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2018 NCAA Tournament Bracket Breakdown: The East Region is absolutely loaded

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The East Region is, generally speaking, usually the most difficult region for the simple reason that there are more really good college basketball programs clustered into a smaller geographic area than anywhere else in the country.

With the way that bracketing principles allow the best teams to remain as close to home as possible, it only makes sense that this is how it works out.

Last year, we thought that was the case when Villanova was the No. 1 seed and Duke was the No. 2 seed.

And then No. 7 seed South Carolina beat No. 4 seed Florida to get to the Final Four.

This year, it’s not quite as difficult as some of the regions.

But there is still plenty of intrigue.

And still Villanova.

THREE STORYLINES

  1. Can Villanova get back to a Final Four?: During this five-year stretch where Villanova has one of the most successful programs in the sport, they have won one NCAA tournament and been knocked out in the second round of the other three. This year, they look like the heavy favorites to be able to get out of the region, but they are also in line to potentially see Collin Sexton in the second round. Uh-oh …
  2. Will Purdue put on for the Big Ten?: The conference has been crucified this season. Only four teams from the league earned a bid to the Big Dance, and no one from the conference earned a No. 1 seed. In fact, the league’s regular season champ and tournament champ are both on the No. 3 seed line. Purdue probably has the easiest path of them all to get to a Final Four.
  3. There are so many good lead-guards in the East: From Jalen Brunson to Collin Sexton to Jevon Carter to Jonathan Stark to Landry Shamet to Jon Elmore to Chris Chiozza to Jaylen Adams to Aaron Holiday to Keenan Evans to Daryl Macon to Carsen Edwards. Whoa.

THE ELITE 8 MATCHUP IS … No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 3 Texas Tech

Villanova is just so good on the nights when their threes are dropping, and if what we saw in the Big East tournament is any indication, all those concerns about this team struggling down the stretch of the regular season can get pushed aside. They have struggled with dynamic guards in the past, which is what worries me about the matchup with Alabama, but I can’t see a West Virginia team that will try to press them (bad idea) or a Wichita State team that can’t defend (again, bad idea) beating them.

I’m probably going to be on an island here, but I think that Texas Tech is being criminally undervalued. They are one of the nation’s elite defensive teams, but they also have a star point guard on their roster in Keenan Evans that can take over a game and is not afraid of taking, and making, big shots. Is he healthy enough to carry them? I think he is.

THE FINAL FOUR SLEEPER IS … No. 6 Florida

This is such an easy pick, but they are the most difficult team in the bracket to accurately project. The Gators are the most dangerous team in the tournament because when they get hot, they cannot miss even when they want to. But the problem is that they are a team of streaky shooters and tough-shot makers, and teams like that are notoriously inconsistent. I can see them averaging 100 points and getting to the Final Four and I can see them losing by 25 to both UCLA and St. Bonaventure.

Keenan Evans (John Weast/Getty Images)

HERE ARE YOUR UPSETS

  • No. 9 Alabama over No. 1 Villanova: I mentioned this earlier, but when Villanova loses, it’s when they miss threes and play against a talented lead guard. Alabama has Collin Sexton, is the nation’s 13th-best defense and holds opponents to 31.9 percent shooting from three.
  • No. 13 Marshall over No. 4 Wichita State: Marshall is coached by Dan D’antoni, Mike’s brother. They run and gun more than any team in the country, and Wichita State has been nowhere near what we think they would be defensively this season.
  • No. 11 St. Bonaventure or No. 11 UCLA over No. 6 Florida: It’s worth a look. If you think Florida is going to go cold, pick the upset.

BUT DON’T PICK THIS UPSET

Murray State is not going to beat West Virginia. Press Virginia can wear down lesser teams with lesser guards, and as good as Jonathan Stark and Ja Morant are, I don’t think they’ve quite seen anything like what the Mountaineers are going to throw at them. I would stay away from this 5-12 upset.

THE STUDS

  • JALEN BRUNSON, Villanova: Brunson was our National Player of the Year.
  • CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue: If the Boilermakers are going to make a run in this tournament, Edwards is going to be the guy that carries the load.
  • KEENAN EVANS, Texas Tech: He is the one guy in this tournament that I think can go on a Kemba Walker/Shabazz Napier-esque run.

THE STARS OF MARCH

  • JAYLEN ADAMS, St. Bonaventure: If you haven’t had a chance to see this kid play yet, he’ll be going up against Aaron Holiday of UCLA in the best individual matchup I can ever remember in the First Four.
  • JONATHAN STARK, Murray State: I know I just dumped all over him and Murray State, but if the Racers are going to pick off West Virginia, he’s going to be the guy that carries the load.
  • JON ELMORE, Marshall: His numbers (22.8 ppg, 6.9 apg, 6.0 rpg) are the same numbers that Markelle Fultz averaged last season.

ONE GAME TO WATCH

St. Bonaventure vs. UCLA in the play-in game is must-see TV. It’s the first time I’ve ever been excited about a First Four matchup.

ONE GAME THAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN

As a man that loves to see teams shoot the three-ball, getting Villanova vs. Purdue in the Elite 8 would be a dream come true.

AND THE WINNER IS …

Villanova. I’m going to have a hard time not picking the winner of a Villanova-Duke matchup in the Final Four 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.