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Zion Williamson, Marvin Bagley III headline top performers from first live period in July

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SPARTANBURG, S.C. — My NBC Sports colleague Rob Dauster claimed that Peach Jam had the best atmosphere of any event during the first week of the live period in his Peach Jam Takeaways column. You can trust what Rob says 99 percent of the time.

He’s dead wrong on this one.

Check out any adidas Gauntlet Finale game where Class of 2018 mega-athlete Zion Williamson took the floor and you’d see why he’s a worldwide phenomenon. This is also why the adidas Gauntlet Finale, for perhaps the first time ever, had a better atmosphere than Peach Jam this year.

I sat in a mostly-empty gym at Peach Jam as the best player in the country (Marvin Bagley) took on one of the best teams (Howard Pulley and Tre Jones). Zion Williamson’s entire court would be surrounded on all sides (as well as the track above) as early as 45 minutes before he was scheduled to even play.

People would even stand on bleachers while other teams were playing in the hopes of getting a glimpse at the YouTube sensation.

And Williamson didn’t disappoint the local fans.

Leading the week at adidas in points and rebounds per game (averaging 29.6 points and 13.2 rebounds), Williamson looked nearly fully healthy following the minor knee injury that forced him to sit out most of the spring.

Displaying the jaw-dropping bounciness at his size that enables him to throw down highlight-reel dunks and erase shots at 11 and 12 feet, the 6-foot-6, 230-pound Williamson was a playmaker on both ends of the floor this week as he is still easily a top-five prospect in this class.

Still showing an ability to take over a game as a scorer or rebounder, Williamson is a downhill driver with the ball in his hands and there just aren’t many players as big and as athletic as he is at the high school level. With a unique skill level that enables him to handle and pass a bit, Williamson dissected talented defenses and put up big numbers all weekend.

Williamson’s jumper was still very inconsistent in Spartanburg, (4-for-19 from three-point range) but it does actually look a bit better in terms of overall touch and mechanics as he said he practiced it a lot during his downtime with the knee injury.

One of the biggest high school basketball stars of the last decade, I’m looking forward to seeing how Williamson closes out his career in Las Vegas in two weeks.

MARVIN BAGLEY III: The top prospect in the Class of 2018 (and possibly 2017 if he reclassifies), the 6-foot-11 Bagley showed why he’s the best with his performance at Peach Jam.

Bagley averaged 24.6 points, 14.0 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game while shooting 50 percent from the field as he displayed skills all over the floor at his size. Pushing rebounds for breaks and finding shooters for assists, Bagley speeding up and leading fast breaks as a ball handler is a scary recent development as he’s also able to finish with long and effortless strides going to the rim.

Still a double-double machine thanks to his ability to get off the floor, Bagley can snatch rebounds over other players and finish on putbacks before they even get off the ground to contest.

Bagley and his team also deserve credit for winning. After being included as a controversial at-large bid to Peach Jam after winning only two games during the spring, the Nike Phamily went 3-2 at Peach Jam and Bagley was a huge reason why.

Perimeter shooting continues to be the only major weakness to Bagley’s game as he was 1-for-11 last week but he’ll have time to work on that soon enough. If Bagley enters college next season, he would have a serious chance to be an All-American.

Marvin Bagley III, Jon Lopez/Nike

JERICOLE HELLEMS: Playing with Bradley Beal Elite this spring, the 6-foot-7 Hellems was a solid role player for a good team. At Peach Jam, Hellems scored more points in seven games than he did during the 16-game EYBL regular season as he exploded for a huge week.

Putting up  22.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game Hellems earned a ton of new scholarship offers based on his play in North Augusta. He’s an intriguing offensive player as he’s equipped with some improved three-point range, post abilities and intelligent cuts without the ball.

Capable of playing multiple spots on the floor, Hellems is going to be a player to watch the rest of July to see if he can sustain the kind of numbers he put up during the first week. It could have just been that Hellems needed more of an opportunity to shine with more shots. He certainly made the most of his time at Peach Jam.

SIMI SHITTU: Canadian forward Simi Shittu continued his strong stretch of play over the last several weeks following his MVP performance at the NBPA Top 100 Camp. The 6-foot-9 Shittu was dominant at times during Peach Jam as he put up 20.0 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game while shooting 65 percent from the field.

Simi Shittu; Photo by Jon Lopez

Shittu has always been a high-motor double-double threat, but his passing ability and overall feel for the game are beginning to stand out in more subtle ways. Able to lead a break as a ball handler off of a rebound, Shittu is becoming dangerous in multiple ways as he continues to push up the rankings.

Mentioning to reporters that he’s constantly studying ball-dominant bigger players like LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Shittu might have his eyes on eventually handling more serious handling responsibilities.

MATTHEW HURT: I haven’t talked much about the Class of 2019 for CBT this spring, but the 6-foot-9 Hurt has been one of the most productive players in his class the last two summers.

The younger brother of Minnesota sophomore Michael Hurt, Matthew is bigger and more talented as he put up 21.0 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game at the adidas Gauntlet Finale in South Carolina. A skilled offensive player who is capable of scoring from all three levels of the floor, Hurt has adjusted nicely since missing this spring with a broken hand.

He’s also a bit tougher than his skinny frame might indicate as he averaged 2.0 blocks per game while playing some solid post defense.

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.