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Five things we learned from college basketball’s opening weekend

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1. THIS CROP OF FRESHMEN BIGS ARE THE REAL DEAL: We, as media, have a tendency to overhype freshmen each and every year in college hoops.

That’s just the way that this works. When there is something new and exciting on the horizon, we gravitate towards it. There’s something about the unknown and untapped potential that gets everyone excited. Sometimes, that hype pays off. Sometimes, it doesn’t. The early returns are in, and while there is still a very long way to go, it looks like this group of freshmen are going to be as good as advertised.

Deandre Ayton was fantastic in two games for Arizona. His size, his length, his presence in the paint reminds me of Greg Oden, and while Ayton is a different player – Oden was a better defender, Ayton is more of a new-age, stretch-five – there seems to be little doubt that he is going to spend this entire season being awesome. The same can be said for Marvin Bagley III, who averaged a cool 24.5 points and 10 boards in two games this weekend. Bagley isn’t the only star freshman big man on that Duke roster, either, as the high-low partnership that he is going to have with Wendell Carter this season has the potential to be game-changing.

Jaren Jackson has been an under-discussed member of this freshmen class, but he fits perfectly at the four in Michigan State’s front line and has a shot to prove to everyone just how talented he is on Tuesday, as the Spartans and the Blue Devils face off in the Champions Classic. UNLV’s Brandon McCoy went for 25 points and 18 boards in their opener. Villanova’s Omari Spellman had a double-double. Iowa’s Luka Garza looked like a steal.

And we haven’t even seen Michael Porter Jr. play yet. as he went out after two minutes in Missouri’s win over Iowa State.

Then there is Mo Bamba …

2. THE TEXAS ADDITION OF DYLAN OSETKOWSKI CHANGES THEIR CEILING: … who was terrific in his own right in the opener against Northwestern State, but who may not even be the most important addition that the Longhorns made this offseason.

Bamba is a defensive menace. He is 7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-9 wingspan and will be the single-best rim protector in college basketball this season. He’s Rudy Gobert, only with a last name that makes you want to sing a Ritchie Valens song. He changes what Texas can do defensively. Having him in front of the rim will allow Shaka Smart’s ‘Havoc’ style of play to take more chances knowing that missing on a steal may not actually lead to a layup or a dunk.

The addition of Matt Coleman helps as well. Andrew Jones isn’t exactly a point guard, and playing two lead guards together is the lineup du jour in college basketball.

But if you talk to people around the Texas program, they’ll tell you that Osetkowski is the best basketball player on the team. Not the best talent. Not the best prospect. Not the best playmaker. The best basketball player. He is 6-foot-9, he rebounds the ball, he makes threes, he can score in the post but, perhaps most importantly, he can handle the ball and facilitate offense. He takes the pressure off of the Texas playmakers offensively the same way that Bamba takes the pressure off of Texas perimeter defenders.

There is a different between being a facilitator and being a playmaker. Jones and Coleman are both playmakers. They thrive in transition, they can get an open shot for someone off the dribble or in ball-screen actions. They’re very good Big 12 guards. But they’re not exactly the kind of facilitator that can get Texas into a set or run offense. Osetkowski can do that. He will let Smart run offense through him while getting Coleman and Jones into spots on the floor where they can make a play.

At the risk of overreacting to three days’ worth of games, I think that the Longhorns are the second-best team in the Big 12.

3. BUT LET’S NOT WRITE-OFF WEST VIRGINIA JUST YET: Yes, they were bad. Yes, they got blown out by a team that didn’t have their starting point guard who was a freshmen anyway. Yes, they deserve to drop out of the top 25 for that.

And to a point, I think we may have overrated the Mountaineers entering the season. They lost a number of critical program and system guys this offseason. I actively overlooked that because they’ve lost a number of program and system guys in past seasons and improved. When Jonathan Holton graduated, Nathan Adrian stepped up. When Jaysean Paige graduated, Jevon Carter stepped up.

Maybe that well has run dry. I’ll admit as much. But there are two reasons I’m not ready to waive the white flag yet.

1. West Virginia is a team that thrives on energy, and they played a game in Germany that tipped at midnight local time, which is a nine-hour flight away if you can find something direct. This wasn’t a home environment. This wasn’t a game played in a gym like Hilton Coliseum or Phog Allen Fieldhouse. This was on a German Army Base. I don’t know how much of a role that played, or if jet lag contributed, but I can’t pretend those factors don’t exist.

2. It’s also important to note that so much of what West Virginia does is built on actually being able to score. That sounds simple, but with the way that the Mountaineers play defense – Press Virginia and all – they cannot get into their defense if the ball doesn’t go through the basket. Against the Aggies, they shot 40 threes out of 70 field goal attempts. They only made 12, meaning that they were only able to get into their press on 30 percent of those possessions. They also only grabbed 11 offensive rebounds, posting an offensive rebounding rate of 22.9 percent. They finished no worse than sixth-nationally in offensive rebounding rate the last three years, twice cracking 40 percent.

Not having Esa Ahmad really hurt them. Ahmad is not a great offensive rebounder, but he’s pretty good. He’s not great scoring around the rim, but he’s pretty good. He’s the one guy on the roster that they might be able to look to offensively in the paint. His presence allows them to score on more possessions, and that is what matters for West Virginia.

It’s been proven that shooting threes well is the most efficient form of offense. But for the Mountaineers, the way that they play, it’s more important to score on the highest number of possessions possible, even if they’re scoring in a less-efficient way.

Kevin Knox (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

4. KENTUCKY HAS A LONG WAY TO GO, BUT WE KNEW THIS: Kentucky is a long, long way from being a finished product.

On Friday night against Utah Valley, the issue they had was on the offensive end of the floor. They just couldn’t find a way to get good shots in the half court. On Sunday, it was defensive that killed them. They looked lost trying to defend Vermont’s ball-screen actions.

They started two different lineups in those two games, and both lineups featured five freshmen.

It showed.

We know the Wildcats were going to take some lumps early on this season. The issue isn’t how they’re playing now. It’s whether or not they get better as the season moves along.

5. TUESDAY NIGHT IS GOING TO BE UNBELIEVABLE: I am more excited for the Champions Classic than I have been for this event in years.

Maybe ever.

It starts with No. 1 Duke taking on No. 2 Michigan State in a battle of front courts that should make every NBA scout – both amateur and professional – get excited. Then there is the battle between point guards that need to prove themselves, and that’s before we talk about how their are two first-team preseason all-americans on the floor in Grayson Allen and Miles Bridges.

And that’s just the opener.

The nightcap will feature a Kentucky team that may end up starting a team with no one shorter than 6-foot-5 against a Kansas team that has been playing small-ball lineups that feature four guards 6-foot-6 and below. This will be the real test for the Wildcats, playing a veteran team that has national title aspirations, but it will be a good gauge game for Kansas as well. Kentucky may not be great yet, but they are big, and if there is any question about these Jayhawks, it’s how they are going to handle size.

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.