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Big men give Final Four teams spacing in positionless game

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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — A wave of positionless basketball has swept the nation. Coaches have loaded rosters with smaller, athletic players who shoot 3-pointers and beat defenders off the dribble. Three, sometimes four-guard lineups have become the norm, free-flowing the way to go.

This year’s Final Four teams certainly fit the mold. These final four also have something else in common: Skilled big men who keep defenses honest, grab rebounds and protect the rim with all those smaller guys out there.

Villanova has Omari Spellman, Kansas Udoka Azubuike. Moe Wagner is Michigan’s man in the middle and burly freshman Cameron Krutwig anchors the paint for Loyola-Chicago.

Those four are a big reason these four are in San Antonio this weekend.

“Big guys are going to be really valuable if they’re really skilled,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “Everybody can get the positionless thing, but the guys who have positionless with the big guy, that’s going to be the best team.”

Wright’s Wildcats have a similar makeup to his 2016 title team. That squad had a group mostly in the 6-foot-3 to 6-foot-8 range who could play multiple positions and shoot lights out. In the middle was Daniel Ochefu, an athletic 6-11 senior who could play with his back to the basket or square up for short jumpers. Defenses had to pay attention to Ochefu in the middle, freeing up Villanova’s perimeter shooters, and he was the rim protector the Wildcats needed.

Spellman has filled a similar role — with a twist.

He gives Villanova an inside offensive presence and is a high-flying shot blocker on defense, just like Ochefu. But the 6-9 redshirt freshman also contributes from the perimeter, hitting 45 percent of his shots from the 3-point arc. He was 4 for 7 on 3s in the Sweet 16, helping Villanova grind out a tough victory against West Virginia.

“There’s so many playmakers who can get in the lane and so many big guys now who are able to stretch out and hit the 3,” Villanova guard Jalen Brunson said. “It’s just playing off each other. We have the ability to do that. Everything is unique. You have big guys who are able to make plays for themselves and others as well. I just like how complete we are.”

Wagner has a similar impact on Michigan.

The 6-11 German junior is a crafty inside player with good footwork and a multitude of moves. He also can step out and drain the 3, leading the nation among players 6-11 or taller with 59 this season.

Moritz’s maneuvering inside and out opens up the perimeter, where the Wolverines score more than 43 percent of their points. His agility also gives Michigan multiple options in its swarming defense.

“Being able to have a versatile big is huge because they can space the floor,” Michigan freshman guard Jordan Poole said. “We don’t feel like we have any matchup problems. For him to be able to hold a 5, but also being able to hold a 2-guard, is definitely big for our defensive principles and it gives us a lot of options.”

Azubuike and Krutwig are not perimeter shooters by any stretch, yet are the perfect fit for their teams.

Azubuike is a load inside at 7-foot, 280 pounds and plays with an aggressiveness that forces teams to double team or least hedge toward the Nigerian big man. Kansas coach Bill Self likes to work the ball from the inside out and Azubuike’s ability to batter his way to the rim frees up the Jayhawks’ plethora of shooters.

Azubuike led the nation by shooting 77 percent and is hitting an incredible 82 percent over his past 11 games. He’s also a force on the offensive glass and flies in for blocked shots if his teammates get beat off the dribble.

“They just make it really hard on you,” Spellman said of Kansas. “They’ve got four guys who are going off the dribble making great plays. They have a big guy in the middle, 7-foot, just offensive rebounding anything they miss and sealing up the rim. We do kind of do the same thing, but it’s hard to guard.”

Krutwig’s burliness makes Loyola a tough guard.

The Ramblers rely on quick ball movement and sharp cuts, often playing with four guards on the court at the same time. Krutwig makes it impossible for defenses to just gang up on the 3-point line.

A beefy 6-9, Krutwig plays a bruising game, often initiating contact. He has a variety of old-school up-and-under moves around the basket and is a deft passer from the post, whipping balls to the Ramblers’ cache of shooters.

“We play four guards at a time a lot, so when you’ve got guys who can space the floor and have an unselfish group, getting the domino started,” Loyola swingman Donte Ingram said. “When you have a post threat like Cameron, it makes us a very balanced team.”

This Final Four has four of them, thanks to their big men.

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.