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College Basketball’s X-Factors: Eight story lines that will determine the national title

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The season will finally be here on Friday, meaning that the time for previewing the year is just about over. 

But we’re not there yet.

Before things officially kick off, let’s take a closer look at the eight things will could end up deciding how the season plays out.

League titles.

Final Four trips.

Even the national title.

You can call them story lines, you can call them positional battles, you can call them whatever you like.

Here are the x-factors as we enter the 2017-18 college basketball season. 

CONTENDER SERIES: Kentucky | Kansas | Arizona | Michigan State | Duke

WHERE WILL THIS FBI INVESTIGATION LEAD?

As much as I would love to be able to focus on nothing but the teams and the players and the games, this story is never going to go away. It’s something that we, as college basketball fans, are going to have to come to grips with. This is the biggest story in the sport, and that fact is magnified this season because of who is involved.

Four of the top 12 and five of the top 25 teams in the NBC Sports Preseason Power Rankings have direct ties to the FBI complaint. Would it be crazy to think that the Final Four this season could end up being Arizona, USC, Louisville and Miami? (The answer is ‘no’. No, it wouldn’t.)

Arizona is probably the program with the most to lose here simply because this finally appears to be the team that Sean Miller can take to the Final Four. If it wasn’t for this impending investigation – and, frankly, the injury to Rawle Alkins – then I think theres is a real chance that the Wildcats could have ended up being the preseason No. 1 team in college basketball. As it stands, in a best-case scenario Arizona is likely going to end up being without at least one player currently on their roster, and that’s assuming that everything the FBI knows is public and the investigation grinds to a halt. If Alkins is the only Arizona player that sits during the first game of the season, it will probably be safe to assume that he is the one that was caught.

The same can be said for USC. Both programs had unnamed players in the FBI complaint allegedly accepting money either from a coach or from a financial advisor in a deal facilitated by the coach. Sources have told NBC Sports that USC’s De’Anthony Melton – who, as a sophomore with NBA potential, fits as one of the players in the complaint – has not yet played in one of USC’s secret scrimmages. If he ends up missing time, that’s a major blow for the Trojans.

Louisville has already seen their Hall of Fame head coach get run out of town while it seems incredibly unlikely that five-star freshman Brian Bowen will ever suit up for the Cardinals. Louisville has the talent to be a Final Four team, but until we see David Padgett running a team from the sidelines, it’s hard to know what, exactly, he is as a coach. Miami didn’t actually have a player named in the complaint, but head coach Jim Larrañaga has said publicly that he believes he was Coach-3 in the complaint, and that coach was alleged to have known about and requested a $150,000 payday for a player they were recruiting.

They arrived at that number because they believed it is what the player was offered by … Arizona.

The last program in the mix is Alabama. A member of the Alabama staff was bribed to facilitate a meeting between the father of a star freshman and a financial planner in Atlanta, the city where Collin Sexton, a potential lottery pick, is from. Sexton is the best scorer in the freshman class joining a team that returns everyone after finishing 10th in defensive efficiency and 153rd in offensive efficiency last season. He’s why they have hype.

What happens with these five teams will be massive.

We’re talking about five top 25 teams, one of whom could be the best team in the country, in addition to two Pac-12 title contenders, two ACC title contenders and an SEC contender. Those are some big name programs with quite a bit on the line.

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Trevon Duval (Reagan Lunn/Duke Athletics)

SO IS TREVON DUVAL A POINT GUARD OR NAH?

I’m on the record saying that this Duke team is the most talented starting five in the country. I’ll spare you rehashing the ‘why’ – you can read that all here – but suffice to say that the best five that Duke can run out there is better, on paper, than the best five that any other program can.

The problem, if there is one, is Duval. He’s the best point guard in the Class of 2017, a top five prospect and a potential first round pick, but he may not be the point guard that Duke needs. Duval is big, athletic and explosive, but he’s not much of a shooter, he’s not necessarily a facilitator and he doesn’t always make people around him better. Think Derrick Rose, not Tyus Jones. That becomes a problem when Duval, as talented as he is, ends up being the fifth-best player in Duke’s starting lineup.

Each of the last two years, Duke has struggled their way through point guard problems. Whether it was Derryck Thornton or Frank Jackson, Matt Jones or Grayson Allen, this program has struggled for an answer. If Duval succeeds, Duke seems like a good bet to win the national title. If he doesn’t, last year’s flameout – which resulted in a 25-win season, an ACC tournament title, a No. 2 seed and a first weekend exit in the NCAA tournament – may be repeated.

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Duke is not the only Final Four contender with point guard problems

  • Seton Hall is a trendy pick to finish in the top 15 and push Villanova for the Big East regular season title, but as good as the Pirates appear to be, they are playing this season with Khadeen Carrington running the show offensively. Carrington is a terrific player, a guy that averaged 17 points and three assists last season, but he put up those numbers playing off the ball. Playing the point is a different story, and his ability to adapt is what will determine Seton Hall’s ceiling.
  • Seton Hall’s Big East rival Xavier got a head start on their transition last season, as Quentin Goodin was forced into the starting point guard role when Edmond Sumner went down with a torn ACL in January. Goodin was fine – good in moments, a freshman in others – but he got somewhat bailed out by the fact that Trevon Bluiett was a man amongst boys for stretches in March. With Bluiett back, a good Goodin makes the Musketeers a real Final Four contender.
  • Xavier’s crosstown rival Cincinnati has some point guard issues of their own. Troy Caupain wasn’t the best player on the Bearcat roster last year, but he was a terrific leader at the point guard spot. He’s gone, and in his stead will be Cane Broome, a transfer from Sacred Heart that averaged 23 points as a sophomore, and Justin Jenifer, who has never proven to be much more than a role player. Even with the point guard question marks, Cincinnati is a borderline top ten team.
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Landry Shamet (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

WILL WICHITA STATE’S FEET COOPERATE?

