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Sweet 16 Breakdowns: How the West will be won

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The West Region saw three of the top four seeds survive with only No. 3 Florida State getting knocked out by No. 11 Xavier early.

While some might feel like a rematch between No. 1 seed Gonzaga and No. 2 seed Arizona is inevitable, it would not be wise to count out No 4 seed West Virginia and head coach Bob Huggins?

Here’s what each team in the West has to do to make it to Glendale.

No. 1 GONZAGA

How they can get to the Final Four: There’s a reason Gonzaga started this season 29-0. As one of only two teams in the country that rates in the top 12 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency on KenPom, the Bulldogs are one of the most complete teams in the country.

Scoff as Gonzaga’s inability to get to the Final Four in the past at your own peril because this is perhaps the deepest and best team that Mark Few has had during his tenure.

With a tight-knit, eight-man rotation that can throw some different looks at you, Gonzaga is led by an All-American point guard in Nigel Williams-Goss while former starting lead guard Josh Perkins adds additional backcourt stability as a ball handler and shooter. Another lethal shooter in Cal graduate transfer Jordan Matthews also starts on the wing for the ‘Zags while the front-court is an intriguing four-man rotation that is hard to wear down.

Senior Przemek Karnowski is one of the country’s most unique big men while Missouri transfer Johnathan Williams is a nice compliment and double-figure scorer.

Gonzaga’s bench also features an experienced guard in Silas Melson and a double-figure scorer in McDonald’s All-American big man Zach Collins–who has quietly been one of the best freshmen in the nation. Another freshman, Killian Tillie, gives the Bulldogs additional athleticism on the inside if they need to go to a quicker lineup.

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Why they won’t get to the Final Four: Gonzaga might have won a lot of games this season but they haven’t exactly been dependable in late-game situations. Part of this is because the Bulldogs really weren’t tested all that often in the regular season — especially once the non-conference portion of the schedule was done.

But Gonzaga had some concerning meltdowns against BYU in its only regular-season loss, as well as in the second round against Northwestern. Credit the Zags for rallying together and holding off the Wildcats to advance to the Sweet 16 but the second half of that game also showed that Gonzaga is susceptible to giving up double-digit leads.

Facing a team like West Virginia who can turn you over very quickly in their Sweet 16 matchup, that could be something to watch for even if Gonzaga holds a second-half lead.

Besides for the shaky play in tight games, Gonzaga hasn’t shot the ball particularly well during the 2017 NCAA Tournament as they’re only 12-for-46 (26 percent) from three-point range in its two wins.

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No. 2 ARIZONA

How they can get to the Final Four: Playing some of the best ball of any team in the country right now, the Wildcats were impressive in winning the Pac-12 Tournament before advancing to the Sweet 16 with wins over North Dakota and Saint Mary’s.

Now the Wildcats avoid a potentially tough matchup with a long and athletic Florida State team to face a hot No. 11 seed in Xavier.

Since sophomore guard and leading scorer Allonzo Trier returned to the lineup after his suspension, Arizona has looked like one of the best teams in the country as Trier being back on the floor has made things a lot easier for the other Wildcats.

Freshman big man Lauri Markkanen is the NCAA Tournament’s most unique weapon because he’s a 7-footer who is a truly elite perimeter shooter at 43 percent from three-point range and he’s also Arizona’s best player on the glass.

Two more talented freshmen roam the Arizona backcourt as Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons are both capable of making plays while point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright is content to distribute to the team’s many weapons. Senior Kadeem Allen is one of the better perimeter defenders left in the field while the Wildcats have a solid rotation of big men besides Markkanen between Dusan Ristic, Chance Comanche and Keanu Pinder.

This team doesn’t have many weaknesses and they’re top 25 in KenPom in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency. It’s easy to see why many believed they could reach the Final Four near home in Glendale.

Why they won’t get to the Final Four: While Arizona might be one of the most complete teams left in the field they also lost to No. 1 seed Gonzaga earlier this season on a neutral floor. Granted, the Wildcats were still without Trier at that point, but the main takeaway from the regular-season clash is that the Zags will know what to expect from everyone else on the roster while also having the confidence of knowing that they beat them.

