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Pearl, Auburn face cloud of uncertainty as season approaches

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Bruce Pearl’s efforts to infuse a once-moribund Auburn basketball program have been derailed after his associate head coach’s arrest as part of a nationwide federal bribery investigation of college basketball.

Chuck Person, one of the greatest players in Auburn history, faces fraud charges as part of the probe that has led to the arrests of four college basketball assistants , an Adidas executive and Louisville placing head coach Rick Pitino and longtime Cardinals athletic director Tom Jurich on administrative leave.

The excitement of selling out season tickets, arrival of top recruits and possible NCAA Tournament bids have been replaced with uncertainty as the Tigers fan base await any potential fallout to Pearl or the program.

With practice set to begin Friday, some fans have already been granted refunds on season tickets, which had sold out for the fourth consecutive year and fifth time in Auburn history.

“They had sold out tickets in September and you’re talking about Auburn basketball,” said SEC Network analyst Dane Bradshaw, who played for Pearl at Tennessee. “So the momentum was obviously sky-high, higher than it’s been as long as I’ve been following SEC basketball for Auburn. Obviously that momentum took a big blow here.”

It remains unclear how a big blow it is for the school.

Pearl has canceled scheduled public appearances the last couple of days and neither the coach nor Auburn athletic officials have commented on the situation. The university has announced that Person is suspended without pay.

Louisville placed Pitino and Jurich on administrative leave . Like Pearl, Pitino wasn’t named in an indictment. They both have resumes tainted by NCAA violations, though Pearl has served his penalty while Louisville’s case is ongoing.

Pearl’s three-year show cause penalty for recruiting violations — and subsequent lies to investigators — while at Tennessee expired in August 2014, more than five months after his hiring by Auburn.

Pitino and Louisville, by contrast, are still appealing NCAA sanctions handed out in June following a sex scandal that unfolded nearly two years ago — and could cost the school its 2013 national title.

Documents state Person received $91,500 in bribes to steer Auburn players to financial advisor Martin Blazer and Rashan Michel, a former NBA referee turned high-end clothier, once they turn pro.

Person said he gave $18,500 of the bribe money to the families of two recruits, according to the federal documents. In the documents, Person touted a recruit who was the “ninth-ranked kid in the country” and would only “play a year and a half” at Auburn before turning pro. He arranged a meeting with the player, Blazer and Michel.

The player wasn’t named, but center Austin Wiley joined the team last December and was a five-star recruit.

Pearl, who proclaimed to Auburn fans at his introductory news conference that “I’m back,” quickly made clear then his expectations for the future but didn’t dodge questions about his past either.

“We will play for championships,” he said after his hiring.

Athletic director Jay Jacobs said he “would not have even considered him” if he hadn’t felt Peal’s apologies were sincere.

Jacobs and Pearl agreed not to contest the show-cause penalty so he could possibly hit the recruiting trail earlier. Pearl said he decided not to appeal initially, in 2011, because “it would lessen my position of accountability.”

Bradshaw, who has stayed in touch with Pearl and has “a great relationship” with him, said it appears the coach still has the confidence of Jacobs. He said the unknown is the immediate issue Pearl and his staff must confront with recruits and current players.

He said Auburn must brace for a season-long story line if it does stick by Pearl.

“Because the NCAA can take so long, it can become an exhausting PR distraction for your team and your athletic department,” Bradshaw said. “As the athletic department and the administration make the decision to support Bruce, if that’s the case, then they have to be willing to ride this out and understand that it could be a year of the story throughout the basketball season.”

Follow John Zenor on Twitter @jzenor

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.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.