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Seven key story lines during Championship Week

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1. Will there be a No. 1 seed from Pac-12?: The battle for the top seed coming out of the Pac-12 is going to be fascinating.

For starters, all three of the favorites — No. 1 Oregon, No. 2 Arizona and No. 3 UCLA — have similar enough résumés that the results of the Pac-12 tournament will likely determine which of those three is going to get the top seed coming out of the conference. That’s significant because all three of them are locks to be top four seeds, but the way that the bracketing rules are written, there can only be one team per league in the top four seeds of a specific region. That means only one of these four teams will be given the right to be in the West Region, where they will play in Sacramento the first weekend, San Jose the second weekend and, if they make it that far, Phoenix for the Final Four.

They would never have to leave the Pacific time zone, and they’d end up with Gonzaga as the other top two seed in their region.

That’s a much better than flying back East to face off with Villanova in New York or Kansas in the Midwest.

But there’s more to it than that. Because if, say, UCLA or Arizona wins the title, and they do it while picking off the other top three teams on the way, there’s a chance that the Pac-12 champ could end up being the No. 1 seed out West, particularly if Gonzaga finds a way to lose to Saint Mary’s on Tuesday night.

No one at the top of any league has more on the line this week than the teams at the top of the Pac-12.

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2. So what do we do with the Big East’s bubble teams?: There are four of them right now, and surprisingly enough, Xavier may be the most interesting case. It’s been more than a month since the Musketeers beat anyone other than DePaul. They’ve lost six of their last seven games, they are playing without star point guard Edmond Sumner and their 19-12 record puts them in a position where they aren’t a lock.

That said, three of those six losses came without Trevon Bluiett, and he’s back on the floor and healthy now. How the committee evaluates Xavier will be almost as fascinating as how the committee evaluates the three Big East teams that feasted on the Musketeers, and Creighton, after those two former Big East title contenders lost their star point guards. Marquette beefed up their résumé with four wins against those two teams post-injuries. Seton Hall won two, and also owns a win over South Carolina, which came without USC’s best player on the floor. Providence beat both Creighton and Xavier after the injuries.

Those wins — well, those injuries — are what put seven Big East teams in a position to get into the Big Dance. Does the committee consider that at all?

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3. Can De’Aaron Fox get it going again?: To me, that’s the most important part of the SEC tournament for Kentucky. Sure, it would be nice if they can bring home a trophy, but their ceiling as an NCAA tournament title contender is limited as long as Fox is playing the way that he’s been playing the last month. He’s dealt with some ankle and some knee issues, and he got sick last month. While his raw numbers haven’t taken a massive hit, anyone that’s watch the Wildcats play knows that he hasn’t been the same guy that he was earlier in the year.

Kentucky needs Fox to get back to being the guy that was playing like a first-team all-american for the first half of the season, because Malik Monk isn’t going to be able to carry this team for four, or five, or six games all by himself.

4. Does anyone make a job-saving run through their league tournament?: The way I see it, there are probably three coaches that are more or less coaching for their jobs this week: Kansas State’s Bruce Weber, Clemson’s Brad Brownell and Illinois’ John Groce. To say nothing of how dumb it is to determine how you’ll invest millions of dollars in the future of your basketball program based on one week of hoops at the end of a five-year tenure, those are three men that entered this season with their seats hot, needing a tournament trip to potentially save their job.

Those aren’t the only potential openings that will be interesting for some of the best and brightest mid-major coaches to track. Tom Crean and Indiana have a love-hate relationship that dates back years, and it’s never a surprise when his name shows up on lists like this. Tim Miles hasn’t gotten Nebraska back to the tournament in a few years, and while he has a promising young team and packs Nebraska’s home gym every single night, there seems to be some pressure on him this spring as well. And then there is Georgetown, where the fanbase has already turned on John Thompson III, who essentially has a lifetime

5. Might the Big 12 only get five teams in?: For all the talk about how good and how deep the conference is, there’s a chance that the conference could only end up getting five teams into the tournament. Six seems like the max, considering just how far off the bubble TCU and Texas Tech currently are. Even Kansas State, who appears to be one of the first four teams out as of now, has some work to do before they can be considered a lock.

The talk all season long was about how the Big 12 is the best conference in the country because of the depth and the balance, but can it really be the best league if half the field gets in when, say, the Big East and the ACC are sending better than two-thirds of their league teams to the dance?

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6. Will the ACC get to 11 bids?: That would tie the record set by the old Big East for the most tournament bids ever for a single conference, and there’s a chance that the ACC can get there. It would require both Syracuse and Wake Forest to win a game or two in Brooklyn this week, but that’s mostly as a precaution; neither team can really afford another bad loss to their name.

Georgia Tech is the more interesting case. The Yellow Jackets have some good wins this year, but they’ve amassed quite a few losses and haven’t done much damage away from home. If they are going to get to the NCAA tournament, my guess is they need three wins: beat Pitt in the opener, get past Virginia in the second round and then pick off Notre Dame in the quarterfinals.

7. Does any Big Ten team emerge as a threat this month?: The Big Ten is such a weird league this year. The bottom isn’t as weak as it has been in past seasons, and, depending on what Illinois and Iowa do this week, they could end up sending as many as nine teams to the Big Dance.

But is anyone in the league actually good enough to get to the final weekend of the college basketball season?

The conference has been defined by mediocrity this year. Wisconsin has lost five of their last six games and struggled to put bad teams away before that. Michigan State is you, obliterated by injuries and lacking size. Maryland has Melo Trimble, but their youth shines through too often. Ohio State and Indiana are in down years. Michigan and Minnesota look dangerous, but they look more like Sweet 16 threats than Final Four contenders.

The saving grace may end up being Purdue, but the Boilermakers hardly seemed dominant in the league this year.

Will anyone step up this week?

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

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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.