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2018 Final Four Preview: No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 1 Kansas

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The Final Four nightcap is probably the best game, on paper, that we have left in this tournament.

No. 1-seed Villanova, the best program of the last five years, taking on No. 1-seed Kansas, the most successful program in the last decade-and-a-half.

We have two all-american point guards. We have two centers that can change a game. We have all the guards. All of them. We have shooters on shooters on shooters. Buckle up.

Here is everything you need to know about the Final Four’s second game:

THREE KEY MATCHUPS

1. JALEN BRUNSON VS. DEVONTE’ GRAHAM: These are the two best point guards in American.

Flat out.

And they will be going head-to-head on Saturday night.

Brunson’s game is different than Graham’s. He’s incredibly savvy. He understands how to use shot-fakes and change-of-pace to his advantage. He posts people up. He’s an unbelievable passer. Perhaps his best attribute is his ability to feel a game out. He can take over when he needs to take over. When his teammates are cooking, he gets them the ball in spots that they can cook.

Where he does struggle a bit is on the defensive end of the floor, which is not going to be ideal when facing off with Graham, who has struggled during this tournament. He’s an explosive scorer and a willing and capable passer that is at his best when he can get to his jumpshot, and it is going to be thrilling to see him go up against Brunson.

2. OMARI SPELLMAN VS. UDOKA AZUBUIKE: While the best matchup is at the point, the matchup that could end up determining the winner of this game will be in the paint.

Azubuike and Spellman are both terrific players, and couldn’t play the five any more differently. Azubuike is a hoss in every sense of the word. He’s huge — 6-foot-10, 280 pounds — and far more athletic than someone that size should be. He has long arms and finishes everything around the rim with a dunk that looks like it is going to tear down the back board. He can score with his back-to-the-basket, but he is at his best when he can stay around five-feet from the rim.

Spellman?

He might actually be Villanova’s best shooter. He spaces the floor for the Wildcats. He can also attack a close-out, which puts Azubuike in a nightmare spot. How in the world is he going to deal with someone that wants to run around on the perimeter?

For my money, this game is going to be won by whoever wins that battle, which likely means it is going to be won by whoever can get the other big man in foul trouble first.

3. WHO GUARDS MALIK NEWMAN?: There has not been a hotter player in the NCAA tournament than Malik Newman, who is averaging 22.7 points in seven games in March. He had 32 points the last time that Kansas took the floor, scoring all 13 of their points in an overtime win over Duke.

Villanova has a number of really good perimeter defenders, and I fully expect the Wildcats to do plenty of switching throughout Saturday night’s game. That means that everyone — Brunson, and Mikal Bridges, and Phil Booth, and Donte DiVincenzo, even someone like Eric Paschall — will get a crack at him.

And slowing Newman down may actually be the secret to ending this Kansas run.

(Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

THE BEST STORY LINE

There are quite a few here to talk about. Jay Wright is one of the founders of small-ball in the college ranks. Bill Self is one of the last people in the sport to truly embrace going away from two big men, but he’s been forced to do it because of roster limitations the last two years. There is a lack of bigs everywhere. In an era of one-and-done players, this game is defined by a pair of point Gods, one a senior and the other that’s felt like a senior in each of his three seasons.

But for my money, the best story line here is going to be Udoka Azubuike and his mom. Azubuike came to America when he was 13 years old, and as documented in a story on Bleacher Report this week, his life growing up in Nigeria was incomprehensibly difficult. Azubuike’s mother is coming to San Antonio to see him play for the first time.

Ever.

That’s the best part of Saturday night.

You’ll never convince me otherwise.

AND THE WINNER WILL BE …

Villanova. They are just too good and too difficult to matchup with. I think Spellman, in the end will get the best of Azubuike.

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.