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SEC Conference Reset: Does Texas A&M have the horses to outpace Kentucky?

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College basketball’s non-conference season is finally coming to a close.

To help you shake off post-holiday haze and the hangover of losing in your fantasy football playoffs, we’ll be providing you with some midseason primers to get you caught up on all the nation’s most important conferences.

Who has been the best player in the biggest leagues?

Who is on track to get an NCAA tournament bid?

What have we learned about the conference hierarchy, and what is left for us to figure out?

We break it all down here.

Today, we’ll be taking a look at SEC.

MIDSEASON SEC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Yante Maten, Georgia

Picking a midseason Player of the Year for the SEC is not easy this season. Tyler Davis and D.J. Hogg have been the best players for a balanced Texas A&M team that is probably the favorite to win the league. Kevin Knox has been Kentucky’s best player, but he hasn’t necessarily been good enough to be the favorite for this award. Collin Sexton is probably the biggest name in the conference, but he’s also playing on an Alabama team that seems about as likely to miss the NCAA tournament as they are to play their way in.

So what does that mean?

We’re going with Yante Maten with the award, at least for now. Maten is not a name that is going to ring out nationally but over the course of the last three and a half years, he’s quietly put together one of the best careers of any big man in college basketball. This year, he’s averaging career-highs of 20.2 points and 9.3 boards for a Georgia team that is, surprisingly enough, in the mix for an NCAA tournament berth. Consider this a lifetime achievement award if nothing else, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t earned it this year.

THE ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM

  • YANTE MATEN, Georgia
  • COLLIN SEXTON, Alabama: Sexton is the most explosive guard in college basketball this season, a dynamic athlete with a competitive edge that borders on the insane. He’s got a shot to play his way into a spot on an all-american team this season.
  • JALEN BARFORD, Arkansas: The senior guard has been the best player for an Arkansas team that has their sights set on the NCAA tournament this season. He’s the third-leading scorer in the conference.
  • KEVIN KNOX, Kentucky: Knox may not be as good as the star of Kentucky teams in past years, but he’s actually been better than some – including me – expected. He’s functioned quite well as a Kentucky’s go-to guy in a season they badly needed one.
  • TYLER DAVIS, Texas A&M: Picking an Aggie for this list is tough but I’m leaning Davis here. He’s their anchor and, for my money, their best player. Or maybe I have an affinity for land warriors in the post with jump hooks.

POSTSEASON PREDICTIONS

  • NCAA: Texas A&M, Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, Florida, Auburn
  • NIT: Missouri, Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Ole Miss
  • OTHER/NO POSTSEASON: LSU, Vanderbilt
Yante Maten (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

THREE THINGS WE’VE LEARNED

1. KENTUCKY IS NOT AS GOOD AS WE THOUGHT THEY WOULD BE DEFENSIVELY: Coming into the season, the big question with the Wildcats was on the offensive end of the floor. Would they be able to score the ball consistently? Would they be able to shoot the ball from three consistently? Would they be able to score in the half court? It’s still early in the season and Kentucky has not exactly played a murderer’s row this season, but the early returns have been largely positive.

Offensively.

Where Kentucky has struggled is on the defensive end of the floor, which is not exactly what we expected. Kentucky has struggled to contain penetration. They’ve allowed too many open threes. They aren’t rebounding the way that a team with their size and athleticism should be rebounding, especially on the defensive end of the floor. In Kentucky’s last two games – which were the only games they’ve played against high-major competition since Nov. 14th – they’ve allowed 1.14 points-per-possessions to Virginia Tech and UCLA two borderline tournament teams. John Calipari has the pieces to be better on that end than they have been, and they’ll need to be better if they are going to make a run in the tournament.

2. TEXAS A&M’S POINT GUARD ISSUES WERE SOLVED BUT A NAME WE DIDN’T EXPECT: One of the reasons that Texas A&M was not considered a top 15 team entering the season was that there was no clarity in their back court. Who would play the point this season? True freshman Jay Jay Chandler? Redshirt freshman JJ Caldwell? Off guard Admon Gilder?

As it turns out, the answer was fairly simple: Duane Wilson. Wilson had been a good but not great point guard for Marquette for the first two years of his career before falling out of favor last season. A grad transfer, Wilson was immediately eligible this year and slid directly into the starting role for the Aggies. He’s averaging 12.3 points and 4.6 assists on the season and has been as big of a reason as anyone that the Aggies look like the favorite to win the league.

