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Facilities gap an uphill climb for college hoops’ low-majors

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The building, with its high, arched ceilings, could pass for an airplane hangar if it had larger doors. Massive fans span one wall, designed to heat the adjacent offices next door, yet turn the old fieldhouse colder than the already-crisp fall air outside.

The lights have a bug-zapper vibe without the zap, emitting a constant hum, illuminating the center of the concrete floor, leaving the areas along the walls in shadows.

Two basketball courts fill the north side. One is surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped chain-link fence extending from the wall, a small entrance at one end, four feet of clearance from the court in the corners.

Just as Northern Arizona’s basketball players start warming up in this makeshift practice gym, the whir of drills and saws echoes through the building as workers construct two batting cages for the baseball team.

“It’s almost like they waited until we started practicing to begin working,” Lumberjacks coach Jack Murphy said. “I equate it to an English professor trying to teach Shakespeare in a parking garage. I’m not saying I’m teaching Shakespeare, but you would never do that.”

The smallest schools among the 351 in Division I college basketball have trouble competing with the high-majors on the court.

The facilities gap may be a deeper chasm.

At college basketball’s highest levels, weight rooms are like upscale health clubs. Arenas are belled and whistled enough to make NBA teams jealous, the practice courts nicer than some schools’ arenas.

There are fingerprint security systems, underwater rehab treadmills, game-film theaters like celebrity screening rooms. At Nebraska, players have iPod docks at their lockers that connect to the weight room, the practice court, even the showers to play their own music wherever they go.

The smallest schools often play in bandbox gyms or off-campus arenas. Practice courts, if any, can feel like racquetball courts with hoops, schedules worked around PE classes. The weight rooms, while not quite Izzy Mandelbaum-era (think Seinfeld), are often sparse, with a hand-me-down feel to the equipment.

It comes down to this: Big programs have money to pay for state-of-the-art facilities while the small schools struggle to afford modest upgrades.

“Financial support is the biggest difference, which kind of dovetails into facilities and lack thereof,” former Wake Forest and South Carolina coach Dave Odum said. “The disparity between practice facilities and major coliseums, all that is under the financial problem the middle or low-major programs have to overcome every day.”

One massive area the facilities gap hurts: Recruiting.

Players love swag, playing in nice arenas, using the best equipment, having every comfort and convenience in their locker rooms and lounges.

The difference between high-end and just-get-by facilities could end up being a recruiting tipping point.

“The resources and facilities is the biggest gap,” Longwood coach Jayson Gee said. “At the end of the day, I believe potential recruits look at that. So when you come to say, a Texas A&M, it sends a message to a potential recruit, that’s what they’re after, so there’s no way we can compete with that BCS-level program that has millions and millions of dollars. We’ve got to sell our relationships and have people who really want to be at your institutions.”

An eye to the future is part of the pitch.

Sacramento State has undergone an unprecedented era of building; a new fieldhouse and weight room, a health and wellness center, science buildings and a slew of dorms, including two sets overlooking the American River.

Talks of building an on-campus arena have gone on for years, but nothing concrete is in place. Until then, the Hornets will continue playing in The Nest, which has new locker rooms and lobby, but is one of the smallest and oldest gyms in Division I.

“We have two things here,” Sac State coach Brian Katz said. “One is the long-term vision build a facility. Is that two years, five, eight? I don’t know what it is. Short-term vision, how do we make things better today?”

Seattle University, the second-smallest school in the WAC, is in the same look-to-the-future situation.

The school has discussed building a 6,000-or-so-seat, on-campus arena in about five years. The Redhawks currently split their games at KeyArena, the former home of the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics, and the on-campus Connelly Center.

KeyArena is a recruiting magnet because it once housed an NBA team, but small crowds can look even more minuscule in the 17,000-seat arena. The Connelly Center seats about 1,000 and is essentially a Division III facility.

“I’m kind of living in three worlds,” Seattle University coach Jim Hayford said. “I coach in a gym an NBA team used to inhabit, I have a school that wants to build a gym like Belmont or Gonzaga and then I’m still stuck in a gym like a Portland State or a Sac State.”

Or Northern Arizona.

There’s been talk of a new arena in Flagstaff. Despite buildings going up all around campus, it has not gone past that stage.

The Lumberjacks’ stint in the dank, dark fieldhouse was at least short: 16 preseason practices in October.

They survived the cold, the prison-yard feel, the poor lighting and the workmen’s whirs, only to move onto another not-exactly-ideal situation.

Most of NAU’s games are played at the Walkup Skydome, which also houses the football and track teams. It’s a unique stadium and was once the largest wood-span structure of its kind in the world, but not the best place for a basketball game with the court set up near a corner and temporary bleachers on the side.

The Lumberjacks also play a few games at the Rolle Center, a nice rec center, but a rec center nonetheless.

“Facility-wise, if we had our own dedicated arena or something like that, this would be one of the better jobs in the conference because we have great location, we have a great campus, the general feel of Flagstaff is positive,” Murphy said. “We have a lot of things going for us, but the facilities are a big drawback.”

The same could be said for low-major programs across the country.

Follow John Marshall on Twitter @jmarshallap

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

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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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

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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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

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
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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.