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Weekend Preview: First place in the Pac-12, SEC on the line

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NOTE: This preview was written before the Allonzo Trier news broke.

SATURDAY’S SHOWDOWNS

No. 14 Arizona at No. 3 UCLA, Sat. 4:00 p.m. (CBS): First place in the Pac-12 is on the line on Saturday when Arizona makes the trek to Pauley Pavilion to square off with UCLA. The Bruins, who many believe are actually the best team in college basketball, currently sit a game behind both Arizona and Oregon – who may or may not have just lost Dillon Brooks to another foot injury – in the Pac-12 race, and this will be their chance to close the gap on at least one of those two.

Arizona is an interesting team. On paper, this team has some serious question. As talented as Lauri Markkanen, Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons – and, as of midnight last night, Allonzo Trier – are, and as good as that 17-2 record looks, the Wildcats still really haven’t done anything this season that would make you believe they are the No. 14 team in the country. Their best win is either Michigan State, who is not the Michigan State we thought they were going to be entering the season, or USC on the road.

UCLA, on the other hand, has an offense that is capable of putting up more than 100 points on anyone. They made 19 threes at Colorado. They made 16 threes against Arizona State on Thursday night, knocking down 10-of-13 in the first half. They’ve had two different players go for more than 30 points in Pac-12 play, and neither of them are Lonzo Ball or T.J. Leaf, UCLA’s two lottery picks. UCLA’s issue is that they don’t defend. As dangerous as this team is, they’re currently sitting at 11th in KenPom because they rank 92nd in defensive efficiency, and while I have my doubts about the Wildcats, they do have three guys that can light it up offensively.

  • PREDICTION: I was on UCLA (-4), but with the line moving and Allonzo Trier getting cleared, Arizona (+6) is where I would want my money, and I think that this game will hit over (+/- 162), too.

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No. 24 South Carolina at No. 5 Kentucky, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN): The Pac-12 isn’t the only conference where first-place is on the line. South Carolina and Kentucky are the only two undefeated teams left in the league after the Gamecocks beat No. 19 Florida on Wednesday night, and we will get a chance to see the pair of them square off Saturday evening. I think that South Carolina is the second-best team in the SEC, and I think that they do have the pieces to give the Wildcats a fight. It’s worth noting that with Sindarius Thornwell available, South Carolina is undefeated on the season.

Frank Martin’s clubs are never going to get out-toughed, and that is particularly true with this group, whose roster of big, physical veterans have used a pressuring, half-court man defense to sit atop KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. It will be strength on strength for South Carolina, as Kentucky has the nation’s No. 2 offense.

The key? Keep the Wildcats out of transition. Given the lack of perimeter shooting on Kentucky’s roster, if South Carolina can find a way to avoid live-ball turnovers and prevent Kentucky from getting easy buckets on the break – for what it’s worth, no one has really been able to do this – they should be able to keep this game interesting.

The x-factor? Foul trouble. The style that both of these teams like to play does not exactly align with the way college basketball is being officiated this season.

  • PREDICTION: I think Kentucky wins this, but I think the nation’s best defensive team will be able to avoid getting run off the floor, so I’ll take South Carolina (+13).

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No. 12 Louisville at No. 10 Florida State, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ESPN): Florida State is part of a three-way tie for first place in the ACC with Notre Dame and North Carolina after the Seminoles knocked off the Fighting Irish on Wednesday evening. The way Leonard Hamilton’s club got that done was to pressure the Irish in the half court and force them to make mistakes offensively. Notre Dame had to shoot 15-for-21 from three to keep that thing respectable.

Louisville is going to face similar issues offensively as well. Already a team with question marks on that end of the floor, they are going to be playing this game without the services of Quentin Snider, who is dealing with a hip flexor injury. Donovan Mitchell looked good against Clemson on Thursday night, but Clemson and Florida State are two different beasts.

It’s worth noting, however that the ‘Noles have point guard issues as well. Xavier Rathan-Mayes isn’t exactly Chris Paul, and Louisville currently has the nation’s second-best defense.

  • PREDICTION: I don’t think Louisville wins this game on the road without their point guard, so I was on Florida State (-1). With the line now at FSU (-4.5), I think I’d rather bet the under (+/- 149). Two tough defenses, two teams without point guards.
LOUISVILLE, KY - JANUARY 11: Donovan Mitchell #45 of the Louisville Cardinals shoots the ball during the game against the Pittsburgh Panthers at KFC YUM! Center on January 11, 2017 in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Donovan Mitchell (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

FIVE MORE GAMES TO WATCH

  • Syracuse at No. 15 Notre Dame, Sat. 12:00 p.m. (ESPN): The Irish are coming off of their first loss of the season, falling at Florida State despite the fact that they shot 15-for-21 from three. Given the way that Notre Dame can shoot the ball and pass the ball, this may not be the best matchup for the Orange zone. PREDICTION: Syracuse (+8)
  • Georgia Tech at No. 16 Virginia, Sat. 2:00 p.m. (ACC Network): If you haven’t noticed yet, Josh Pastner actually have Georgia Tech playing some good basketball. The Yellow Jackets have wins over North Carolina, Clemson and N.C. State. Their only losses? At Duke, at Louisville and at Virginia Tech. PREDICTION: Virginia (-18)
  • No. 17 Wisconsin at Minnesota, Sat. 4:30 p.m. (BTN): The Golden Gophers got off to a good start to the season, but in the last week they’ve lost at Michigan State and at Penn State. Richard Pitino’s club, if they are going to be a tournament team, needs to land a couple more wins over the top teams from the Big Ten. This is the perfect opportunity. PREDICTION: Wisconsin (-4.5)
  • No. 7 West Virginia at Kansas State, Sat. 6:00 p.m. (ESPN2): The Wildcats have been on the wrong end of three tough losses already this season. If they are going to have a real chance to get to the NCAA tournament this is the kind of game they need to win. PREDICTION: Kansas State (+3)
  • No. 6 Baylor at TCU, Sat. 8:00 p.m. (ESPNU): TCU is sitting pretty with a 14-4 record, but the Horned Frogs really have beaten anyone yet this season. Two wins over Washington, UNLV, Iowa State, Oklahoma. If this program is going to be good instead of, “Hey, TCU isn’t a guaranteed win anymore,” they need to do things like beat the best teams in the conference at home. That would be Baylor. PREDICTION: Baylor (-2.5)

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.