Perimeter shooting might be the key for Arizona to reach the Final Four. The Wildcats are shooting 39.6 percent from three-point range this season but they were only 1-for-8 from three-point range in the first loss to Gonzaga. Since the Bulldogs do such a good job of taking away the three (No. 6 in defending the three at 30.0 percent), Arizona is going to have to work harder to get free for clean perimeter looks.

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No. 4 WEST VIRGINIA

How they can get to the Final Four: “Press Virginia” is in the Sweet 16 after getting past Bucknell and Notre Dame over the first two rounds. The pillar of this Bob Huggins-coached group is the team’s ultra-aggressive full-court trap, which is No. 1 in the country in turnover percentage on defense at 27.7 percent.

With a long and athletic rotation that throws a lot of different players at you, West Virginia comes at teams in waves and wears them down for easy buckets.

Besides an ability to get easy buckets off of turnovers, the Mountaineers are better than expected in the half court on offense. Junior guard Jevon Carter is a standout perimeter defender but he’s also a crafty scorer who hit shots or distribute.

Since the Mountaineers have 10 players averaging at least 10.9 minutes per game they don’t have a lot of individuals putting up big numbers but West Virginia is relentless the entire game and almost never lets up on defense.

Why they won’t get to the Final Four: If a team can beat West Virginia’s press consistently then they have a chance to score plenty of easy buckets.

The Mountaineers might be effective at turning other teams over but it is also a risky defense that can allow for a lot of good transition looks and mounting foul trouble. Teams who have reached this point in the tournament generally have decent guard play so it will be intriguing to see how Gonzaga has prepared to handle West Virginia’s press.

Beating the press is the obvious solution to getting past West Virginia but this team can also be shaky at times on offense in half-court situations. With not a lot of players who can create for themselves, West Virginia runs some ugly possessions as they were No. 110 in effective field goal percentage this season. Also a mediocre team at the line, West Virginia only shoots 68.3 percent from the free-throw line as a team.

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No. 11 XAVIER

How they can get to the Final Four: Not many pegged that Xavier would be in the Sweet 16, especially when they went a month with its only wins coming against DePaul. But things have improved dramatically for the Musketeers in the last few weeks as they’ve finally appeared comfortable since the loss of star sophomore guard Edmond Sumner.

Even though Xavier is a double-digit seed, they shouldn’t be counted out by any means since they have some dangerous pieces. Junior Trevon Bluiett is one of the hottest players in the field as he’s 8-for-15 from three-point range in two games while totaling 50 points.

If junior J.P. Macura gets going as a second major scorer to compliment Bluiett then Xavier becomes even more dangerous. Macura is the type of player who can heat up and easily go for 20-plus points.

Besides Bluiett and Macura’s ability to pop off from the perimeter, Xavier has been getting strong performances from role guys during the tournament. Reserve big man Sean O’Mara has scored in double-figures in both games for the Musketeers while others like Kaiser Gates and Tyrique Jones have also been picking up their play.

Gates, in particular, has been another big shot-maker from the perimeter during the tournament and he’s given Xavier more spacing while also contributing on the glass.

Why they won’t get to the Final Four: Xavier has been to four Sweet 16s in the last eight years under head coach Chris Mack but they’ve never advanced past this round in three previous tries with him as coach.

Not that that has much to do with how this current roster has reached this point, but history isn’t exactly on Xavier’s side against No. 2 seed Arizona.

Besides for history, let’s be honest: Xavier was really struggling for the final month of the season. Without Sumner they still have a shaky point guard situation and the team’s offense can sputter at times if they aren’t hitting shots. Also expecting role players like O’Mara and Gates to continue to play like this might not be sustainable for Xavier.

It’s been a nice run for Xavier to reach this point but they would be one of the most unlikely Final Four teams in modern college basketball if they made it to Glendale.

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.