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Champions Classic Preview: Breaking down Duke-Michigan State and Kansas-Kentucky

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We’re five days into college basketball season and it’s finally about to start.

After a long weekend that gave us nothing but blowouts and Pitt losing and saw just a single ranked team lose a game – to a team that was also ranked – we get what is not only the best night of hoops to date but what may end up being the best night of college basketball this season.

No. 1 Duke vs. No. 2 Michigan State

No. 4 Kansas vs. No. 5 Kentucky

Buckle up.

DUKE vs. MICHIGAN STATE, 7:00 p.m.

BATTLE OF THE BIGS

I cannot wait to see these two front lines square off. Let’s start with Duke’s, where Marvin Bagley III has lived up to the immense hype that he entered the season with. Through two games, he’s averaging 24.5 points and 10 boards, scoring in the post and pulling bigs away from the rim and doing things that 6-foot-11 people are not supposed to be able to do. Against Utah Valley on Saturday night, Bagley jumped a passing lane to make a steal, took one dribble past half court and euro-stepped through two defenders to finish a finger-roll.

He’s a 6-foot-11 19 year-old!

But what makes me so excited about Duke’s big guys is just how good Wendell Carter actually is. Carter isn’t flashy. He doesn’t come with the level of hype that guys like Bagley and Michael Porter Jr. and Deandre Ayton have. He’s probably never going to be a franchise-changing player in the NBA, but that doesn’t mean he’s not an NBA player. He, without question, is. He understands how to play. He is a sensational passer as a big. He can face-up and score. He can score on the block. He’s a good enough shot-blocker that he’s not a liability defensively. The high-low actions he and Bagley can run are so much fun to watch.

He’ll be flanked up front by Jaren Jackson and NBC Sports Preseason National Player of the Year Miles Bridges. Jackson is an intriguing talent, a long and athletic 6-foot-11 four-man that can space the floor. He’s not quite on the same level as the Bagleys and Carters of the world, but he’s a lottery pick in his own right. Depth may end up being the difference-maker for the Spartans – they legitimately have seven big men that could start in the Big Ten – but, to me, the key is going to end up being …

… WHO GUARDS MILES BRIDGES?

To put it simply, there aren’t very many people in college basketball that can matchup with Bridges. He’s a 6-foot-7 athletic freak that played the four last season and will be at the three this year. He can over power someone like Grayson Allen or Gary Trent Jr. in the paint, but lining up, say, Bagley on him is probably not the best idea. Bridges is probably too quick for Bagley to guard on the perimeter, and I’m not sure it’s worth risking the foul trouble to what may be the most irreplaceable player on the Duke roster.

If I was Coach K, I would go man and rotate through wings on Bridges. Trent, Allen, Alex O’Connell, Jordan Tucker. Keep running fresh legs at him and make him work for the buckets that he’s going to get. They’re coming. A 20-point, 10-board, three-assist night is the norm for Bridges, but is Duke makes those points hard to come by – if they make him work hard enough that his legs are gone at the other end – they can still come out ahead.

THERE’S ALSO A BATTLE OF THE LITTLE GUYS

Duke and Michigan State both had the same question mark entering the season: Point guard play. Trevon Duval is not necessarily the kind of point guard that the Blue Devils needed this year, while Cassius Winston is a talented passer that struggled with turnovers as a freshman. Duval has been terrific through two games – 11.5 points, 10 assists and just a single turnover in two games – but he’s also done much of his damage in transition, where we knew he would be great.

Frankly, I think where Duval can win this game for Duke will be on the defensive end of the floor. He’s a freak athlete with all the tools you want in a point guard, and it’s fair to say that he and Winston have very different athletic profiles. If Duval can hound Winston, if he makes it hard for Michigan State to get into their offense, it takes away some of the threat of their bigs.

X-FACTOR

I’m tempted to go with depth here, as Duke lacks it and Michigan State has it in spades, but I really think that the Grayson Allen-Josh Langford matchup will be important. Both are talented. Both struggled with consistency and injuries last season. Both have been impressive early on this season. I’ll give the early edge to Allen – we’ve seen him do it at this level already – but this could be a coming-out party for Langford.

PREDICTION

This is tough, but I think Duke leaves Chicago with a win which means that taking Duke (-2) would make sense. Trevon Duval, in theory, should be able to lock up Cassius Winston, while I think that the Bagley-Carter pairing will be able to get the best of Jackson and Ward.

