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College Basketball Conference Reset: The Big Ten’s best players and biggest story lines

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College basketball’s non-conference season is coming to a close, and to help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Today, we’re taking a look at the Big Ten.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Caleb Swanigan, Purdue

This was a narrow race between Swanigan and Melo Trimble but Swanigan impacts the game in too many ways. Coming off of back-to-back 20-20 games — including 32 points and 20 rebounds in 30 minutes in a win over Norfolk State — Swanigan is averaging 18.4 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. The sophomore is also putting up ridiculous splits with 59 percent from the floor, 52 percent from three-point range and 75 percent from the charity stripe. If there is one gripe about with Swanigan, it’s his high turnover count, but that is nitpicking at this point. When a player returns from the NBA Draft process, you hope they take take a step forward and Swanigan has completely overhauled his game to become one of the country’s best players.

ALL-BIG TEN FIRST TEAM

  • Melo Trimble, Maryland
  • Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
  • Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
  • Malcolm Hill, Illinois
  • Peter Jok, Iowa

RESETS: ACC | Big Ten | Big EastPac-12 | SEC | Big 12

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  1. Wisconsin looks great with this version of Nigel Hayes: Early in the season we saw the junior-year version of Nigel Hayes — the Nigel Hayes that jacked a lot of bad perimeter looks and had a low field goal percentage. Since returning home from the Maui Invitational, Hayes has looked like a complete weapon and Wisconsin looks like the Big Ten favorites. Hayes has shot 59 percent from the floor since Maui and he’s averaging a team-leading 3.4 assists per game for the season. His ability to find teammates from the elbows makes Bronson Koenig more valuable as an off-the-ball floor spacer while Hayes and Ethan Happ can go to work on the interior. The Badgers are dangerous when Hayes plays this way and they’re fun to watch.
  2. Indiana is a legitimate Big Ten contender: We quickly learned on opening night that Indiana was legitimate as we watched the Hoosiers get up and down with Kansas during a thrilling overtime win in Hawaii. The Hoosiers also looked great in a home win over North Carolina and they’re shooting 40 percent from three-point range as a team this season. Indiana had some in-state hiccups with losses at Fort Wayne and against Butler in Indianapolis, but they remain very tough at home and their offensive balance will win them a lot of games in conference play.
  3. Purdue is much better at perimeter shooting: One of the fun wrinkles of Purdue’s attack this season is how much more effective they are shooting from three-point range. It seems like the last few years the Boilers had the interior scorer but didn’t have the shooters around to have a true impact team. This year’s team still has two impact interior players in Swanigan and junior center Isaac Haas but now this group is shooting 41 percent from three-point range. Dakota Mathias, Ryan Cline, Vince Edwards and P.J. Thompson have all shot with good reliability from three while freshman Carsen Edwards is streaky enough to get hot from there. Swanigan will step out and hit shots sometimes. If Purdue continues shooting like they have been they have a chance to win the Big Ten.
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 26: Melo Trimble #2 of the Maryland Terrapins celebrates after hitting the game winning shot as they defeated the Kansas State Wildcats 69-68 during the championship game of the Barclays Center Classic at Barclays Center on November 26, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  1. How does Michigan State rebound from a sluggish start?: Things haven’t been easy for the Spartans but the start of Big Ten play should help Tom Izzo’s team. Freshman Miles Bridges should return to action soon and Nick Ward and Cassius Winston have had some strong performances the last five games. If Eron Harris becomes more consistent — or Josh Langford can step up and produce more — the Spartans should have enough to make another NCAA tournament this season.
  2. Outside of Melo Trimble, who steps up for Maryland?: Melo Trimble is having an outstanding junior year and Maryland is 12-1 but is this team really that good? Sure, the Terps have wins over Georgetown, Kansas State and Oklahoma State but all of those came by one point each. Melo needed to play hero to bail Maryland out in another overtime win over Richmond. The Maryland freshmen — Justin Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter — have been solid as Trimble’s main weapons, but will the Maryland veterans be more consistent in conference play? Will those freshmen show up the same in the Big Ten now that some film exists on them?
  3. Can Northwestern make its first ever NCAA tournament?: Northwestern has never made the NCAA tournament. With an 11-2 start and neutral wins over Texas and Dayton and losses on the road at Butler and neutral against Notre Dame, the Wildcats have some respectable results against good competition. They’re also winning even though junior point guard Bryant McIntosh has struggled to make shots so far this season. Scottie Lindsay and Vic Law are both off to great starts, and if McIntosh plays like he’s shown he can the last two seasons, the Wildcats could have a historic season and make its first Big Dance.

