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After win at No. 4 Duke, it’s time to give No. 2 Virginia their due

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I will never doubt Tony Bennett again.

Ever.

In a year where the Virginia Cavaliers were supposed to be rebuilding, in a season where they were supposed to be a season away from underclassmen like Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter, Bennett may have the best team he’s ever had as a college basketball coach.

On Saturday, No. 2 Virginia went into Cameron Indoor Stadium and knocked off No. 4 Duke, 65-63, despite the fact that Duke’s super star Marvin Bagley III went for 30 points and 14 boards. Wendell Carter added 14 points, 15 boards, four blocks and four assists.

Duke — a top five team with arguably the most talented starting five in the sport — did what they always do: They dominated the paint, they ran their offense through the biggest and best front line in the country and, frankly, they controlled the majority of the second half in one of the best home courts in college hoops, and it still wasn’t enough.

Which begs the question: Is Virginia actually the best team in college basketball?

I’ve long argued that it is Villanova. They have a lottery pick in Mikal Bridges. They have another NBA player and a potential National Player of the Year in Jalen Brunson. Their head coach has won a national title and may end up in the Hall of Fame when it is all said and done. They are old, they shoot the cover off the ball, they are a nightmare to matchup with given their versatility. It’s not a coincidence that the Wildcats have been the most successful program in the country for the last five seasons.

If not them, then Purdue seemed to be the name at the forefront of the discussion. Or maybe you thought it was one of the absurdly-talented preseason title favorites — Michigan State, or Arizona, or the Duke team that Virginia just knocked off — that haven’t quite seemed to put it all together yet.

Whatever the case was, prior to Saturday, unless your address is in Charlottesville, you probably didn’t think that Virginia was college basketball’s best team.

But if Saturday was evidence of anything, they might just be.

Nothing about the way that Virginia plays is sexy. They are the slowest team in the country. They grind you down defensively. Their fans cheer shot clock violations louder than they do three-pointers. They prefer to run through two or three sets and take 28 seconds off of the shot clock than shoot anything other than a great shot.

And while watching them may put you to sleep faster than taking a dose of Nyquil and trying to read War And Peace, playing against them is death by 1,000 papercuts. Every win looks beautiful in the ACC standings, and as things currently stand, the only team within two games of Virginia in the conference title race is Louisville, who probably won’t be making any miraculous runs to a league title, not when they’ve lost to Virginia the last four times they’ve faced off.

That may be why Virginia cannot get the respect that they have earned.

Sexy sells in college basketball. The teams that have the NBA talent, the high-flying athletes, the pace-and-space offense. They are the ones that get the attention. Virginia doesn’t really have any of that. De’Andre Hunter, a redshirt freshman that played 24 minutes off the bench on Sunday, is probably the best NBA prospect on the UVA roster, but he’s still a few years away and likely won’t be the kind of player that we’re talking about as a potential lottery pick. Kyle Guy is fun to watch when he gets it going, but he’s not going to do all that much more than run off of screens and catch-and-shoot. Ty Jerome makes more big shots than anyone, but he also makes London Perrantes look athletic.

But that’s only half the problem.

Virginia is dealing with some of the same issues that Villanova dealt with before they won their title; that Bill Self and Jim Calhoun dealt with before their titles; that Sean Miller is currently dealing with. Tony Bennett has never done it in March. He’s been to the last four NCAA tournaments and made it out of the first weekend just twice. He lost in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed in 2014. He lost in the second round as a No. 2 seed in 2015. He lost in the Elite 8 in 2016, blowing an 16-point lead against No. 10 seed Syracuse in the final nine minutes. Last year, as a No. 5 seed, Virginia got dropped by Florida in the second round.

Fair or not — it’s not — until Virginia is playing on that first weekend in April, they are always going to be looked at as that team that can win games in January but cannot in March.

When that is the reputation your team has, it is really hard to shake it. Ask Villanova. They are not even two years removed from a national title and they still battle it.

This may finally be the group that gets Virginia to the Final Four.

And if this team — the one that was supposed to be rebuilding, the one that was supposed to still be a year away from reaching its peak — is the one that finally gets Bennett and Virginia to the Final Four, it would be the perfectly fitting for the program that is quietly one of, if not the best in the ACC today.

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

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.