That said, I have no confidence in that pick. I do, however, have all the confidence in He world that this will be a thriller either way.

KANSAS vs. KENTUCKY, 9:30 p.m.

SMALL-BALL TAKES ON THE MONSTARS

I think I had more fun watching Kansas play in their opener than any other team this weekend. Full disclosure: I love the small-ball movement. I love seeing teams space the floor with playmakers, attack opponents off the dribble and use the threat of the three-ball to create mismatches and close-outs.

That is precisely how Kansas is going to have to play this season, as the entirety of their front line is this: sophomore Udoka Azubuike, freshman Billy Preston, sophomore Mitch Lightfoot. Against Tennessee State in the opener, the Jayhawks had lineups where 6-foot-4 Lagerald Vick played the four and 6-foot-5 Marcus Garrett was the second-biggest player on the floor.

Kentucky is the polar opposite. They have so much quality size on their roster that Kevin Knox, a potential first round pick and the perfect player to slot into a small-ball four role at the college level, is going to spend the entire season playing as a three. Their starting lineup on Friday night against Utah Valley featured five players taller that Garrett. The smallest guy on the floor was Hamidou Diallo, a 6-foot-5 off-guard with a 7-foot wingspan, while 6-foot-6 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander handled the point guard duties.

I fully expect Kansas to try and match that size early. So long as Preston has found a way to make curfew, I think he’ll start at the four next to Azubuike, but I don’t think that will hold. Bill Self had so much success last season playing small – and has so many talented perimeter players on his roster – that he’ll dare Kentucky to come out and guard them.

YOUTH TAKES ON THE OLD GUYS

The Wildcats have used two different starting lineups in their two games this season, and both of those lineups featured all freshmen. The only non-freshman on their that is seeing minutes is Wenyen Gabriel, and he played 14 minutes per game last season. That, more than anything, is the reason they struggled to knock off Utah Valley, whom they trailed by 12 early in the second half, and Vermont, who had a shot to tie the game on with less than five seconds left in the game.

It’s a learning process for Kentucky.

We all know this by now.

And class will be in session on Tuesday night, as the Jayhawks’ best lineup features two seniors, a junior, a redshirt sophomore and a sophomore. Hell, Preston is even 20 years old already. Where I think this manifests itself is on the offensive end for Kentucky, where their lack of shooting and question marks at the point guard spot made things quite difficult in the opener on Friday.

SO LET’S TALK ABOUT THAT KENTUCKY DEFENSE

It was atrocious in the second half against Vermont. The Wildcats had no idea how to defend Vermont’s high-ball screens, and Trae Bell-Haynes – who is a very good player – sliced them up for the entirety of the second 20 minutes. If they can’t stop Bell-Haynes, what is Kentucky going to do against Devonte’ Graham and Malik Newman?

That said, Kentucky’s defense won their opener for them. They switched from man-to-man to a 2-3 zone, and suddenly the length and athleticism on the roster took over. They got some steals, they got some easy buckets in transition and suddenly they were awake, which is why …

X-FACTOR

… I think that zone will be the determining factor on Tuesday night. The idea that you can’t zone a three-point shooting team is a fallacy; in fact, if you play the 2-3 zone the right way and move quick enough, it’s sometimes easier to keep opponents from getting clean looks at a three, especially with the length Kentucky has. Kansas has three-point shooters and a roster that makes sense playing small-ball. Kentucky is enormous, and having success playing a 2-3 zone mitigates some of the quickness advantage Kansas has on the perimeter.

If the Wildcats don’t suffer defensively, when they have, say, P.J. Washington at the four while Svi Mykhailiuk is his counterpart, then that means that Kansas will have Svi guarding Washington in the post. The entire state of Kansas shuddered in fear at that last sentence.

PREDICTION: I think that this ends up being a wake-up call for the Wildcats, not that they really need it after the way their season started. I don’t think this will be as bad as the beating that Kentucky put on Kansas in 2015, the year that Cliff Alexander was a Jayhawk and the Wildcats started the season 38-0, but I don’t think that Kentucky will be in it down the stretch.

Kansas covers the points – it opened at (-2) and has since moved to (-4.5) in some places – whatever they end up being.

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.