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Michigan’s win at No. 4 Michigan State a sign of two programs trending in opposite directions

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Last year, the final time that Michigan squared off with Michigan State, the Wolverines pounded the Spartans.

The game was played in the Crisler Center, and it was never really in doubt. Michigan – then considered a team sitting squarely on the bubble – won by 29 points, sparking a three-game winning streak that turned their season around. They won six of their last eight games in the regular season, stormed through the Big Ten tournament, entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 7 seed, upset No. 2 Louisville in the second round and came within a missed Derrick Wilson jumper of playing Kansas for the right to go to the Final Four.

When the narrative of the 2017-18 Michigan season gets told, Saturday’s performance at No. 4 Michigan State may be the turning point that we point to once again.

The Wolverines beat up on the No. 4 Spartans, winning 82-72 behind 27 points from Mo Wagner and 16 points and five assists from Zavier Simpson, who thoroughly outplayed counterpart Cassius Winston despite missing four straight free throws in the final two minutes that left the door open for a Michigan State comeback that never materialized.

This is by far the best win for John Beilein’s team this season, and it came in a way that we haven’t exactly become accustomed to: With defense.

Beilein’s built his career around being one of college basketball’s best offensive minds. His teams were built around floor-spacing and taking advantage of the three-ball before it became the trendy way to play. Remember Kevin Pittsnoggle? Remember his West Virginia teams? Remember the way that he surrounded Trey Burke with shooters on shooters on shooters? Even last year’s team finished the season as the fourth-most efficient offense in the country, according to KenPom.

One of the most surprising sub-plots of the college basketball season is that this year’s Michigan team, one that, until Saturday, started Duncan Robinson alongside Wagner on the front line. Neither of those two players are known for their defensive prowess – it’s one of the biggest reasons Wagner is still in school and not playing in the NBA – but Beilein has stil managed to turn this group into the best defensive team that he has ever had.

Michigan State finished with 18 turnovers on Saturday, corralling just eight offensive rebounds and scoring 72 points on 69 possessions, and those numbers are slightly inflate by a flurry of points and possessions that came once the game was already in hand. The Wolverines mixed up their defenses, completely eliminated Nick Ward as an offensive weapon and kept college basketball’s best front line from finding a way to win on the glass or gain advantage in the paint. Winston was flustered throughout, and the Spartans shot just 3-for-13 from beyond the arc.

And with it came the win you can pin at the top of Michigan’s résumé. They’re in third place and two games out of first place in the Big Ten regular season race, so I’m not sure if they can be called a contender to win that just yet, but as long as they don’t do anything stupid over the final seven weeks of the regular season, they’ll be dancing.

But the bigger question to ask here is just what this loss – and Wednesday’s overtime win over Rutgers at home, and last Sunday’s blowout loss at Ohio State – is what’s going on with Spartans. Michigan exposed some issues that have been bubbling underneath the surface for Tom Izzo’s team since as far back as the Champions Classic.

One issue is the lack of an alpha. There is no one on this Michigan State roster that has shown the ability or the willingness to take a game by the balls, or throw the team on his back, or provide the necessary in-game leadership they’re lacking. There are 1,000 clichés that can be used, but the point is simple: When Michigan State is struggling, when there is a lack of confidence on the floor or when they aren’t playing the way that they should be, who is going to make that momentum-changing play? Who is going to be the spark they need?

The easy answer there would be Miles Bridges, but he has not been that guy. Part of the reason for that is that he just simply isn’t wired that way. He’s uber-talented and wildly athletic, a guy that deserves all of the hype that he gets as a potential lottery pick this season, but the truth is that he projects as a role player at the next level.

Hell, he really is a role player at this level.

What I mean by that is that when he’s at his best, he’s not a guy that’s going to get you 30 points on a given night. He’s not a guy that you’re going to run every offensive possession through. That’s just not his game. What makes him special is his ability to impact every aspect of the game. He can score. He can rebound. He can pass. He can defend just about every possession on the floor. He makes threes. He can post up. He score off the dribble.

That’s just a fact.

The problem with Bridges isn’t that he’s not scoring, and it isn’t even that he’s being played out of position, which is an idea that has been bounced around by a number of people this season. The issue is that he has not been the most active player on the floor every time that he has stepped on the floor.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” said one member of a staff that has played against Bridges this season. “Just coasts, and seems quite content.”

Bridges’ impact on a game is directly correlated with the energy that he plays with, whether it’s at the three or the four. There may be some justification to the idea that playing him at the four would make Bridges less inclined to settle for threes – which is a bad habit he’s fallen into – but I don’t necessarily think it’s an automatic fix.

And here’s the most concerning part of it all.

Many of these problems are the same problems we saw with Michigan State last season.

Michigan State has a lot of questions they are going to have to answer in the coming days and months, but the more I watch this group, the more I think that Izzo is not going to like the answers that he gets.

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.