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UConn, Kevin Ollie no longer have excuses for their struggles

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NEW YORK — Kevin Ollie has run out of excuses.

The UConn head coach and the handpicked successor to Jim Calhoun, a Hall of Famer and the man that put Storrs, Conn., on the college basketball map, is not even four years removed from winning a national title in just his second season as a head coach and he’s damn near managed to run the UConn program into the ground.

UConn has missed two out of the last three NCAA tournaments, with last year being the low-water mark. The Huskies finished below-.500 for the first time since Jim Calhoun’s first season in Storrs all the way back in 1986-87, and there’s no guarantee that this season is going to finish any better. The Huskies lost to Arkansas by 35 points. They needed overtime to get past Columbia at home. Monmouth, too. And on Tuesday, UConn fell to a mediocre – by their standards – Syracuse team in the Jimmy V Classic in a game where the final score was flattering.

The Huskies trailed by as many as 17 points. They went into halftime down by 11 — “A horrible disappointment,” according to Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, because they “should have been up 20, 22, 23 points.” — and never got closer than seven points in the second half before losing, 72-63.

In the past, when Ollie’s missed out on the NCAA tournament, there have been justifiable reasons why. In 2013, UConn was not eligible. In 2015, the program was replacing four starters — including Shabazz Napier — from a team that won the national title. Last season, two of the program’s top three players — Terry Larrier and Alterique Gilbert — suffered season-ending injuries in the first weeks of the season.

There are no excuses this season.

Only reasons, many of which are self-inflicted.

We can start with the lack of talent and experience along UConn’s front line. That’s what happens when three former four-star recruits transfer out of the program in the offseason. Would things be different if Steven Enoch (now at Louisville), Juwan Durham (Notre Dame) and Vance Jackson (New Mexico) had not left the program?

Probably.

At the very least, the Huskies would not be relying on three-star freshmen, JuCo transfers and former Cornell big men to carry the water for them in the paint.

Maybe there’s something to be said for Gilbert’s shoulder continuing to be an issue. He has missed the last three games after playing just 17 minutes in the loss to Arkansas, but if one player is the difference between UConn, a program that has won two national titles since the Green Bay Packers last won a Super Bowl, winning and losing by 35 points to an Arkansas team that lost by 26 points to Houston, we have a problem.

And then there is the issue of coaching.

“It was like we never, you know, seen a zone before,” Ollie told reporters after Tuesday’s loss, which is not exactly high-praise coming from the man in charge of ensuring that his team sees a zone before facing Syracuse.

What about this: A member of a coaching staff that has scouted UConn this season told me that, “in terms of the actions they run and the game plan, probably the simplest scout I’ve seen.” The numbers back it up. UConn currently ranks 128th in offensive efficiency, which is actually up from 154th last season. The only UConn team in the history of KenPom to finish worse was the 2007 team, when Calhoun had to replace his entire roster.

It’s too early to pen a “Fire Kevin Ollie” column, and yes, I know that comes after I recorded this podcast.

UConn still has a chance to turn this thing around, although it won’t be easy. They play at Arizona in two weeks. Two days later, they’re at Auburn. A week after that, AAC play starts, and they still have a random January game against Villanova tucked away.

There will be plenty of chances for UConn and Ollie to prove that the last two weeks were a hiccup in a season returning the program to glory.

It also means there will be plenty of chances for the Huskies, who KenPom has as a favorite in just eight of their remaining 22 games, to get embarrassed.

If the latter occurs, Ollie will no longer be able to look anywhere other than the mirror.

Because the excuses are gone.

Reasons are all that are left.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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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.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.