16 things to know about the Sweet 16

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1. The South Region is where you want to be this weekend: Because it doesn’t get much better than this. Three of the teams in the regional — North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA — are among the favorites left in the field to win the national title. The No. 3 seed, UCLA, has already beaten the No. 2 seed, Kentucky, who currently owns a win over the No. 1 seed, North Carolina, all while the No. 4 seed, Butler, owns two wins over Villanova and three wins over teams left in the Sweet 16.

That’s before you consider that FedExForum is going to be absolutely brimming in blue — Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA. The only people happier than writers heading to Memphis this weekend are the bar owners on Beale Street. Stock up on Miller Lites.

2. North Carolina, by the way, is the only rep left from the ACC: The ACC was supposed to be one of the best conferences in the history of college basketball this season and, well, that didn’t really go the way we all through it would. The league went 7-8 in the first weekend of the tournament, and those eight losses came by an average of 13.9 points. Three of the four top four seeds that lost in first weekend were ACC members. Of the 10 games that were decided by 20 or more points, three involved ACC teams losing. Four involved No. 16 seeds losing. Even UNC needed a late run to survive Arkansas.

3. Kentucky-UCLA is as good of a Sweet 16 matchup as we’re ever going to see: How often do we get two legitimate national title contenders squaring off in the Sweet 16? (Answer: Not often.) But this matchup has so much more to it than just a pair of college basketball’s biggest brands squaring off. We get Lonzo Ball vs. De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. We get a rematch of one of the best games of college basketball’s regular season. We get a thrilling battle between a pair of high-octane offenses that want to get out in transition. And we get what could potentially be Steve Alford’s last game as the head coach at UCLA.

(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

4. Butler is back to being Cinderella, it seems: The Bulldogs are now members of the Big East and without question one of the better basketball programs in the sport, but when you’re the fourth wheel in a region where three blue-bloods are headed, it’s hard not to be thought of as the plucky upstart. And to be frank, I don’t think Butler minds all that much. Hell, I think they enjoy being the team no one is worried about. I’m sure Chris Holtmann wouldn’t mind if North Carolina overlooked them and focused on the winner of Kentucky-UCLA.

5. Oh, and should I mention that John Calipari is heading back to Memphis?: Coach Cal was once the head coach at Memphis, and when he left for Kentucky back in the spring of 2009, it didn’t end all that well between him and the Tigers. The people in that city are still bitter. The good news? The average Memphis fan will probably be more than happy to sell their tickets for five times face value to a Kentucky or UNC fan thirsty to get into the building.

6. The four best teams are on the right side of the bracket: For my money, three of the four best teams left in the NCAA tournament are in the South Region. The fourth on that list? Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the Midwest. In other words, if seeds hold, the winner of UCLA-Kentucky is going to have to beat the best three teams in the event just to get to the national title game.

7. Frank Mason III vs. Caleb Swanigan for all the Player of the Year votes: I think Kansas gets out of the Midwest Region, but their toughest test is coming in the Sweet 16. Purdue has a massive front line, one that is led by Caleb Swanigan, who is putting up numbers that would make you believe that Tim Duncan has been reincarnated. They won’t go head-to-head in this game, but it is worth noting that Mason and Swanigan are the two favorites to win National Player of the Year. Most seem to favor Mason, although if Swanigan continues to do what he did against Iowa State in a pair of wins this weekend, that sentiment may change.

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8. You really should spend some time watching this Michigan team play: The Wolverines are really, really good. And they’re fun to watch. They have a star point guard in Derrick Walton Jr. They surround him with guards that can really shoot it, and they put him on the floor with a pair of mobile big men that can step out and knock down a three. This team is John Beilein at his finest.

9. The Big Ten, overall, availed themselves well: While the ACC was considered the best conference in the country this season, the Big Ten was lampooned for much of the year for their overall mediocrity. But here we are in the Sweet 16 and no conference in the country has more teams left in the field than the Big Ten’s three. Two of those three, Wisconsin (Villanova) and Michigan (Louisville), sent top four seeded teams home.

10. So did the Pac-12: We all knew there was a top three in that conference, and each of those three teams won two games and reached the Sweet 16. The fourth team in the tournament from the Pac-12 was USC, who lost a thriller to Baylor on Sunday but who managed to win a pair of games last week, including a comeback from 17 points down in the second half of the play-in game. Overall, the Pac-12 is 8-1 in the tournament.

(Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

11. Sean Miller will be squaring off with his former assistant Chris Mack for the second time in three years: In 2009, Miller left Xavier to become the head coach at Arizona, a no-brainer move for a coach taking over a program with pedigree that can win a national title every single season. Mack, then an assistant for Miller, took over for him and has led the Musketeers to new heights, thriving as a contender in the Big East conference.

12. The winner will play for their first-ever trip to the Final Four, possibly against Mark Few: It’s never easy to play against a former colleague, not when those former colleagues are as close as Miller and Mack are. Added into that conversation is the fact that neither coach has ever reached the Final Four. Miller is widely thought of arguably the best coach in the country that has never made a Final Four, and when he finally does, Mack will move his way closer to the top of that list.

Also on that list? Gonzaga’s Mark Few. The Zags are in the West Region along with Xavier and Arizona, and it would be fascinating to see them square off for the right to get to the final weekend of the season.

13. One of those four head coaches will be making their first Final Four: That’s not the only region where a battle for a first trip to the Final Four will be brewing. In the East, Wisconsin’s Greg Gard, Florida’s Mike White, Baylor’s Scott Drew and South Carolina’s Frank Martin are all looking to make their first trip to the Final Four as well.

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

14. Good luck trying to re-sell those East Region tickets: Look at the teams in that East Region. Now remember that they are going to be playing in Madison Square Garden this weekend. Now think about the people that sell tickets on the secondary markets — scalpers, stubhub, seatgeek — that thought they were buying tickets for Duke-Villanova in the Garden. They are not going to be making nearly as much money as they thought they would be.

15. No one had a more unlikely or improbable run than South Carolina: I need more space to explain all of the reasons why, but I really do think that Frank Martin leading South Carolina to back-to-back NCAA tournament wins for the first time in program history is one of the most incredible things we’ve seen in the tournament in a long time.

16. No one has had more postseason success than Wisconsin’s seniors: Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes have never been ousted in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. They made a Final Four as freshmen. They played in the national title game as sophomores. They made the Sweet 16 last year. They’re in the Sweet 16 this year. The next time they take the court will be their 17th career NCAA Tournament game, the most in the country.

(Photo by Rob Carr/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.