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SEC Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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The SEC has seen a resurgence this season as the league should have more than six NCAA tournament bids for the first time ever.

With as many as eight teams jockeying for NCAA tournament positioning (or to even get in at all, in some cases) the SEC is perhaps as deep in basketball as it has ever been.

Heading into the SEC Tournament this week in St. Louis, every team in the league has suffered at least five conference losses this season. That means every team in the bracket is beatable and nobody is a consensus favorite. We could see a number of unique scenarios and champions play out this week. You could even make the case that this is the most wide-open major conference tournament in the country.

Here’s a look at the 2018 SEC Tournament.

THE FAVORITE

It’s tough to pick a favorite in this event since so many teams look beatable, but Tennessee has perhaps the most favorable path. While all of the other teams with double byes face tough first opponents, the Volunteers handled both LSU and Mississippi State with 20-plus point wins during the regular season. Also the hottest team in the league with a four-game winning streak, Tennessee is playing very well on both sides of the ball — particularly on defense.

THE CONTENDERS

You can mark most of the teams in this bracket as contenders if it’s the right week. Auburn is the No. 1 seed after they shared the SEC’s regular season crown with Tennessee. The Tigers have been one the nation’s biggest surprises this season. Although the Tigers don’t have a lot of size on the interior, they’ve been able to make up for it with balanced scoring and scrappy perimeter play as Bryce Brown, Mustapha Heron and Jared Harper all had all-league seasons.

Florida is another intriguing contender. If Florida is making perimeter shots then they can compete with any team in the country. If the Gators are missing shots, they could be ousted in the first game. The Scottrade Center in St. Louis has strange rims and is known as a tough spot to shoot. Will that hurt Florida?

And you can never count out Kentucky when it comes to the SEC tournament. The Wildcats had won four straight games before a loss to Florida in the season finale as they’ve been sharing the ball much better the past few weeks. If Kentucky has multiple weapons rolling then they could easily make a run and win this event.

WHO NEEDS A WIN THE MOST?

If Alabama is going to make the NCAA tournament then they need a win (or two) in St. Louis this week. The Crimson Tide are squarely on the bubble after a five-game losing streak to end the regular season as they are limping into the SEC tournament. Alabama’s first opponent in the tournament, Texas A&M, just beat the Crimson Tide by two on Saturday, so these two teams should be quite familiar with each other.

WHO IS ON THE BUBBLE?

Besides for Alabama, the SEC looks pretty established when it comes to NCAA tournament projections. Of course, a couple of scenarios could change things. Texas A&M, Missouri and Arkansas should all feel pretty solid about getting in. A loss for any of them in the first game, however, could make Selection Sunday a little uncomfortable depending on how the week plays out. Teams like LSU and Mississippi State have been on the bubble in recent weeks, but they mostly look out of the picture entering the tournament — barring a miracle run. Since the Tigers and Bulldogs play each other first, one of those teams will immediately get sent to the NIT with a loss while the winner will have to probably make a finals run to even have a chance of getting in.

THE SLEEPER

Missouri is an intriguing team to watch this week for a number of different reasons. Already a dangerous team in their first season under head coach Cuonzo Martin, the Tigers could get a major boost if freshman Michael Porter Jr. returns to the rotation. The potential top-five pick would give the Tigers a major mismatch on the offensive end and a lot of size on the defensive end. Also keep in mind that Missouri will have a home court advantage by playing this one in St. Louis. Tigers fans can travel in numbers given the right situation, and with an NCAA tournament bid on the horizon, they could help Missouri quite a bit. The potential quarterfinal matchup with Kentucky would have an awesome atmosphere for a conference tournament.

PLAYER TO WATCH

Chris Chiozza, Florida. Most of the players in this SEC tournament field don’t have significant postseason experience. Which makes Chiozza, Florida’s senior point guard, a very dangerous player. Coming off an Elite Eight appearance last season after a memorable Sweet 16 buzzer-beater against Wisconsin, Chiozza is capable of controlling games and going on offensive bursts as a scorer or distributor. The Gators could be the favorite in this event if Chiozza is playing well.

X-FACTORS

Michael Porter Jr.’s health: We still aren’t sure if Porter Jr. will even play during the SEC tournament and how he will look if he does. If Porter is healthy and ready to go then it gives Missouri a chance to make a run in this event.
Kentucky’s balanced scoring: During Kentucky’s four-game winning streak towards the end of the season, they had at least five players in double-figures in all four wins. The Wildcats struggle to win games if one player has to take over. Kentucky’s success will largely be dictated by its collective efforts to score.  
Daniel Gafford: The Arkansas freshman big man has come on strong over the past several weeks as he’s a major factor at the rim on both ends of the floor. Gafford has more dunks this season than some SEC teams do and he’s also a rim protector that few in the SEC can match.

NBC SPORTS SEC POSTSEASON HONORS

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Yante Maten, Georgia

COACH OF THE YEAR: Rick Barnes, Tennessee

FIRST TEAM ALL SEC

  • Bryce Brown, Auburn
  • Daryl Macon, Arkansas
  • Collin Sexton, Alabama
  • Yante Maten, Georgia
  • Grant Williams, Tennessee

SECOND TEAM ALL SEC

  • Mustapha Heron, Auburn
  • Jaylen Barford, Arkansas
  • Chris Chiozza, Florida
  • Kevin Knox, Kentucky
  • Kassius Robertson, Missouri

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.