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BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: Michigan State started the season with back-to-back losses against Arizona and Kentucky before running into a red-hot Baylor team and having to play Duke on the road. Between the injuries and the inexperienced roster it was a recipe for a tough start and that’s what we’ve seen from the Spartans as they sit at 8-5. But we know Tom Izzo teams always get better as the season rolls on and this team should get healthier soon. Freshman Miles Bridges has been injured and earned the most headlines but freshman big man Nick Ward is showing strong flashes and freshman point guard Cassius Winston should get better.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: Minnesota is off to a 12-1 start on the season but their schedule hasn’t exactly been tough. The Gophers have played only two games away from home. They’re o-1 in true road games with a neutral court win over Vanderbilt. Wins over UT-Arlington and Arkansas could look good later this season but Minnesota doesn’t have a win over a team firmly in the NCAA tournament field yet.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Nebraska has struggled to a 6-6 start as it looks like the Cornhuskers and head coach Tim Miles will miss the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive season. After a home loss against Gardner-Webb in front of only a half-full arena (weather did play a factor) this was an alarming quote from Miles: “I never dreamt in five years this is where we would be, losing to Gardner-Webb. We’re not where we should be. The issue is us. It’s us and our mindset.”

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15: Miles Bridges #22 of the Michigan State Spartans reacts against the Kentucky Wildcats in the first 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)

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1. Wisconsin: The Badgers are getting great starts from Nigel Hayes, Ethan Happ and Bronson Koenig this season and role players like Vitto Brown, Zak Showalter, D’Mitrik Trice and Khalil Iverson have been solid. The Wisconsin offense has become efficient and its defense remains very good.
  • 2. Indiana: Indiana’s high-octane offense makes them one of the most fun teams to watch in college basketball as they’re capable of putting up points in a hurry. James Blackmon has recovered nicely and Thomas Bryant, Robert Johnson and O.G. Anunoby remain major threats.
  • 3. Purdue: This team has a chance to make a special run thanks to the outside shooting to match Swanigan and Haas inside. With eight reliable rotation players and a backcourt that is capable of giving some scoring punch, Purdue is going to be fun to follow these last few months.
  • 4. Michigan State: We’ve gone over how the Spartans have to play well to make the NCAA tournament. The key could be increased minutes for Cassius Winston. Winston is leading the Big Ten is assists — despite only 20 minutes per game — and his recent uptick in offensive production has been important for the offense.
  • 5. Maryland: This Maryland team doesn’t have any marquee wins to speak of and has relied a lot on freshmen to produce outside of Melo Trimble. The Terps need more from veterans like Jared Nickens and Dion Wiley to be a contender.
  • 6. Michigan: The Wolverines don’t have any bad losses and they have enough depth, balance and experience to navigate the league and back into the tournament. Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton have more help this season.
  • 7. Northwestern: More from the bench is going to be necessary for Northwestern to be a Big Ten factor. The Wildcats have some solid role guys like Gavin Skelly and Sanjay Lumpkin but more production outside of those guys could be the difference in making the tournament.

NIT teams

  • 8. Ohio State: It’s hard to tell how good Ohio State is since they haven’t beaten anyone of note. The Buckeyes have minimal depth outside its six double-figure scorers and they shoot only 32 percent from three-point range.
  • 9. Illinois: Six straight wins has Illinois in strong position entering conference play but the start to Big Ten schedule is brutal and this team is inconsistent. Senior Malcolm Hill remains an underrated All-American candidate.
  • 10. Minnesota: Four more wins than all of last season is a great start but the Gophers haven’t beaten a guaranteed NCAA tournament team and a good chunk of the roster has never played a Big Ten schedule.
  • 11. Iowa: The Hawkeyes have responded nicely with wins over Iowa State and Northern Iowa since a four-game losing streak but Peter Jok doesn’t have enough help to make the NCAA tournament.

Autobid or bust

  • 12. Penn State: The Nittany Lions already have home losses to Albany and George Mason so its hard to expect a huge turnaround in Big Ten play. This team has the talent to win some unexpected games but they’re a year away.
  • 13. Rutgers: The 11-2 start is commendable but the Scarlet Knights have played next to nobody and open with three of four on the road in conference play. Forward Deshawn Freeman could be an all-league candidate.
  • 14. Nebraska: Senior Tai Webster is having an outstanding start to his senior season but he needs more help outside of sophomores Glynn Watson and Ed Morrow. The Huskers need to regain its homecourt advantage.

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

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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.