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Bubble Banter: Northwestern looks like they’re tournament bound

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WINNERS

Northwestern (RPI: 37, KenPom: 30, No. 8 seed): At this point in the season, it’s too early to call anyone a lock for the NCAA tournament unless their school resides in a town like Spokane, Lexington or Lawrence. It’s particularly difficult to label Northwestern a lock considering that A) Their best win this season is over Wake Forest, Dayton or an Indiana team that is without James Blackmon Jr. and O.G. Anunoby, and B) They’re Northwestern. There’s a reason that they haven’t been to the NCAA tournament in the history of the program, and it’s not simply because they cannot get talent to Evanston.

It’s because they’re Northwestern, the program that always finds a way to choke a defeat out of the jaws of victory.

“We’ll either do something special or we’ll be like every other NU team,” Bryant McIntosh said after a win over Indiana on Sunday night. “I worry about it every second,” head coach Chris Collins added when asked about whether he is concerned about how his team will handle success. (Both of those quotes came via Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated.)

But it seems awful unlikely that this Northwestern team will follow that path. As of today, they’re 18-4 on the season and 7-2 in the Big Ten, something they haven’t done since 1937-38. The win over Indiana was they’re sixth straight win, something they haven’t done in league play since 1932-33. Their schedule is somewhat backloaded – NU still has to play Purdue twice, at Wisconsin and Maryland at home – but all of those games are winnable; no one in the Big Ten is markedly better than Northwestern, and while the Big Ten is down this year, that still says more about the Wildcats than it does after the conference.

Bottom line? I don’t even think that Northwestern can mess this one up.

Michigan State (RPI: 50, KenPom: 51, No. 10 seed): The Spartans are going to be a fascinating team on Selection Sunday. This is clearly not one of Tom Izzo’s best teams, but is it really bad enough that they could end up missing out on the Big Dance? Sunday’s win over Michigan was important because, at this point, Sparty can’t really afford anymore dumb losses. They’re 13-9 on the season. They’re 5-4 in the league after this win snapped a three-game losing skid. They’ve lost to Northeastern, Penn State and Ohio State. Five of their last nine are on the road. This is going to be an uphill battle.

Virginia Tech (RPI: 35, KenPom: 50, No. 8 seed): Virginia Tech is interesting because they’re a team with an awesome record that doesn’t really have many awesome wins. Beating Duke at home is huge, and Duke winning at Wake Forest helps them in that regard, but there isn’t much else in their 16-5 record – other than losses to Texas A&M and N.C. State – worth noting. Four of their next five games are on the road, and three of their next five games are against Louisville and Virginia. This is the stretch that will make or break their at-large profile.

Cal (RPI: 48, KenPom: 59, first four out): Cal picked up a win over Stanford on Sunday night, which isn’t exactly a great win but it means they avoided an ugly loss. The biggest issue for the Golden Bears right now? They don’t have any good wins, but they still get Arizona on the road and Oregon at home.

Wichita State (RPI: 79, KenPom: 21, first four out), Illinois State (RPI: 36, KenPom: 37, No. 10 seed) and Valparaiso (RPI: 74, KenPom: 90, No. 13 seed autobid): At this point, I think it will be nearly impossible for two of these three teams – Wichita State and Valpo – to get an at-large bid if they lose before their conference tournament final, while I think Illinois State is going to get to Selection Sunday with a profile that would make things much less stressful if it comes with an automatic bid. All three won their games on Sunday.

LOSERS

N.C. State (RPI: 64, KenPom: 78, No. 11 seed): The Wolfpack lost at No. 13 Louisville, which is hardly a blemish on their profile. In fact, with No. 17 Duke avoiding a loss at Wake Forest – N.C. State won at Duke on Monday – this weekend was probably a net-positive for them. But that Louisville win had the potential to erase some of the ugliness that N.C. State had endured early-on in league play; they had a chance to give themselves some breathing room.

Michigan (RPI: 59, KenPom: 35, play-in game): On paper, losing at Michigan State isn’t all that bad of a loss, but given the muck that is the middle of the Big Ten and a rough close to the regular season – the Wolverines play four of their last five and five of their last seven on the road – John Beilein’s 13-8 Michigan team is in a tough spot.

Indiana (RPI: 80, KenPom: 39, No. 7 seed): Assuming that whatever is ailing James Blackmon Jr. isn’t season-ending, the Hoosiers should be able to shake this loss off. The bigger issue for them is going to be how the committee judges their hideous RPI and just how much they take into account the fact that O.G. Anunoby played in the big wins Kansas and North Carolina but is now out for 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.