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Northwestern looks to build on first run to NCAA tournament

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EVANSTON, Ill. (AP) — Finally free of that NCAA Tournament albatross, Northwestern comes into the season with something else hovering over the team.

That would be high expectations.

“It’s something that we’ve never encountered and we’re excited to see how we’ll handle that attention,” star guard Bryant McIntosh said.

The school that hosted the first Final Four finally got to experience an NCAA appearance last season. And with most of their top players back, the Wildcats are out to show that was no aberration. While challenging for the Big Ten championship might be a stretch, Northwestern comes into its fifth season under coach Chris Collins with an experienced roster and an appetite for more.

“What happened was great,” Collins said. “It was a great experience, a great group of guys that accomplished a lot. But now, it’s a new journey. It’s a new team. Guys have gotten better.”

The Wildcats have most of their key players back from a team that won 24 games and squeezed past Vanderbilt in their first NCAA appearance. A six-point loss to eventual runner-up Gonzaga that featured a big comeback by Northwestern and a crushing technical on Collins after the officials missed a goaltend by the Zags ended that run.

But the standards are higher than ever for Northwestern. The school rewarded Collins, extending his contract through the 2024-25 season.

Some things to know as the Wildcats try to make it back-to-back NCAA appearances, starting with the season opener against Loyola (Md.) on Nov. 10:

TEMPORARY HOME

Collins hopes the crowds that started to fill Welsh-Ryan Arena late last season will make the trip to Allstate Arena in Rosemont. The Wildcats will be playing home games about 15 miles from campus while their arena undergoes a major renovation. The school is replacing wooden bleachers with chair-back seats, updating audio and video systems, adding premium seating and widening concourses as part of a $110 million overhaul of the arena. Work is scheduled to be completed next fall. For now, the building is basically a shell with steel beams exposed and busted-open exterior walls. A $20 million facility for men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball and other programs that will be built inside an existing adjacent building is expected to open in late 2018 or 2019.

“Every time I drive past there or walk past it, it’s kind of surreal to see what’s going on — but exciting at the same time because what we have coming is going to be a program changer in terms of the resources, the facilities,” said Collins, a Chicago-area native. “(It’s) something that I know was a long time coming. We’re really excited about the end result.”

SCORERS RETURN

The Wildcats have their top five scorers back from last season, and they have a pair of preseason all-Big Ten guards in McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey. They were one-two in scoring for Northwestern last year, averaging 14.8 and 14.1 points, respectively. McIntosh also averaged 5.2 assists to tie for the Big Ten lead.

FORWARD THINKING

The Wildcats are also well-stocked up front, led by forward Vic Law. The Wildcats’ third-leading scoring and second-leading rebounder, he made the Big Ten’s all-defensive team. Dererk Pardon is also back after ranking second in the conference in field goal percentage (.611), fourth in blocks (1.8 per game) and seventh in rebounding (8.0 rpg).

HE’S BACK

Northwestern could get a boost with forward Aaron Falzon back from a season-ending knee injury. He played in just three games a year ago after a promising freshman season. Falzon hit 63 3-pointers two years ago — the second most by a Northwestern freshman.

“It was definitely a different experience for me watching the guys out there,” Falzon said. “But I think it helped me. It helped me mature. The game slowed down a little bit because I got to watch from the sidelines a little bit more. It was an interesting experience.”

ON TAP

The Wildcats will play three games in six days during a busy early-season stretch, when they visit Georgia Tech (Nov. 28), host Illinois (Dec. 1) and play at Purdue (Dec. 3). They also have non-conference games against Creighton at home (Nov. 15), Texas Tech or Boston College in Uncasville, Conn. (Nov. 19) and at Oklahoma (Dec. 22).

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.