No team has gone more underlooked during this preseason than Wichita State. They finished last season ranked eighth in KenPom, gave Kentucky all they wanted in the second round of the NCAA tournament and returned everyone from last year’s team. Throw in the fact that this group is joining a new conference this offseason, and this might be the most exciting winter in the history of the city of Wichita; a can’t imagine there are too many contenders.

But all of that is assuming that Wichita State will remain healthy. It starts with Landry Shamet, who is the team’s starting point guard and their best NBA Draft prospect. He underwent surgery to repair a stress reaction injury in his right foot this summer. He already had surgery to repair a broken bone in his left foot as a freshman. He is expected to be healthy by the time Wichita State tips off this weekend, but as of now there is no guarantee that will happen, or that his foot issues won’t pop back up.

And then there is Markis McDuffie, who is dealing with a similar injury, although his prognosis is much less clear. As of the timing of this posting, there is no guarantee that McDuffie, a 6-foot-8 forward that is arguably Wichita State’s best all-around player and the guy that gives them lineup and matchup versatility, will return by the start of AAC play.

If those two are not at 100 percent, Wichita State’s ceiling – which is a national title – is no where near the same.

John Calipari (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

DOES JOHN CALIPARI FIGURE OUT THE ANSWER FOR THIS KENTUCKY TEAM?

We’re used to the unknown when it comes to John Calipari’s Kentucky teams. That’s part of the deal when you coach with this one-and-done model.

That said, Cal has never had this much uncertainty about his roster heading into a season, at least not since he arrived in Lexington. This is his youngest and most inexperienced team. Wenyen Gabriel is the only returnee that was a rotation player by conference play last season, and even he was barely cracking double-digit minutes by the end of the season. Cal has never had a team who didn’t return at least one player averaging 5.0 points before, and if we’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that the best one-and-done teams have some experienced leaders blended in.

And that’s only half of Cal’s problem. The other issue is that he has a ton of big men that cannot all play together, and it’s unclear where he is going to get offense, and perimeter shooting, from. Quade Green has played well during the exhibitions, as has Wenyen Gabriel and Kevin Knox. P.J. Washington may have more of an impact than we initially expected, and that’s important.

I’ve fleshed this line of thinking out in full here, if you’re interested in a more in-depth look at the issues. If anything, I’m excited to see how Cal figures this out, because I fully expect that he will.

Miles Bridges (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

HOW WELL DOES MICHIGAN STATE’S FRONT COURT BLEND TOGETHER?

Some may think that it’s Michigan State’s guards that will determine the outcome of their season, but I think that we generally know what we’re going to get out of the back court. Cassius Winston and Josh Langford will take a step forward, Tum Tum Nairn will continue to be very, very fast and Matt McQuaid will make some shots and do his job.

They’re going to be fine.

That said, ‘fine’ won’t be enough for the Spartans to live up to their lofty preseason expectations if their front court does not deliver. This is where things get interesting to me. Miles Bridges, the NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year, played the four last season. He’s likely going to end up playing the three this year with another freshman, Jaren Jackson, playing the four. Nick Ward will get first crack at the five.

But will Ward be good enough defensively to warrant a bump in the 20 minutes he played last season if he doesn’t improve defensively? How will Bridges adjust to a new position and a new role? Is Jackson a stretchy enough stretch four? Can the likes of Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter and Kenny Goins accept a role? Is Xavier Tillman OK with being the seventh big Michigan State has?

That will determine Michigan State’s ceiling. Their guards determine their floor.

WHAT DOES KANSAS DO AT THE FOUR?

Bill Self had always played two bigs and run a ton of high-low actions before last season. The combination of Udoka Azubuike’s wrist injury and Josh Jackson’s ability to play a small-ball four role, the Jayhawks went full Golden State, playing four-out, one-in for just about the entire season. That worked because Josh Jackson is an NBA two-guard in a 6-foot-8 body with the athleticism and timing to block shots and the toughness to hold his own in the paint.

They don’t have a Josh Jackson this year. They also only really have two front court players that are ready to handle the Big 12 schedule this season. There isn’t the depth to play big and there isn’t the right piece to play small. So what’s the answer?

CAN ISAAC HAAS PROVIDE ENOUGH TO MAKE PURDUE FORGET ABOUT BIGGIE SWANIGAN?

Isaac Haas is one of the biggest players in basketball. He stands 7-foot-3 and 300 pounds of muscle. He is a big, big boy, so it’s understandable that he’s never exactly been the quickest or most explosive player, or that he’s been able to get into the kind of shape that would let him play 32 minutes a night. It takes a lot to get that body from one end of the court to the other.

The problem is that Purdue, who might actually be the second-best team in the Big Ten, doesn’t have all that much interior depth. Matt Haarms is another 7-foot-3 big man, but he’s a redshirt freshman. Jacqul Taylor is back, but he missed the entire 2016-17 season and has been out since October after he aggravated the stress fracture in that ankle. Haas needs to carry the load, and if he can, the reigning Big Ten champs are going to sneak up on some people.

CAN FLORIDA STILL DEFEND?

I don’t know if I can get on board with the idea that Florida is a top ten team this season for one, simple reason: Mike White’s teams thrive because of what they can do on the defensive end of the floor – last year, the Gators finished second nationally in defensive efficiency – and the Gators may have lost their three best defenders this offseason.

Kasey Hill graduated. The severely underrated Justin Leon graduated. Devin Robinson headed off to the NBA. That trio gave Florida so much length and athleticism, and both Robinson and Leon were able to stretch the floor. Florida brought in some talent, but if they can’t defend like they did last season, we may have a problem.

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.