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2018 NCAA Tournament Bracket Breakdown: Kansas, Duke, Michigan State headline loaded Midwest Region

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The Midwest Region immediately became the most intriguing in the tournament when three of college basketball’s powerhouses — Kansas, Duke and Michigan State — were all placed there.

And what made it even more interesting is that the four, five and six seeds in that part of the bracket are just kind of whatever.

Auburn, Clemson and TCU were teams that I was always planning on picking to lose in the first round of the tournament before the brackets came out, and they all ended up in the same spot.

So we’ll see how that plays out.

But I will say this: I’m not sure that there will be a more expensive ticket for the second weekend of the tournament that for what it will cost you to get in the door in Omaha.

With Kansas and Michigan State drivable from campus and Duke fans spread throughout the entire country, it will be loud and crowded in the CenturyLink Center.

THREE STORYLINES

  1. How much attention is going to be paid to off-the-court issues?: This is the bracket of distraction. Michigan State was dealing with the fallout of the Outside The Lines report on sexual assaults within the athletic department before Yahoo’s report that Miles Bridges accepted impermissible benefits. Auburn has had two players miss the entire season and could lose head coach Bruce Pearl for their involvement in the FBI investigation. And if you talk to people in basketball circles, the most shocking thing about the FBI’s involvement in the sport is that Kansas has more or less been kept out of it. Throw in the presence of Trae Young, and you have to wonder what percentage of the conversation about this region is going to be about basketball?
  2. Duke solved their issues, can Michigan State?: Duke went to a zone to combat the problems that they had on the defensive end of the floor, and it changed them from a tantalizing team without any potential to quite possibly the best team in the country. The Spartans are just as tantalizing, and Tom Izzo has had two weeks to try and solve the problems that are inherent in his team.
  3. Is Udoka Azubuike healthy?: Kansas lacks depth in their front court already, and now the guy that’s taken over the roll of low-post hoss is dealing with a sprained MCL? Yikes. The good news is that Kansas can probably survive without him until the Elite 8. Rest up, big fella.

THE ELITE 8 MATCHUP IS … No. 1 Kansas vs. No. 2 Duke

The way this bracket broke for Kansas is nice. They’ll have some trouble with Seton Hall if that matchup comes to fruition because Seton Hall is tough and physical, especially in the paint, but I can’t see either Auburn or Clemson really challenging the Jayhawks in the Sweet 16. Michigan State-Duke in the Sweet 16 would be a terrific rematch of a game played earlier this season in the Champions Classic, but that matchup would not be in Michigan State’s favor this time around. They really don’t pass it well, especially their big men, and that’s the thing that you need to do to be able to break down that Blue Devil zone.

THE FINAL FOUR SLEEPER IS … No One

I’m sorry, but there just isn’t one in this region. I’m not picking a short-handed Auburn team with no size to make a run. I’m not picking a Clemson team that lacks high-end talent to make a run. I’m not picking TCU to beat Michigan State, then Duke, then Kansas. Do you think Trae Young can win four games in March? I don’t.

(Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

HERE ARE YOUR UPSETS

  • No. 12 New Mexico State over No. 5 Clemson: This is last year’s version of Middle Tennessee State vs. Minnesota. The Aggies have some high-major talent on the roster while Clemson lost Donte Grantham and just has not been impressive to me this season.
  • No. 13 Charleston over No. 4 Auburn: The way to beat Auburn is to overpower them in the paint, and Charleston does not have the bigs that can do that. They do, however, have a sensational back court in Grant Riller and Joe Chealey. I think Auburn can be beaten, and I think Charleston has the horses to out-Auburn Auburn.

BUT DON’T PICK THIS UPSET

I already have to pick one of Arizona State or Syracuse to win in the play-in game. I cannot imagine a scenario where I would pick one of those two teams to win two games in a row.

THE STUDS

  • MARVIN BAGLEY III, Duke: Have you heard of him?
  • DEVONTE’ GRAHAM, Kansas: There is an argument to be made that he had a better season this season and was more important for this Kansas team than Frank Mason III was last year.
  • MILES BRIDGES, Michigan State: He was the preseason National Player of the Year, and while he has not quite lived up to the hype, the hype wasn’t necessarily warranted. He’s a very good year in his role.

THE STARS OF MARCH

  • ANGEL DELGADO, Seton Hall: If Seton Hall can get past N.C. State in the first round, I think they’ll have a chance against a depleted Kansas front line because Delgado is an absolute monster in the paint. If Azubuike is out he might grab 30 rebounds.
  • ZACH LOFTON, New Mexico State: Lofton has been to five schools since his freshman season as San Jacinto JC in 2012. He’s now in the NCAA tournament and averaging 19 points for the Aggies.

ONE GAME TO WATCH

While NMSU is the most likely upset, I do think that Auburn-Charleston is going to be the most aesthetically-pleasing first round game in the Midwest.

ONE GAME THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN

We really need Duke to run the gauntlet here: No. 10 Oklahoma in the second round, No. 3 Michigan State in the Sweet 16 and No. 1 Kansas in the Elite 8. Make it happen, basketball gods.

AND THE WINNER IS …

Duke. For my money, the winner of a Final Four matchup between Villanova and Duke is going to win the national title.

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

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.