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Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson lead North Carolina past Oregon, into title game

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GLENDALE, Ariz. — It was just too perfect.

Oregon’s inability to execute on the easiest, most fundamental play in college basketball is what won the game for the Tar Heels. Twice, with in the final 5.2 seconds, North Carolina went to the free throw line for two shots with a 77-76 lead. Twice, they missed both free throws. And twice, they grabbed the offensive rebound.

When it was all said and done, Theo Pinson was dribbling the clock out as Oregon laid on the floor in disbelief, their chance to win gone in the blink of a missed box out.

Kennedy Meeks finished with 25 points and 14 boards and Justin Jackson chipped in with 22 points as North Carolina advanced to their second consecutive national title game with a win over the Ducks on Saturday night. The Tar Heels will play Gonzaga for the national title on Monday night, and it’s fitting that Meeks was the star in the semifinals, because if UNC is going to cut down the nets, they’re going to need another yeoman’s performance out of the big fella.

Meeks had eight of North Carolina’s 17 offensive rebounds. One of those eight was the final rebound of the night, which he grabbed and kicked out to Theo Pinson, who managed to avoid getting fouled before throwing the ball a good 50 feet into the air as the buzzer sounded.

“Run away. From everybody,” Pinson said of his thought process in the final seconds. “And make sure you don’t get fouled because apparently we can make free throws.”

Meeks didn’t only grab the critical offensive rebound on Saturday night, he also happened to be the guy that went to the line and front-rimmed a pair of foul shots with 5.2 seconds left.

“I was out of it. Totally out of it,” Meeks said of his mindset after missing those two foul shots. “But my teammates came over to me and told me it’s gonna be fine we have another play to make.”

“He didn’t sulk. He didn’t just think about himself. He kept playing and made a play,” Pinson added. He knows a thing or two about making plays, as he was the man responsible for tipping out the first offensive rebound in that sequence, a play that put Joel Berry II on the line.

Those two plays are a pretty good summation of who North Carolina is this season. The Tar Heels are a program that historically have the reputation for being the kind of uptempo, pretty basketball team that wants to win a track meet but loses when games become a rock fight. They have a reputation for being soft. We can debate whether or not that is true or fair, but what isn’t debatable is the public perception of the team. It is what it is.

But that’s not how they won on Saturday.

North Carolina struggled for much of the first half on Saturday, digging themselves a 30-22 hold as they missed 18 of their first 24 shots. But over the course of the final four minutes of the half, UNC scored 17 points, closing the half on a 7-0 run that they pushed to 14-2 in the opening three minutes of the second half, and they never looked back.

The Tar Heels went to their bread and butter in the second half, pounding the ball inside to Meeks and attacking the offensive glass. They finished with 17 offensive rebounds (Meeks had eight of them) and 19 second-chance points on the night, including a pair of tip-ins by Meeks on back-to-back possessions that helped push their lead to 10 points for the first time.

Jackson played well, hitting a trio of huge threes in the second half, but UNC’s star point guard, Joel Berry II, struggled all night long. He was just 2-for-14 from the floor and finished with just two assists. Berry has been dealing with sprains to both of his ankles, and while he didn’t look like a player struggling with injury — he did dive on the floor for loose balls multiple times during the game — he did look like a guy that hasn’t done much beyond try to get his ankles healthy this week. Isaiah hicks was just as bad, going just 1-for-12 from the floor as he tried to take advantage of a mismatch against the smaller Ducks.

“I looked down there and I see that Isaiah’s 1-for-12, Joel 2-for-14,” Roy Williams said. “So we needed more offense from Kennedy tonight than we have a lot of games.”

It wasn’t just the second chance points that changed things for the Tar Heels.

It was their defense, and that’s coming from a program that’s hardly been a bastion of defensive efficiency over the years.

“We grinded that win out,” Jackson said.

Oregon star Dillon Brooks struggled throughout the night. He finished with just 10 points on 2-for-11 shooting, committing four of his five turnovers in the first half and fouling out with Oregon down by five points and 1:36 left on the clock. Tyler Dorsey has been Oregon’s best player in this tournament, and while he did finish with 21 points, he shot just 3-for-11 from the floor and struggled with the length of Jackson all night long.

Jackson, who also locked down Malik Monk in the Elite 8, did the heavy-lifting on Dorsey, while it was Pinson that was guarding Brooks. Dylan Ennis had 18 points for the Ducks, playing one of his best games of the season, but that was the result of the Tar Heels opting to put Isaiah Hicks or Luke Maye, whoever was their four, on Ennis instead of Brooks. It took him 19 shots to get to those 18 points, too.

“We just tried to make heir touches as hard as possible and when they got he ball be all over them,” Jackson said. “Get them off their spots. When you let them get to their spots they’re hard to guard.”

It’s not often that you hear of North Carolina winning games with their defense and their work on the offensive glass, but that’s what it was on Saturday.

The job won’t get any easier on Monday, however.

Gonzaga is an elite defensive team. They’re currently sitting at No. 1 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings, which is the same spot they were in prior to the start of the NCAA tournament. They’ve been in the top five throughout season. North Carolina’s shots are not going to come easy against the Zags, not when their front court — consisting of 7-foot-1 Przemek Karnowski, 7-foot Zach Collins and 6-foot-10 Johnathan Williams III — takes away the advantage that the Tar Heels typically have in the paint.

The Zags can take away the things that North Carolina does best.

Which means that the Tar Heels are going to have to find a way to win, the same way they found a way to win on Saturday.

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.