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Five things we learned from No. 11 UCLA’s win at No. 1 Kentucky

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No. 11 UCLA went into Rupp Arena on Saturday afternoon and knocked off No. 1 Kentucky, 97-92

The game was just as entertaining as we all thought it was going to be, only the outcome turned out just a bit different. 

Here are five things we learned from the game.

1. UCLA is much better defensively than they were a season ago: That was the biggest question mark with this team entering the season. Will they be good enough defensively to win games? The answer is yes. I wrote a full column on UCLA’s defense already, so I won’t waste anymore words on it here.

2. T.J. Leaf is a problem: The UCLA freshman that we had all heard so much about was Lonzo Ball, and rightfully so. Ball is a likely lottery pick, a kid that has the potential to one day be Jason Kidd, and he’s one of the most entertaining players in all of college basketball. It’s easy to fall in love with everything about the kid’s game, from his passing ability to his unselfishness to the way he takes over games with his vision.

But the infatuation with Ball made a lot of people overlook Leaf, a skilled, 6-foot-10 forward who entered Saturday averaged 17.3 points, 9.0 boards and 2.5 assists. Not anymore, not after he went for 17 points, 13 boards and five assists against Kentucky. The offensive side of things wasn’t all that surprising. We knew that Leaf could score and we knew that his versatility and athleticism made him a matchup problem for opposing bigs, although maybe not to the degree that we saw on Saturday.

Where Leaf really seemed to impress was defensively. He grabbed some big rebounds and he made an impact in the paint on the road against Bam Adebayo and the No. 1 team in the country. His motor and his physical toughness stood out as much as anything, and when combined with his athleticism, length and offensive skill, he makes for an impact player and an intriguing long-term prospect. Expect to hear a lot more about him.

3. Kentucky’s issues in the half court were on display: The Wildcats are a terrific defensive team and they are terrific when their defense allows them to get out and run in transition. That’s what they’ve been able to do all season long, due in large part to the fact that they’ve been able to physically overpower everyone that they’ve played, particularly in the back court.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Thomas Welsh #40 and TJ Leaf #22 of the UCLA Bruins defend against De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half of the game at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Where Kentucky has some issues is when teams force them into a half court battle. They lack shooters. De’Aaron Fox and Isaiah Briscoe combined to shoot 1-for-9 from three. Derek Willis hit a couple of triples and seems to be finally finding some footing in the rotation, but he’s also a step-down on the defensive side of the ball. What happens, then, is that teams can clog the middle, limiting what the Wildcats can do on that end of the floor. It takes away driving lanes for Fox and Briscoe and it makes it that much more difficult to get Bam Adebayo quality touches in the post.

That said …

4. … the way this game says more about UCLA than the Wildcats: The way to force Kentucky into a half court game is to score on them, and that’s a lot more difficult than in sounds. UCLA is very, very good offensively. They not only can score in transition as well as anyone, which let them get the ball through the net before Kentucky set their defense, they have a difference-maker on their roster in Ball who, quite simply, makes everyone on the team better. There are very few teams in the country that can say that they have one of those things, let alone both of them.

The bottom line?

The list of elite teams, the number of teams that can legitimately be called title contenders, just grew by one.

And that list still includes the Wildcats.

5. This may go down as the single-best win of the college basketball season: Kentucky is still awesome. They are still going to be the favorite to win the SEC. They’re still going to be a top five team all season long, and they’re still going to enter the NCAA tournament as a national title contender. None of that is going to change.

And that’s great news for UCLA.

Because they just picked up a win on the road against a team that is going to be a top five team on Selection Sunday. That’s huge, because those are the kind of wins that make a difference in seed lines. Assuming the Bruins win their league this season, having this win on their résumé is what will put them into the conversation for a No. 1 seed. With the Pac-12 looking like it may not be quite as strong as we thought – both Oregon and Arizona are in a bad way right now – it becomes even more valuable.

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins reacts after making a three-point basket against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half of the game at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Lonzo Ball (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.