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Scandal hangs over college basketball headed in 2017-18

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College basketball is better than ever on the floor. Scoring is up, stars players fill every corner of the country and fan support is sky high.

Off the floor, it has an image problem.

A federal probe this summer uncovered the dark underbelly of college basketball, revealing a web of bribes and kickbacks from shoe companies funneled toward recruits. The arrests of 10 people, including assistant coaches at four prominent schools, casts a shadow over the sport heading into the 2017-18 season — and likely beyond.

“It’s a big egg on a lot of our faces,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “It kind of speaks for the entire entity, and we’re part of it.”

The federal investigation led to the arrests of assistant coaches from No. 3 Arizona, No. 10 Southern Cal, Oklahoma State and Auburn, along with an Adidas marketing executive. The probe has already taken down No. 16 Louisville coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich, and more shoes could drop as the investigation digs deeper.

The teams already in the crosshairs — Miami is also among them — will play with uncertainty; whether its players will remain eligible, if the investigation will reach all the way to the head coach, if NCAA sanctions are on the horizon.

The other major programs, particularly those with high-end recruits, could be looking over their shoulders all season to see if they will become ensnared.

“You have to eliminate the clutter and understand the class has to be tight,” Arizona coach Sean Miller. “You have to talk to people, but only we know what happens on a daily basis in our program.”

On the court, Miller has the type of team that could end his Final Four-less run. The Wildcats have a solid core of experienced players returning from last year’s Elite Eight team — preseason All-American Allonzo Trier among them — to go with a stellar recruiting class, highlighted by athletic big man Deandre Ayton.

Of course, there are plenty of deep, talented teams capable of making a run to San Antonio.

Duke is the preseason No. 1 for the second straight season with senior Grayson Allen back and the addition of Marvin Bagley III, coach Mike Krzyzewski’s latest one-and-done wonder.

Michigan State’s Tom Izzo always seems to get the most out of his team in March and has plenty to work with this season, playing with a stacked deck bolstered by the return of preseason All-American Miles Bridges.

No. 4 Kansas has reloaded and is gunning for Big 12 title No. 14 in a row. So has No. 5 Kentucky, but you knew that already; Coach Cal is never without a roster full of future NBA players.

Defending national champion North Carolina lost a lot from a year ago, but the return of point guard Joel Berry II was huge for the Tar Heels, even if he will miss the start of the season after breaking his hand punching a door.

“We’re not defending (the national championship) because it’s not the same team playing against the same teams, but we’re the only team that can go out and say we could do this a second year in a row,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said.

Don’t count out the mid majors, who have been major players since Butler reached consecutive Final Fours from 2010-11.

Gonzaga reached the title game a year ago and took the Tar Heels to the wire. The Zags lost a lot from that team, but came in at No. 18 in the AP preseason poll and coach Mark Few has another talented group.

This year it could be Wichita State. Coach Gregg Marshall, who has spurned offers from other schools to remain in Wichita, has his entire starting five back and a stronger schedule — for NCAA Tournament seeding purposes — after the Shockers’ move to the AAC.

“My job got better in terms of the profile of the league and the opportunity to get in the NCAA Tournament,” Marshall said.

And don’t forget about the freshman. Every year seems to bring bigger, more athletic players straight out of high school, and this season is no exception.

Bagley is 6 feet, 11 inches of do everything, making a good Duke team even better. Same thing with Ayton, though at 7-1, 260 pounds. Kentucky has five high school All-Americans.

The best of the bunch could be Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. He’s 6-10, can shoot, score off the dribble, is a preseason All-American, the projected No. 1 NBA draft pick and has been compared to a young Kevin Durant. He’s going to get plenty of shots in Columbia, too.

“He’s long and fast and skilled, got tremendous feel, I.Q.” Florida coach Mike White said. “He’s going to be a really good player.”

The 2017-18 season will be filled with them. Whether they’ll be enough to pull the sport from under the dark cloud hanging over it remains to be seen.

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Follow John Marshall on Twitter @jmarshallap

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.