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Five Things We Learned This Week: Gonzaga’s a talking point, Monk’s a terror, Duke hasn’t changed

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1. Gonzaga is going to be the team that we spend the most time arguing about for the next two weeks: That was probably already going to be the case given that the Zags get no credit for their record as a member of the WCC, but losing at home in a game where they led by 16 points is going to throw that argument into overdrive.

Can Gonzaga win a title? Is this a team you can trust in March? Do the Zags deserve a No. 1 seed? Are they nothing but a bunch of frauds?

I tried to warn you that this was coming six weeks ago.

Guess what: it’s here.

2. UCLA beat another elite team with some clutch defending: A little more than two weeks ago, Oregon went into Pauley Pavilion, opened up a 19-point lead and looked like they were ready to cruise to a blowout win over the Bruins, that is until UCLA finally decided to stop defending like a CYO team that just found out their postseason pizza party was canceled.

The same thing happened on Saturday night in Tucson.

Only this time, the Bruins switched to a 3-2 with 15 minutes left in the game, crashed the offensive glass and totally took the air out of the ball and Arizona out of their rhythm. For 25 minutes, the Wildcats got whatever they wanted offensively against UCLA. For the final 15 minutes, they looked like they had never practiced zone offense.

The concern with the Bruins is always going to be how well they defend. As good as they are offensively, they have to be able to get some stops if they’re going to be the elite teams across the country. They’ve down that the last two times they’ve faced an elite team in conference play and now own wins at Kentucky and at Arizona, and, if it wasn’t for Dillon Brooks hitting a buzzer-beating three, they’d have a win at Oregon, too.

The Bruins have their flaws, but man, this team still looks pretty dangerous.

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3. Is North Carolina the best team in the country?: That’s the argument that I made when the Tar Heels picked off Louisville at home on Wednesday. Where is their weakness? Is it Joel Berry II’s consistency? Because that’s less of a concern with Justin Jackson playing the way that he has been playing.

Is it their health? Theo Pinson and Isaiah Hicks have battled injuries this year and the Tar Heels need both of them on the floor because it’s unclear just how good they actually are defensively. Hicks is also always in foul trouble, which is never a good thing in a single-elimination tournament, and neither is a team that doesn’t have a multitude of great shooters.

But when compared to the rest of the elites in college hoops, those question marks seem relatively minor. Kentucky is too often a one-man team. Gonzaga’s guards might not be good enough. Duke and Kansas have no inside depth. Louisville’s scorers can’t score. Arizona doesn’t have a point guard. Oregon has had some issues with consistency. UCLA doesn’t defend.

We can play this game with everyone.

The issues that are brought up with the Tar Heels, however, just seem relatively minor in comparison.

4. Malik Monk is the scariest player in college basketball: It’s not like this is breaking news or anything. Monk has been lighting up defenses all season long. He’s been single-handedly winning games for Kentucky since the start of the season. He had 47 points in the win over North Carolina. He had 31 points in the second half and overtime to help the Wildcats avoid an upset loss to Georgia. He had 33 points against Ole Miss.

This is just kind of what he does.

But Saturday’s performance felt different because before Monk went for 30 second half points to help lead the De’Aaron Fox-less Wildcats to a win over No. 13 Florida, a win that gives them the inside track to an SEC regular season title, he played one of the worst halves of his career. He was 1-for-5 from the floor with three points, five turnovers and two fouls. That came after he had just 11 points in a closer-than-it-should-have-been win at Missouri.

Monk turned it on like that in a game where Florida, a top five defensive team in the country, spent 20 minutes executing the “Stop Malik Monk” game-plan to perfection.

You don’t want to see a guy that can do that on your side of the bracket.

LEXINGTON, KY - FEBRUARY 14: Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats shoots the ball against the Tennessee Volunteers at Rupp Arena on February 14, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Malik Monk (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

5. Duke is exactly who they were a week ago: I’m done trying to tell people what to think of Duke. You all made up your minds weeks or months ago. If you’re like me, you see a roster that includes Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen and you pick them to win most of the games they play in. But if you look at their lack of interior defense, their depth issues, the injuries that won’t go away and the point guard question marks and worry about a team like that making a run, you’re certainly not wrong.

Duke is beatable.

We saw that this week, when they fell on a banked-in, buzzer-beating 23-footer at Syracuse and lost by five at Miami.

What I will tell you, however, is that if you let those two losses change the way you felt about Duke prior to Wednesday’s tip, you’re being silly.

Winning on the road in the ACC is hard. There’s a reason there are people talking about the conference as maybe the best ever. There’s a reason that only one team in the league has less than five league losses with two games left in the regular season. These are two road games to likely tournament teams decided by a total of eight points.

Losses like that are the kind of thing that happen in college basketball.

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.