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Mountain West Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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The goal of the Mountain West in recent years has been to get back to the days earlier this decade in which the conference could count on multiple teams going to the NCAA tournament. There’s still work to be done in this regard, as the 11 teams will arrive in Las Vegas knowing that only regular season champion Nevada is well positioned to hear its name called on Selection Sunday.

Despite seeing multiple players suffer injuries throughout the course of the season, Eric Musselman’s Wolf Pack won the Mountain West by two games. Led offensively by twins Caleb and Cody Martin, forward Jordan Caroline and guard Kendall Stephens, Nevada may not be that deep but the team doesn’t lack for talent or experience either.

That being said Nevada won’t lack for challenges in Las Vegas, especially with Fresno State and San Diego State on their side of the bracket. Leading the way on the bottom half of the bracket is two-seed Boise State, which has some work to do in order to ensure itself of an NCAA tournament bid.

Here’s a look at the 2018 Mountain West Tournament, an event that’s been won by the top seed twice in the last five seasons.

THE FAVORITE

Even with Saturday’s loss to San Diego State in the regular season finale, Nevada has earned the label of favorites heading into the tournament. Boasting a 15-3 league record, the Wolf Pack had the Mountain West’s most efficient offense and defensively led the conference in both effective field goal and three-point percentage defense. Nevada’s top four scorers, led by Caleb Martin at 19.5 points per game, have combined to account for nearly 65 points per game on the season. And without Lindsey Drew, who went down with a ruptured Achilles last month, the Martin twins, Caroline and Stephens have even more on their plates.

But if a Josh Hall, who chipped in with ten points in Nevada’s win at UNLV on February 28, or Hallice Cook can step forward this week that would bode well for the Wolf Pack. What also helps this team is the fact that they take care of the basketball, as their 9.1 turnovers per game were by far the least in the Mountain West. That being said, they’ve got a tough half of the bracket to navigate.

THE CONTENDERS

Boise State leads this list, due in large part to the presence of senior guard Chandler Hutchison. Averaging 19.5 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, Hutchison leads the Broncos in all three statistical categories. While Leon Rice certainly has other options he can call upon offensively, led by Christian Sengfelder and Justinian Jessup (who’s shooting 46.7 percent from three), when a big play needs to be made it’s Hutchison who will have the ball in his hands.

After Boise State, New Mexico and San Diego State both deserve mention. Paul Weir led the Lobos to a 12-6 record in league play, and after being stuck on the bench his first two seasons in Albuquerque Anthony Mathis has emerged as the team’s leading scorer. And UNM capped the regular season with a win over Fresno State. As for the Aztecs, after getting blown out by Nevada on February 10 Brian Dutcher’s team won its last six to finish the regular season. SDSU is balanced offensively, with Malik Pope leading four double-figure scorers, and freshman Jalen McDaniels is going to be a star in this league.

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

Boise State. With Nevada due to pick up an at-large bid if it doesn’t win the tournament, that leaves the Broncos as the only other team in the Mountain West that has a shot at reaching the NCAA tournament if they don’t win the automatic bid. But that would likely require Boise State reaching Saturday’s title game, at minimum. A win over Utah State or Colorado State in the quarters won’t do much for their resume, and neither would a semifinal win over New Mexico/Wyoming/San Jose State. And it should be noted that if Nevada isn’t the opponent in the final, a close loss could spell doom for Boise State there as well.

WHO IS ON THE BUBBLE?

Boise State. Ranked 41st in the NCAA’s most recent RPI update, Boise State enters the Mountain West tournament with two Quadrant 1 (Loyola-Chicago and Oregon) and four Quadrant 2 wins to its credit. The RPI likes Boise State more than other metrics, which have the Broncos ranked in the fifties with the exception of the KPI (61). Getting to the final may not be good enough, especially if the opponent in that game isn’t Nevada. Why risk it? Just win the whole damn thing and sleep easy Saturday night.

THE SLEEPER

Given the fact that they aren’t listed with the contenders above, Fresno State would be the best choice here. However, this is a group that is now playing without guard Jaron Hopkins as he suffered a right foot injury in a loss at Wyoming on February 24. Hopkins accounted for 20 points and five assists in the Bulldogs’ home win over San Diego State, their quarterfinal opponent, back on February 6. While many like to parrot the phrase “it’s hard to beat a team three times in the same season,” that’s been proven to be false.

Matchups matter, and Fresno State has some guys who can cause trouble in Deshon Taylor and Bryson Williams. The Bulldogs can account for the loss of Hopkins, especially with the time off between the end of the regular season and the start of the conference tournament. The bigger concern regarding Fresno State is the way that San Diego State is playing of late. As for any other sleepers, Wyoming is a team worth monitoring with Justin James and Hayden Dalton leading the way for Allen Edwards’ team. With San Jose State being the opponent in their tournament opener, Wyoming will likely face New Mexico for the third time this season in the quarters (UNM won both meetings).

PLAYER TO WATCH

Caleb Martin, Nevada. Martin, one of the top transfers in the country, is averaging 19.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game on the season, shooting 47.3 percent from the field, 43.1 percent from three and 75.4 percent from the foul line. Martin going off over the course of three days, especially when he’s scored 20 points or more in 17 games this season, would surprise no one. And frankly, he’s a fun player to watch.

X-FACTORS

– Does Nevada’s lack of depth catch up with it due to the quick turnarounds? Three games in as many days could be a tough ask for the Wolf Pack, but the versatility of the players available should help matters.

– UNLV’s mindset. The Runnin’ Rebels lost five straight to end the regular season, with four of the losses being by double digits. There’s enough talent on this roster to cause some trouble, but given the beating they took at the hands of rival Nevada at Thomas & Mack on February 28 (101-75) who knows what this team will be thinking if the teams meet for a third time on Thursday.

– San Diego State’s defense. Long known for its commitment on that end of the floor, during a stretch in which it went 2-6 SDSU allowed 77 points or more in seven of those games (losing six). The Aztecs have defended better during the current six-game win streak, and if that carries over into Las Vegas maybe they make a run.

NBC SPORTS MOUNTAIN WEST POSTSEASON HONORS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Chandler Hutchison, Boise State

COACH OF THE YEAR: Eric Musselman, Nevada

FIRST TEAM ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST

  • Justin James, Wyoming
  • Chandler Hutchison, Boise State
  • Caleb Martin, Nevada
  • Hayden Dalton, Wyoming
  • Jordan Carolina, Nevada

SECOND TEAM ALL-MOUNTAIN WEST

  • Sam Merrill, Utah State
  • Deshon Taylor, Fresno State
  • Cody Martin, Nevada
  • Shakur Juiston, UNLV
  • Brandon McCoy, UNLV

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.