3. FLORIDA … NOT WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE: The Gators were the hottest team in the country for the first two weeks of the season, as all four of the talented guards on their roster caught fire at the same time. The nation fell in love with them. Obviously. Teams that run like they run and shoot like they shot are pure entertainment.

But it was a mirage. When the threes stopped falling Florida stopped winning. They’re now sitting at 8-4 on the season and ranked fifth in the SEC on KenPom with an offense that’s fallen out of the top 40 in adjusted efficiency. They’re still dangerous when those shots are going down, but those shots are not always going down these days.

THREE STORYLINES TO FOLLOW

1. WHO IS ACTUALLY THE BEST TEAM IN THE CONFERENCE?: That’s a question that is more difficult to answer with the SEC than just about any other league in the country. Part of that is because it seems like there are people that have some trouble buying into the idea that Texas A&M could very well be a Final Four team this season – something about football schools in football leagues always trips people up.

But then there is the fact that the most talented team in the conference – Kentucky – is still going through the kind of growing pains you’d expect out of a team that is made up of freshmen and sophomores. The bottom fell out of Florida. Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn. Do you trust any of those teams to win the league?

For a neutral, that’s a good thing. The SEC is deep, it’s competitive and it is going to be fun as hell for the next three months.

2. HOW MANY TEAMS CAN THE LEAGUE PUT IN THE BIG DANCE?: Speaking of how deep the league is this year …

There are two things going in the SEC’s favor this season:

  1. There are power conferences that are unquestionably “worse” this year. The Pac-12 looks like it will be lucky to get five teams into the Big Dance this season. The Big Ten is in that same boat. The WCC and the Mountain West look like they’ll top out at three – maaaaybe four – bids. The rest of the mid-majors around the country look like they are going to have to be auto-bid or bust. There are 68 spots in the Big Dance, and someone has to fill them. It may be SEC teams because …
  2. … there really aren’t all that many gimmes this year. Everyone in the league is ranked in the top 85 on KenPom, and while there are a couple teams that are outliers in the RPI’s formula right now, that is sure to normalize as they start playing league games. There are also plenty of quality wins available at the top of the league, meaning that someone like, say, Georgia, who is probably on the outside of the NCAA tournament as of today, has a chance to play their way onto the right side of the bubble by beating some of the higher-ranked teams.

My best guess? Seven SEC teams end up in the tournament at the end of the day.

3. SO IS MICHAEL PORTER JR. MAKING A COMEBACK?: Porter suffered a fracture in his back early on this season and it was supposed to keep him out for the season. That may not actually be the case. It started after the surgery, in late November, when Porter said on his Instagram story that “whoever said it was going to take 3-4 months to recover lied.” Then an orthopedic surgeon that has treated professional athletes said that he thinks that Porter can return sometime in January. Only time will tell what the truth is.

Tyler Davis (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

THREE PREDICTIONS

1. TEXAS A&M WINS THE LEAGUE: I picked the Aggies to do it in the preseason and I’m going to pick them to do it now. I think that they are the best defensive team in the league, and so long as D.J. Hoog keeps shooting the way that he’s been shooting and Duane Wilson keeps point guarding the way he’s been point guarding, and I think they can get to a Final Four.

2. TENNESSEE’S START IS ANYTHING BUT A FLUKE: Tennessee is legit. They defend. They play hard. They have an all-league player in Grant Williams. Jordan Bowden is developing into a go-to scorer on the perimeter – and shooting 61.9 percent from three! – while Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bone have made the point guard spot work. The Vols don’t play pretty and they aren’t going to draw all that much attention from the guys that only care about the future pros on someone’s roster, but the bottom-line is this: this team is going to win a lot of games this year.

3. KENTUCKY MAKES THE DEEPEST TOURNAMENT RUN OF ANYONE IN THE LEAGUE: I still think that the Wildcats have a ways to go before they reach their ceiling, especially on the defensive end of the floor. But I also think that their ceiling is higher than the ceiling of anyone else in the conference. If – when – they get their, they have the horses to make a run to the Final Four in a year where everyone outside of Villanova and Michigan State has some pretty significant flaws.

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.