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College Basketball Conference Reset: The Pac-12’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 Pac 12.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Lonzo Ball, UCLA

This really shouldn’t be much of a discussion. He’s done so much to revamp who this UCLA program is, and it goes beyond the simple fact that he’s averaging 8.3 assists per game. There’s an unselfishness that has permeated this roster. Players are more likely to give the ball up because they know they’re going to get it back again. He’s the engine that makes their fast break offense work and he’s the reason why they are so difficult to defend in the half court. Throw in the fact that the Bruins are one of the five or six teams everyone has listed as a national title favorite, and he’s a shoe-in for this award.

ALL-PAC 12 FIRST TEAM

  • Markelle Fultz, Washington
  • Lonzo Ball, UCLA
  • Jordan McLaughlin, USC
  • Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
  • T.J. Leaf, UCLA

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

WHAT WE’VE LEARNED

  1. UCLA is awesome: Entering the season, the Bruins were one of the toughest teams to peg. It wasn’t hard to see them putting together this kind of a season, but it also wasn’t hard to see Lonzo Ball failing to acclimate to the college level while the Bruins continued to struggle defensively. A Final Four was always in their range of outcomes. So was a sub-.500 season, and if we’ve learned anything in the first six weeks of the season, it’s that the Bruins are decidedly the former. The biggest reason? Their ability to score. Not only do they play as fast as anyone, but they are one of the most efficient offensive teams in the sport, which is what tends to happen when you surround Ball with four guys shooting better than 39.3 percent from three.
  2. Oregon lost more than we realized they did: The Ducks are going to return to relevancy as Dillon Brooks returns to 100 percent, but there is no question that we underestimated just how valuable Elgin Cook and Dwayne Benjamin were to Dana Altman’s program. While the Ducks still have the talented weapons offensively, losing the kind of versatility and athleticism those two brought was not easy to replace.
  3. USC may not own LA, but Andy Enfield has another good team: Last year, the Trojans were the best program – and maybe the best basketball team – in LA. This year, with the way that the Bruins and the Lakers have played, they certainly are not, but that hasn’t slowed down Andy Enfield’s program. Despite losing Julian Jacobs and Nikola Jovanovic, and with Bennie Boatwright dealing with injury for much of the early part of the season, USC will enter league play without a loss to their name. Jordan McLaughlin has been terrific, but it’s been the emergence of players like Elijah Stewart and De’Anthony Melton that have really made the difference.
TUCSON, AZ - DECEMBER 20: Lauri Markkanen #10 of the Arizona Wildcats reacts after hitting a three point shot against the New Mexico Lobos during the second half of the college basketball game at McKale Center on December 20, 2016 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Lauri Markkanen (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

KEY STORY LINES IN LEAGUE PLAY

  1. Arizona is getting better even if they don’t get Allonzo Trier back: What Arizona has done given the amount of turmoil surrounding that program has been impressive. They lost Ray Smith for the year to year another torn ACL. They never got Terrence Ferguson on campus. Parker Jackson-Cartwright will be out for a while with an ankle injury. And yet, the Wildcats are 11-2 on the year and trending in the right direction. The big question now is whether or not Allonzo Trier will figure out his issues and be cleared to play at any point this season.
  2. Who’s the second-best team in the Pac-12?: UCLA is the best team in the league. We all know that. I think everyone in the Pac-12 would agree. Who is the second-best? Entering the season, Oregon was thought to be the best team in the league. Arizona was up there as well, but that was before the injuries and suspensions. USC wasn’t in the conversation but it’s impossible to ignore their start to the year. It’s certainly one of those three teams. But which one?
  3. Does Washington have any chance of turning this thing around?: Markelle Fultz is a ridiculous talent having a ridiculous individual season. But he’s stuck on a roster that doesn’t have enough talent, experience, defensive effort or coaching to beat Yale, Nevada or TCU (twice). Those aren’t bad basketball teams or programs, but they’re not the kind of teams that Washington and Fultz should be losing to.

