.com’s defensive efficiency metric – but this is a very good Kentucky defense. De’Aaron Fox may be the nation’s best on-ball defender, Isaiah Briscoe has transformed himself into a stopper and there is enough size, length and athleticism on this roster that effort is the only thing that would keep this version of the Wildcats from being very good on that end of the floor.

Putting that kind of defensive back court on the floor against a team whose point guard play is very much a work in progress is going to cause problems, but more on that in a second.

To me, the biggest issue that this Michigan State team has is that they don’t really have a star on the offensive end of the floor. Miles Bridges was supposed to be the guy that carried the load, but he’s just not ready for that at this point in his development. He’s a role player in the same way that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was a role player on Kentucky 2012 national title team. Bridges is an other-worldly athlete that plays hard, defends, rebounds and does all the things on a basketball court that you cannot teach. In the first ten minutes on Tuesday night, he blocked two layups seemingly out of nowhere and broke up another alley-oop, essentially erasing six points that Kentucky would’ve scored against any other team in the country.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15: Miles Bridges #22 reacts after being taken out of the game by head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Miles Bridges (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

But that’s what he does best right now.

At this level right now, he is a glue guy. But given the youth on Michigan State’s roster, the Spartans need him to be the guy, and he’s not that guy, at least not against this level of competition. He finished 2-for-11 from the floor with nine turnovers against Michigan State.

“I’m really embarrassed,” Bridges said, adding that he felt added pressure to try and make something happen when the offense started struggling. “But that’s what I can’t do. I have to get my teammates involved and do something else.”

“In high school, I was getting wherever I wanted, bullying guys,” Bridges added. “You can’t do that here.”

Izzo’s known as one of the best x’s-and-o’s coaches in college hoops, but without a commanding voice at the point guard spot, their offense devolved into too much one-on-one. Instead of running their lanes in transition and running through their sets, Michigan State was trying to break the defense down on their own. That’s not going to work against a team that can defend the way that Kentucky can defend. That’s not going to work if Michigan State is going to beat the teams that they expect to beat.

The good news?

Much of what ails Michigan State is fixable. They’ll get better as Cassius Winston gets more comfortable running the show. They’ll get better as Nick Ward learns how to be a guy that offense runs through in the post. They’ll get better as Josh Langford gets more comfortable being a go-to guy on the offensive end of the floor. They’ll get better as Izzo continues to work with them on how he wants his offensive to run and his team to play. Veteran teams can overcome subpar point guard play. Great point guards can help ‘coach up’ a young team early in the season.

The Spartans, right now, have neither, and the result wasn’t exactly unexpected.

“The good news is the mistakes we’re making are fixable mistakes. [Coach] is not telling us to jump higher or run faster, it’s cutting and the x’s-and-o’s,” Nick Goins said, adding that the loss of Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling, a pair of senior bigs, is taking a toll as well. “Having that leadeship and the people that know our coaches and how they want the program run, it’s where we’re struggling, to get people to fit into those roles.”

“When you have 18 or 20 turnovers, defensive mistakes, that you know you can’t make, that’s stuff you can control,” said Langford. “When you look at yourself in the mirror, it’s frustrating, but you have to live and learn.”

That’s what life is going to be like at this level. Michigan State will have to learn how to adjust.

As Izzo put it, “welcome to the real world.”

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15: Head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans talks with Cassius Winston #5 in the second half during the State Farm Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 15, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Cassius Winston (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

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

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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.