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No Shock, just surprise: Wichita State’s departure invites chaos to the Valley

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DES MOINES, Ia. — The reminders came from the public address. They came from the arena MC, and they came from the crowd.

Time and again, the stakes were stated, as much to stir emotion, it seemed, as to evoke a communal reality check, as if it kept being repeated, that meant it had to be true, no matter how unlikely it seemed.

“This,” the refrain came again and again, “is for first place.”

Here, at Drake’s Knapp Center, is not where the battle was supposed to be fought for a leg up in the Missouri Valley Conference heading into the backstretch of the league race. Yet, here it was.

Even for a league that has been recently remade, the state of the Valley at its 2018 midpoint makes little sense, and it was never more evident than Wednesday’s matchup between Drake and Loyola, with first place on the line, between one team that hasn’t finished in the upper half of the standings in a decade and another who was a conference realignment door prize four years ago.

It’s a new day in the Valley. Or maybe it’s night. Or dawn or dusk. Whatever it is, it’s confusing.

“It’s a coach’s nightmare,” Ramblers coach Porter Moser told NBCSports.com after his team pulled alone into first with an 80-57 win over the Bulldogs. “You can’t look ahead. I’ll go to the funny farm if I look ahead.

“I really believe that 10 could beat one. In this league, anybody could beat anyone. I believe that in my heart.”

From top to bottom, the Valley, recently one of the country’s most predictable leagues, is a mess to make sense of. The preseason favorite, Missouri State, is hovering just above .500. Northern Iowa, the pick to finish second, is 3-6. Illinois State, with one of the best pro prospects in the league and a preseason darkhorse, is 4-5.

It’s hard to know what to make of it other than it’s chaos created by a vacuum. First, Creighton left for the Big East in 2013. Then, this spring, Wichita State, having established itself not only as MVC juggernaut but national powerhouse, abruptly moved on to the AAC.

“It opened the door and everybody knows they have a chance to win the conference,” Loyola point guard Clayton Custer said, “and if we win the (conference) tournament, go to the NCAA tournament.”

The Shockers run of dominance brought order to the league. Without Gregg Marshall and Charles Koch’s money backing him up, mayhem reigns.

“They were operating at such a different level,” Moser said. “They had such a dominance. Their home court. It was the monster in the room.”

Without the monster to keep them tucked away, the rest of the league has come out to play.

“It’s this huge overwhelming wave of optimism,” Moser said. “I think every single program is asking, ‘Why not us?’

“Every program has that opportunity. I’m looking at the recruiting. I’m looking at how everybody’s playing and you can just see this wave of confidence around the league.”

(AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn, File)

Everyone probably was asking, ‘Why not us?’ but most were also probably saying, ‘Definitely not Drake.’ The Bulldogs, after all, finished last in the league the last two years, prompting Ray Giacoletti’s midseason resignation, and haven’t been remotely relevant since 2008.

With a new coach, Furman’s Niko Medved, and much of the same roster that won five MVC games last year, the Bulldogs were picked last in the preseason poll.

Then they found themselves locked in a tie game one their home floor with nine minutes to play in late January with first place on the line.

“I think nobody expected us to be doing what we’re doing right now,” Medved told NBCSports.com. “I have a style I like to play. I believe in that. To (the players’) credit, they just bought into that from Day One.”

The Bulldogs have become the fastest offensive team in the Valley and one of its most 3-happy, with nearly 40 percent of its conference attempts coming from distance. They’re also the league’s most unselfish squad, with 61.8 percent of their baskets coming courtesy of assists.

Some of Drake’s four-out offense is by design, but it’s also no doubt by necessity. Medved inherited a veteran roster in which he plays two guys 6-foot-8 or taller with the rest of the roster 6-foot-3 or shorter.

“Maybe we’ll get bigger and maybe a little more athletic (in the future),” Medved said, “(but) I think moving forward that’s the way we look at it, four around one.

“Sometimes you get the personnel that you have and you try to just make it work the best you can.”

That personnel has worked out to nearly literally the best the Valley can offer. Drake’s spot in second place can’t really be chalked up to sample size after nine games. The Bulldogs look legit.

“You’ve got five hard-playing veteran seniors that have the total buy in,” Moser said of Drake. “That’s a credit to them and Niko and his staff because you see coaching changes all over the country, and to have five seniors who went three years and had to buy in, that’s a credit to their buy in.

“What they really done is that they’re playing with a ton of confidence defensively and offensively.”

While Drake’s unexpected resurgence is emblematic of the Valley’s upheaval, Loyola at least represents some stability, picked to finish third after bringing back nearly everyone from last year’s 8-10 Valley squad. They knocked off Florida in December and now have won six in a row, the most recently courtesy of a 21-6 run against the Bulldogs to turn a tie game into Drake’s first home loss of the season and a spot alone atop the standings.

“Everybody’s buying into what coaches are saying,” Custer said. “We’re moving the ball. We’re playing a fun style. The biggest thing is we’re trying to defend and get stops. We’re trying to get to the top of the league of defense, and we’re getting there.”

The Shockers leaving has brought surprise back to the Valley. There are nine games left before the league heads to St. Louis for its conference tournament. It’s an event named ‘Arch Madness’ after the host city’s iconic monument, but this year the name might as well describe the league.

The height of craziness.

“The standings are so close right now that you got to be close to pay too much attention to where you sit right now,” Medved said. “ It wouldn’t surprise me to see anyone win in St Louis. I really mean that.”

After the first month the Valley’s had, it shouldn’t surprise anyone.

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

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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.