2018 Final Four: The seven story lines you need to know this weekend

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1. WILL THE NATIONAL CHAMPION BE A ‘CLEAN’ PROGRAM?

The best part about the 2018 NCAA tournament has been that the insanity has allowed us to stop focusing on the fact that the 2017-18 season was one dominated by all the wrong headlines.

From the FBI’s investigation into corruption in college basketball to the arrest of four assistant coaches in September to Rick Pitino’s firing days later to the players that were barred from competition this season to allegations that Michigan State and Tom Izzo covered up sexual assaults in the basketball to the reports from Yahoo and ESPN that the likes of Deandre Ayton and Miles Bridges had been implicated in the FBI’s investigation, it has been bad headline after bad headline.

And I didn’t even mention that three UCLA players, including LiAngelo Ball, were arrested in China in November, an incident that led to Donald Trump and LaVar Ball having a war of words on twitter and network news.

It’s been such a relief talking about 16-seeds beating 1-seeds and Sister Jean’s appearance in the Final Four, I cannot even tell you, and if Karma is a thing, it probably played a role in the likes of Arizona, Auburn, USC, Louisville and every other program that was mixed up in the FBI’s investigation having their season end earlier that expected.

But that leads me to the next question: Are we sure that all of the teams in the Final Four are clean?

I’ll never say never — in this day and age, I’m not going to vouch for anyone, not in this climate — but I would be fairly surprised if shoe companies were funneling players to Loyola-Chicago. In the eyes of most coaches in the business, John Beilein is presumed to be clean, to run his program without skirting NCAA rules, and Jay Wright is right there as well; most kinds that are looking to get big payouts for playing in college aren’t the kind of kids that are willingly going to programs where they’ll redshirt and spend four or five years in college.

Kansas?

Well, that’s a bit of a different deal. as one coach said to NBC Sports after last month’s bombshell reports from Yahoo and ESPN, “Bill Self is bulletproof.” He’s recruited one-and-done kids for years. He’s one of the flagship programs for Adidas, who had two executives arrested in the FBI’s sweep in September. And remember, their top recruit this season — Billy Preston — never actually suited up. This is has been one of the biggest topics of discussion in coaching circles for the last six months.

And it begs the question: In five years, is the NCAA still going to recognize this run to the Final Four?

(Elsa/Getty Images)

2. IS VILLANOVA THE BEST PROGRAM IN COLLEGE BASKETBALL TODAY?

Since the Wildcats made the move to the new Big East prior to the 2013-14 season, this is what they’ve managed to accomplish:

Entering this weekend, they have a 163-21 record, meaning they’ve averaged 32.6 wins and 4.2 losses during that span. They have a 77-13 record in Big East play, which includes four Big East regular season titles and this year’s second-place finish. They’ve won three of the last five Big East tournament titles. They won the 2016 national title and are the favorite to cut down the nets in San Antonio this season.

Who has been better than that?

Let’s start with the teams that have won a national title: UConn has been a train-wreck since winning in 2014, and even if you want to go back to 2013, Louisville would not be in that conversation, either. Duke won the 2015 national title but they have not won an ACC regular season title since 2010.

North Carolina is probably the only team that is in the conversation. They won the 2017 national title and reached the 2016 national title game, losing to Villanova. They’ve also won just two ACC regular season titles — Virginia actually has three of the last five to their name — and just one ACC tournament title. In three of the last five years, they’ve lost double-figure games and finished third-or-lower in the ACC.

The argument that the ACC is better than the Big East does have some merit, but it’s also worth pointing out that the Big East has been a top three league in the country the last four season, according to KenPom, and that they play a true round-robin conference schedule.

I say all that to say this: Win or lose, Villanova is college basketball’s best program.

Which means this may not even be a story line. Just a fact.

3. WHEN DOES CINDERELLA’S DANCE END?

Loyola-Chicago is just the fourth No. 11-seed to reach the Final Four, following in the footsteps of LSU in 1986, George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011. None of those teams won a game in the Final Four. In fact, no team seeded lower than a No. 8-seed has ever won a game in the Final Four. Villanova won two in 1985, when they became the lowest-seed to win the national title, which UConn has been the beneficiary of the other two No. 8-seeds to win a game: Butler in 2011 and Kentucky in 2014.

The Ramblers have more than proven themselves at this point, and if they can find a way to beat a Michigan team that probably should have lost to No. 6-seed Houston in the second round, they’ll do something that’s never been done in the history of the sport.

This run still has some legs left in it.

4. AT WHAT POINT DO WE UNIRONICALLY CALL MICHIGAN A BASKETBALL SCHOOL?

The Michigan football program has not won a national title since 1997. They haven’t even won a Big Ten title since 2004.

Michigan basketball?

They won the Big Ten regular season title in 2012 and 2014. They won the Big Ten tournament title in 2017 and 2018. They’re back in the Final Four after getting to the national title game in 2013, and they made the Elite Eight in 2014 and the Sweet 16 in 2017.

I say all that to say this: Michigan is a basketball school now. Sorry, Jim Harbaugh.

(Elsa/Getty Images)

5. THE  POWER OF SMALL-BALL IS BACK

Villanova and Michigan have been at the forefront of the small-ball movement in college basketball. Jay Wright started it all the way back in 2005, when Curtis Sumpter tore his ACL prior to a Sweet 16 game against soon-to-be national champion North Carolina, and then re-tore the ACL before the 2006 season. Villanova spent the year playing with Allan Ray, Randy Foye, Mike Nardi and Kyle Lowry on the floor together, and that’s before you consider that Sumpter was, himself, a mismatch four.

Michigan? John Beilein? He’s the guy that made runs in the tournament at West Virginia while playing Kevin Pittsnoggle, three-point bomber, at the five. He is small-ball personified. Even Bill Self, the man that was known for years as one of two legendary coaches that refused to make the change to small-ball, is playing with four guards again this season.

6. THE ONE-AND-DONE FACTORIES AREN’T IN THE FINAL FOUR … AGAIN

Duke didn’t make the Final Four. Arizona didn’t make the Final Four. Kentucky didn’t make the Final Four. UCLA didn’t make the Final Four. None of the teams known for getting one-and-done players in every year advanced this far in the tournament, and there probably aren’t any one-and-done players in this year’s final weekend of college hoops.

We’ve been over that, though. It’s the nature of the beast that is the NCAA tournament. Let’s move on.

7. IS SATURDAY THE NATIONAL TITLE GAME?

Probably.

I’m sorry, Michigan and Loyola-Chicago fans, but Villanova and Kansas are the two-best teams left. That doesn’t mean that the winner of Saturday’s Villanova-Kansas nightcap doesn’t have a chance of losing to whoever they will face on Monday night, but it does mean that they will be the heavy-favorite.

Put another way, no matter how this thing plays out and no matter who plays in the national title game, I will be picking the team on the right side of the bracket to beat the team on the left side of the bracket.

Sorry.

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.