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BETTER THAN THEIR RECORD: I still think that Oregon has a chance to be a Final Four team. Dana Altman is as good as any coach in the country at finding a way to get the most out of his roster, and by the time the Ducks are playing their first league game on Wednesday, Dillon Brooks should be back to 100 percent.

BEAT SOMEONE AND WE’LL TALK: USC is one of just six undefeated teams left in college basketball, and as impressive as that is to say in the days after Christmas, I’m still not sure just how good the Trojans are. Is this a team that can actually compete for the Pac-12 title, or have they gotten the job done against a schedule that probably isn’t as good as it looks on paper? I’d lean towards the former, but we’ll know for sure on Friday, when USC pays a visit to Eugene to take on the Ducks.

COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament in the last five seasons, and during those five seasons, he has sent five players to the first round of the NBA Draft. This year he has the potential No. 1 pick on his roster in Markelle Fultz and he appears destined for the NIT, at best. It’s impressive for a head coach at a high major program to be able to last five years without a trip to the NCAA tournament. It’s almost unheard of to go six years, especially when that includes six first round picks and the No. 1 overall pick.

EUGENE, OR - DECEMBER 11: Dillon Brooks #24 of the Oregon Ducks drives to the basket on Riley Norris #1 of the Alabama Crimson Tide during the first half of the game at Matthew Knight Arena on December 11, 2016 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Dillon Brooks #24 (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

POWER RANKINGS, POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

Tourney teams

  • 1. UCLA: What else is there to say about the Bruins that hasn’t been said yet? How about this: Aaron Holiday, their sixth-man, is the third-best player on the Bruin roster.
  • 2. Arizona: Playing without Allonzo Trier and Ray Smith, the Wildcats have been pretty impressive this season Lauri Markkanen lived up to the hype while Kobi Simmons and Rawle Alkins have developed into quality pieces. Sean Miller is getting a lot out of the limited pieces he has available. If they get Trier back, the Wildcats might actually be something.
  • 3. Oregon: The Ducks had a slow start to the year as they tried to work Dillon Brooks back from an injury. They’ve won nine in a row since a rough trip to Maui and will have a real test in their Pac-12 opener against UCLA.
  • 4. USC: The Trojans lost their only two seniors, both starters, this offseason, but that hasn’t mattered, as they are currently sitting at 13-0 this season. The most impressive part? Bennie Boatwright has basically been a non-factor this season, meaning the Trojans have done all this with just three players that played a second for USC in a game before this season.
  • 5. Colorado: The difference between the Buffaloes and some of the other teams that look destined for the NIT is that Colorado landed a win over Xavier during non-conference play. Combine that with the fact that the trip to the Mountain time zone is the most difficult in the league, and the Buffs are in a good spot to get back to the dance.

NIT teams

  • 6. Utah: Kyle Kuzma has been awesome all season long while Lorenzo Bonam has looked solid, but the difference for this team has been the addition of David Collette and Sedrick Barefield, who are both averaging better than 15 points since getting eligible four games ago.
  • 7. Cal: The Bears had a chance to poach an elite win at home against Virginia and let it slip away. Ivan Rabb hasn’t taken the step forward that many expected of him.
  • 8. Stanford: Reid Travis has been arguably the best big man in the conference this season, but this year looks like it going to be something of a work in progress for the Cardinal in Jerod Haase’s first season.

Autobid or bust

  • 9. Washington: The Huskies have the most talented player in college basketball on their roster and look like they’re destined for the NIT at best. It will be a shame if Markelle Fultz never plays a meaningful college basketball game on national television, because he is so talented.
  • 10. Arizona State: The Sun Devils were obliterated by Kentucky and Purdue on neutral courts, and then were called out by their head coach for not being tough enough. That probably won’t be the last time Bobby Hurley isn’t happy with his team’s play.
  • 11. Oregon State: The Beavers could end up being in last place in the league this season depending on when they get Tres Tinkle back from his wrist injury.
  • 12. Washington State: The Cougars are going to enter league play above .500 on the season, which is a positive and wasn’t a guarantee entering the year.

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.