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Five Things We Learned This Week: Oregon’s back and the ACC is weird

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1. Oregon is back: On Wednesday, Oregon put the nation on notice.

The Ducks rallied late to knock off No. 2 UCLA on Matt Court thanks Dillon Brooks, Eugene’s resident all-american, hitting a game-winning three with 0.7 seconds left. Two nights later, with No. 22 USC coming to town, Brooks looked every bit the part of an all-american, as he scored 28 points on 10 shots, hitting all four of his threes as the Ducks steam-rolled the Trojans, who had entered Friday night undefeated.

That was Oregon’s statement, their warning to the rest of the country that their early season struggles and health issues were behind them.

I was as high as anyone on the Ducks back in September, but I was in the same boat as everyone else after they lost to Baylor and lost to Georgetown and struggled to beat the likes of Boise State and Alabama and UConn. I wasn’t going to believe in the Ducks as a title contender until they proved they can be a title contender.

They did that this weekend.

Which means that I’m back on board.

2. The ACC was really weird this weekend: And it doesn’t look like that is going to change anytime soon.

Let’s start with the obvious: Each of the top four teams in the league took a loss during the first week of conference play. No. 6 Louisville lost at home to No. 12 Virginia, who proceeded to lose at home to No. 20 Florida State. No. 5 Duke got blown out at Virginia Tech, a lot that should tell you there are more issues in Durham than just Grayson Allen’s tripping problems. No. 9 North Carolina lost at Georgia Tech, who, along with Boston College, were supposed to be the league’s bottom-feeders this season.

Should I mention that Boston College blew out Syracuse on Sunday?

And frankly, this is probably going to be the norm in that conference this season. The teams we all thought were going to struggle to win more than a couple of league games, Boston College and Georgia Tech, both look much more dangerous than they did a month ago. Duke, the juggernaut that was supposed to truck-stick everyone opponent they faced, is clearly at a crossroads of their season. UNC, UVA and Louisville all have flaws. Florida State and Notre Dame are beatable.

The kicker? There are 12 teams in the league that are good enough to push for an at-large berth. It’s the most cliché piece of coach-speak there is, but there are no easy games or off-nights in the ACC this season.

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3. Is Louisville the best team in the league?: I know this sounds crazy five days after Louisville got embarrassed at home by Virginia, but the thing to remember with Louisville is that Virginia is just about the worst possible matchup for them. Styles make fights in college hoops, and what Louisville does well gets taken away by what Virginia is the best in the country at.

And considering that, in the last two weeks, Louisville sandwiched that loss to Virginia with a win over Kentucky and a win over Indiana in Indiana, it’s hard to ignore the fact that this team is peaking. Quentin Snider played the best game of his career in the win over Kentucky. Donovan Mitchell played the best game of his career in the win over the Hoosiers. Deng Adel was very good in both. The early-season struggles of those three players is why there are doubts about the Cardinals.

Should I mention that as Louisville is starting to peak, Duke is a mess and North Carolina is losing to Georgia Tech?

Honestly, I think the correct answer is that there isn’t a “best team in the ACC”, but Louisville has as good of a chance to win the regular season title as anyone.

4. The Big Ten was weird this weekend, too: It wasn’t quite as weird as the ACC was, but after the first week’s worth of Big Ten games it’s pretty clear that the league is going to be tougher to peg than we thought. It starts with Nebraska, who entered league play having lost six of their last eight games and who will enter next week having won at Indiana and at Maryland, two teams that look like they’ll be in the NCAA tournament in March. Then there is Minnesota, who had a 12-1 record during non-conference play and proceeded to lose to an under-manned Michigan State team at home in overtime before beating No. 15 Purdue on the road in overtime.

Wisconsin is quiet clearly the best team in the Big Ten, but before this weekend, I think most observers would have told you that Purdue and Indiana aren’t all that far behind the Badgers. Maybe that’s wrong.

5. Is it time to start calling Villanova the favorite to win it all?: Our Travis Hines was in Omaha for that game and penned an excellent column on this very subject. I won’t totally repeat it here, but I will say this: The freshmen at Duke, Kentucky and UCLA have been as hyped as any freshmen class in recent memory; rightfully so, those dudes are awesome. Baylor has been celebrated because of the fact that no one saw this coming. North Carolina is North Carolina and played the most entertaining game of the year in the most watched game of the year against Kentucky.

And all the while, Villanova just keeps winning.

Yes, they’re the reigning champs. Yes, they have a National Player of the Year favorite on their roster. Yes, they’re No. 1 in both polls.

But they never seem to be the trendy team, the popular pick to win it all, the favorite among the “experts” in this business. It may be time to change that, because if Villanova’s win at No. 10 Creighton taught us anything, it’s that know team in the country understands how to win better than the Wildcats. They’re cool, calm and collected in pressure moments. They don’t rush. They don’t panic. They don’t force shots.

They execute.

They just win.

Villanova guard Jalen Brunson (1) dribbles the ball down court with Creighton guard Khyri Thomas (2) guarding him during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Omaha, Neb., Saturday, Dec. 28, 2016. Villanova defeated Creighton 80-70. (AP Photo/John Peterson)
Villanova guard Jalen Brunson (AP Photo/John Peterson)

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.