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Five Things We Learned This Week: Kentucky is scary, but so is Purdue, Florida State?

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1. Just how big is the gap between Kentucky and the rest of the SEC?: Kentucky, who is now the No. 1 team in KenPom’s rankings, is now three games into their conference schedule, and they’ve yet to be anything close to challenged yet. They won at Ole Miss by 23 points, they beat Texas A&M by a whopping 42 points at home and they followed that up by beating Arkansas in Lexington by 26 points in a game in which they didn’t even play all that well.

Now here’s the scary part: All three of those teams were – are? – supposed to be good SEC teams, teams that could push for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. None of them stood a chance against the Wildcats, which makes me wonder whether the gap between Kentucky and everyone else in the conference is bigger this year than in 2015, the year that the Wildcats started 38-0.

That’s not to say this team is more talented or better than the 2015 team, but the quality of the rest of the conference seems to be worse. Now to be fair, the 2015 Kentucky team was built to grind teams down with their defense and post play. This team is built to run opponents off the court, meaning that blowouts in 2017 look much worse on paper than blowouts in 2015. But the conference in 2015 sent five teams to the NCAA tournament and had nine in the top 60 on KenPom. This year? There are only four SEC teams in the top 60 and it wouldn’t be surprising if the league, again, got just three bids to the tournament.

I say all that to say this: Kentucky may play just four more games against tournament competition, and three of them (South Carolina, Kansas and Florida) are at home. Just how many more times are they going to get tested this season?

2. But if there is a contender in the conference, it may be South Carolina: For my money, and with all due respect to Florida, the Gamecocks are the second-best team in the SEC. With Sindarius Thornwell in the lineup, Frank Martin’s club has yet to lose a game. Thornwell may be the best player in the conference that doesn’t play for the Wildcats, and while they lost three of the five Division I games they played without him, his absence allowed P.J. Dozier to prove how dominant he can be when given a chance.

The Gamecocks are the best defensive team in the SEC and the third-best defensive team in the country, according to KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric. Where they can struggle is scoring the ball, but with Thornwell, their leading assister this season, back in the mix, offensive rhythm should be easier. Keep an eye on this team.

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3. We’re going to find out soon whether we need to take Florida State seriously as an ACC contender: The Seminoles have been arguably the most impressive team in the ACC to date. It’s not necessarily because they’ve been the best team in the league or because they look like they can win the conference, but for a team that wasn’t predicted by anyone to finish in the top four of the conference, they are currently sitting at 15-1 overall with a 3-0 record in the conference and a blowout win over Virginia Tech and a win at Virginia. Dwayne Bacon looks like an all-american, Johnathan Isaac looks like a top ten pick and there is enough balance with Terrence Mann and Xavier Rathan-Mayes that you cannot focus on just those two stars.

This team is really good.

But can “really good” win them the ACC?

I’d lean no, but the Seminoles will have a chance to prove me wrong over the next two weeks. Here’s what their schedule looks like from now until next weekend: Duke, at North Carolina, Notre Dame, Louisville. Those are the four other teams that look like they’ll finish in the top five in the league, and FSU gets three of them at home. If they’re actually going to be in this title race, they’re probably going to have to win three of those games.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 17:  Caleb Swanigan #50 of the Purdue Boilermakers dunks the ball during the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the Crossroads Classic at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on December 17, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Caleb Swanigan (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

4. Purdue’s versatility isn’t talked about enough: Matt Painter has been shuffling Purdue’s starting lineup throughout the season, which isn’t really all that much of a surprise. It’s a thing that coaches do in every sport.

What is interesting about it, however, is that it’s hard to figure out which is the best look for the Boilermakers, because a lot of them are effective. We think of this as a team with a bruising, Twin Towers front line, right? Well, on Sunday, when Purdue worked over Wisconsin, they started Caleb Swanigan in the middle with three guards and Vince Edwards playing around him. But Edwards didn’t play all that well – the first time that’s happened in a while – which means Purdue went away from the four-around-one look and played Isaac Haas and Swanigan together. They can also play with two points guards on the floor, and they just so happen to rank in the top ten nationally in three-point shooting.

So not only does Purdue have a first-team all-american big man anchoring a front line that can absolutely dominate, but they have a Plan B and a Plan C if their first option doesn’t work. There aren’t a lot of teams that can say that.

5. Dedric Lawson is having a ridiculous season for Memphis: Here are the numbers that Lawson is averaging this season: 20.2 points, 11.1 boards, 4.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 2.6 blocks.

These are the numbers that Ben Simmons averaged in 2015-16: 19.2 points, 11.8 boards, 4.8 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.8 blocks.

I am, in no way, trying to say that Lawson is Simmons, or that Lawson should be the No. 1 pick, or Lawson should be compared to LeBron and Magic. That’s dumb. All I’m saying is that this dude is having a ridiculous season and no one seems to be talking about him anywhere.

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.