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Five things we learned this week: Oregon’s peaking, Kentucky’s struggling and Gonzaga’s statement

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1. Gonzaga may not be the best team in the country, but they’re the most consistent among the elite: I don’t think there is a “best team in college basketball” because I don’t think there is any team in the country that is without noticeable and exploitable flaws. Kansas has no depth on the interior and can’t guard anyone. Kentucky can’t score in the half court and lacks a measure of toughness inside. UCLA can’t guard anyone. Baylor’s guard play and been shaky in recent weeks. Arizona is heavily reliant on inconsistent freshmen. Duke is Duke.

You get the point.

The only possible exception to that is Gonzaga, the last remaining undefeated team in the country. The knock on this team earlier is the season was that they didn’t have a go-to guy. They didn’t have someone that could take a game over, that could be relied upon to demand the ball and make a play at the end of a clock or to quell another team’s run.

But isn’t that exactly what Nigel Williams-Goss has been doing? Take Thursday night, for example. Williams-Goss had 33 points as Gonzaga went into the Marriott Center and knocked off BYU. That many point is always going to come in an impressive performance, but perhaps what stood out the most is that he always had an answer. The Zags took control early and held a pretty significant lead for much of the game, but every time BYU made a run and looked like they were ready to make this thing interesting, Williams-Goss had an answer. BYU isn’t great, but they’re talented and play in one of the rowdiest environments in the country; 19,000 screaming Mormons pack that building every game.

The Zags are balanced, they are deep, they are big, they defend and they have their go-to guy. They also have yet to put together the kind of ugly performance we’ve seen out of every other title contender this season.

Saturday’s trip to Moraga to take on No. 18 Saint Mary’s can’t get here soon enough.

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2. Kentucky is going through growing pains: Right now, Kentucky is a mediocre basketball team loaded with talented basketball players. Part of it is that Malik Monk has been struggling with his shooting stroke the last two weeks, and when Monk is off, the Wildcats simply cannot score in the half court. Part of it is that De’Aaron Fox has been battling a bum ankle and an illness that held him out of a game and seemingly sapped him on injury in another. Part of it is that Bam Adebayo just isn’t the kind of force on the block that Kentucky needs him to be.

The biggest reason for their recent struggles, however, is that teams are starting to figure out how to have success against them. Keep Fox from turning the corner going left, stay attached to Monk as much as possible, get physical in the paint, attack the glass, limit transition. That’s exactly what Florida did in their 88-66 win over the Wildcats on Saturday.

Most good teams go through something like this. The issue isn’t midseason struggles, the question is what the response will be. When teams figured out they could beat up Kansas in the paint, Kansas started playing zone. When Duke struggled playing lineups with two big men, they moved Jayson Tatum to the four. In 2014, John Calipari famously “tweaked” his offense to get his 10-loss team to the national title game. What will this year’s tweak be?

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 11: (L-R) Isaiah Briscoe #13, Edrice Adebayo #3 and De'Aaron Fox #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrate on the bench against the Hofstra Pride in the second half of the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival at Barclays Center on December 11, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

3. Oregon’s best can beat anybody’s best: I’m not sure Arizona fans can be all that upset about what happened in Eugene on Saturday, because I’m not sure that any team in the country could’ve gone into Matthew Knight Arena and beaten Oregon that day. Hell, I’m not sure anyone could’ve kept it close.

At one point in the first half, Oregon had made 10 threes and Arizona had scored 11 points. The Ducks hit 16 of their first 21 long-range bombs. Their defense, which has been underrated all season long, held Arizona to one tough spot per possession, and the Ducks were able to beat Arizona down the floor in transition when they secured the rebound.

I say all that to say this: When Oregon is playing like that, they are damn-near unbeatable. They aren’t always going to play that way – hell, two days earlier, they needed Dillon Brooks to score 12 straight points in the final minutes to avoid losing at home to Arizona State – but Saturday served the rest of the nation with notice: The Ducks belong in the conversation with the rest of the nation’s elite as national title contenders.

4. Duke is all-in on small-ball: The Blue Devils got Coach K back on Saturday in a win over Pitt, but that wasn’t the story of their weekend because what the Blue Devils did on Saturday didn’t differ all that much from what they did on Monday, or last Saturday. Duke has fully bought into the idea of playing small-ball, of rotating Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard, Matt Jones and Frank Jackson through the three back court spots while allowing Jayson Tatum to spend as much time as possible at the four.

This is the best lineup that Duke can put on the floor. It allows Tatum to take advantage of mismatches against bigger defenders while keeping the floor spread for Allen and Kennard, who can create off the dribble and help to nullify Duke’s point guard issues. The issue is going to be how the Blue Devils adjust to the fact that it is going to cut into some player’s minutes. Harry Giles III is going to struggle to crack 10 minutes a game if Amile Jefferson isn’t in foul trouble. Marques Bolden is going to be firmly planted on the Duke bench.

And if that’s what it’s going to take for the Blue Devils to win, they’re just going to have to live with it.

5. The Big 12 title race is going to be a roller coaster ride: On Wednesday night, Kansas beat Baylor in Phog Allen Fieldhouse which, essentially, gave the Jayhawks the inside track to their 13th straight Big 12 regular season title … until they went and they lost in that same building on Saturday to Iowa State. That loss opened up the door for Baylor to pull even with the Jayhawks, which was massive because the Bears still get to host Kansas later on this season … but then Baylor lost at home to Kansas State. That meant that the big winner of the day in the conference was West Virginia, who could pull within a game of first place and draw even with Baylor in second place in the conference … until they lost at home to Oklahoma State.

I don’t expect this ride to slow down.

LAWRENCE, KS - FEBRUARY 04: Head coach Bill Self of the Kansas Jayhawks greets Monte Morris #11 of the Iowa State Cyclones during a break in their game on February 4, 2017 at Allen Field House in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Getty Images)
Head coach Bill Self (Photo by Reed Hoffmann/Getty Images)

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

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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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

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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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

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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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.