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A dogfight is exactly what No. 2 Kentucky needed on Sunday

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INDIANAPOLIS — Kentucky knew it would have a battle on its hands with No. 10 seed Wichita State in the second round of the South Region on Sunday.

Narrowly avoiding upset, the No. 2 seed Wildcats were able to outlast the Shockers for a gutsy 65-62 win as they advanced to the Sweet 16 in Memphis. The Wildcats have now made the Sweet 16 in six of eight years under head coach John Calipari as he returns to the FedEx Forum next weekend for the first time since coaching Memphis in 2009.

In a rematch of a memorable 2014 NCAA Tournament second-round matchup that saw No. 1 seed Wichita State’s unbeaten season end at the hands Kentucky, this matchup nearly lived up to the immense hype of that first game.

The players on the floor might have been different from the first matchup in St. Louis but both teams traded late shots and a freshman-led Kentucky team got a stop on the final possession to advance past Wichita State.

But there is one big difference between Kentucky’s win in 2014 and its win in 2017.

The 2017 Wildcats won a slowed-down, Wichita State-style game. The 2014 Kentucky win over the Shockers was an up-and-down thriller scored in the 70s that suited the Wildcats’ style of play as future pros on both teams had big performances.

That distinction is very important for this year’s Wildcats because this is the type of close, slowed-down win against an elite team that shows Kentucky might be serious about a national title run. Past Kentucky teams, and even the Wildcats from earlier this season, might not have won a game that suited Wichita State’s strengths in a grind-it-out game.

This Kentucky team can win games in a number of different ways. The Wildcats won this game even though Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox were held to only 14 points each on a combined 8-for-23 effort.

“We’ve gotten a lot better; more mature,” freshman Wenyen Gabriel said. “Playing in a lot of close games and getting better as a team, I don’t know if we would have won that game a couple of months ago. But I know we won today and it’s a great time of year for us to be winning games like this.”

Kentucky’s slowed-down win over Wichita State should give the Wildcats a lot of confidence about facing anyone left in the tournament. Next week’s Sweet 16 game is a perfect potential case study.

Kentucky will have to play either UCLA or Cincinnati. Those two teams are nearly polar opposites. While the Bruins play at a breakneck pace and have one of the best offenses in college basketball, the Bearcats want to slow it down and wear out opponents with physical play.

Both opponents will undoubtedly be tough for Kentucky — UCLA won at Rupp Arena in a close game earlier this season — but the Wildcats feel like Monk is rounding into form after a strong finish in the Wichita State game. If Monk returns to Supernova form and Fox and freshman big man Bam Adebayo continue to play as well as they’ve played down the stretch then the Wildcats have a chance to cut down the nets at the end of this journey.

“I’m really proud of the guys. Hard game to play. They really grind it out. The offensive rebound, I thought we rebounded with them, did good stuff,” Calipari said.

“It was great to have Malik back. Haven’t seen him for a while. He’s on that path, still not all the way back, but he’s on the path that we need him on. And these guys up here, they’re young, but they have a will to win and play with courage and are skilled basketball players and great kids who share. So proud of them.”

During a weekend that saw defending champion Villanova and hated rival Louisville fall in the second round, Kentucky is glad to be moving on from Wichita State.

The Wildcats won’t be wishing to play another Gregg Marshall team in the tournament anytime soon, but they’re hoping this second-round win propels Kentucky to the national-championship game like it did in 2014.

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.