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Michigan is John Beilein’s island of misfit toys

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SAN ANTONIO — Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman is at Michigan because of a man he never met.

His name is Dave Rooney. He’s in his mid-70s and spent two decades as a college coach before calling it quits and settling into a career in the real estate business. He lives in Allentown, Pa., the same hometown as Abdur-Rahkman, and hasn’t quite been able to kick his hoops addiction. He spends his free time going to high school games in the Lehigh Valley, and had seen Abdur-Rahkman play plenty.

So when he found out that the local star had yet to pick a school in April after his senior season, he made a call to old friend John Beilein. They became fast friends when Beilein was the head coach at Erie Community College and Rooney was coaching at Buffalo State, and while they had fallen out of touch in the 30-plus years between Rooney’s departure for Slippery Rock and Abdur-Rahkman’s senior night, Beilein had enough respect for Rooney to listen when he told him about the kid no one knew about.

“I was actually running track at the time,” Abdur-Rahkman, who had a handful of offers from low- and mid-major programs, said. He wasn’t really on the radar of most high-major programs. “My [high school] coach said that Coach Beilein was going to call me, and my dad said that Coach Beilein called him. I thought he was just joking around, because that’s the kind of person he is.”

They weren’t joking.

Michigan took a trip out to Allentown to watch Abdur-Rahkman work out. Then they invited the 6-foot-4 combo-guard to campus for an official visit. When he was about to head home, they finally offered him a scholarship.

“I committed on the spot,” Abdur-Rahkman said.

The whole process took roughly three weeks, and Abdur-Rahkman is hardly the only guy on this Michigan team that has an arrival story that is just as random and fortuitous as that.

Take Duncan Robinson, for example.

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He’s a Michigan Man because Joe Dumars got fired as Detroit’s GM. Back in 2014, when the Pistons decided they needed to move on, they reached into the collegiate ranks to pluck Jeff Bower off of Marist’s bench as a replacement. The Red Foxes, in turn, hired a coach from the Division III ranks, tabbing Mike Maker, who had posted a 147-32 record in six seasons as the head coach of Williams College.

That Williams team was coming off of a trip to the Division III national title game that was sparked by the 6-foot-8 Robinson, then only a freshman. You see, he was a late-bloomer, a 5-foot-6 freshman that turned into a 6-foot-5, 160-pound senior. He had a Division II offer from Merrimack College, but that was it.

So he committed to Williams, where he had a great relationship with Maker.

And Maker had his own relationships.

Specifically, he was on West Virginia’s staff with Beilein from 2005-07, the teams that had Kevin Pittsnoggle and Joe Alexander and Johannes Herber — more on him in a second — on them. He knew what that Beilein offense was all about, and he knew that Robinson, who had grown a couple of inches and packed on 20 pounds of muscle, fit that mold to perfection.

So Maker placed a call.

Then Robinson sent along some film.

“I recruited myself a little bit,” he said. “I sent him some stuff, and he watched some film and the way he came back was far more positive than I ever would have expected.”

And after visiting Davidson, and amid interest from a handful of other high-major programs, Robinson picked the Wolverines.

“I know he really took a chance on me,” Robinson said. “It’s something he completely didn’t have to do.”

Back to Herber.

He is the man responsible for getting Mo Wagner to Michigan because he told Wagner to check his spam folder.

The story goes like this: Wagner and Herber both played for Alba Berlin, a club team in Germany, and Herber is the one that tipped Beilein off to this 6-foot-10 forward that could do everything that Beilein asks of his big men. When Beilein set out to recruit Wagner, he reached out of the player through email, but the message ended up in Wagner’s junk folder.

So after waiting for two weeks to hear back, Herber tried to figure out what in the world this kid was doing.

Wagner checked his junk mail.

He saw the message from Beilein.

“Oh,” he thought. “This might be important.”

Michigan was the first big name program that had started to recruit Wagner, and it was going to take a program like Michigan to get the German star to leave his country to play in college.

“I replied,” Wagner said, his trademark grin gracing the dais. “I felt like an idiot not answering right away.”

(Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

Then there’s Zavier Simpson, and his tale might be the most convoluted of them all.

He’s become the sparkplug of a Michigan defense that has carried the Wolverines to the Big Ten tournament title and a trip to the Final Four, although that marriage was never was that seemed destined to happen.

Let’s rewind a few years.

Back in the spring of 2015, Tyus Battle committed to and then decommitted from Michigan, putting Michigan in a spot where they desperately needed a point guard in the Class of 2016. The Wolverines badly wanted to land a commitment from Cassius Winston, but as time drag on, it looked like Winston was going to end up a Spartan. Simpson, whose cousin — Travis Walton — played for Michigan State, also wanted to be a Spartan initially. Then, at one point in his recruitment, he appeared to be a lock to commit to Xavier.

But then Xavier accepted a commitment from another point guard in the class, Quentin Goodin, who many viewed as Michigan’s second choice should they lose out on the race to get Winston. That left them in a bind: Keep chasing Winston even if there’s no guarantee they’ll land him, or start looking for other options.

They went with Plan B, and that ended up being Simpson. He committed in September, but after a tough freshman campaign, the Wolverines brought in a grad transfer from Ohio, Jaaron Simmons, and another freshman point guard, Eli Brooks. Simpson began the year as a starter but eventually lost out on that starting spot before he found his rhythm.

Simpson, along with assistant coach Luke Yaklich, are the two people generally credited with turning around Michigan defensively this season, and Yaklich has a story that’s fascinating in its own right.

We discussed Yaklich at length earlier this month. He’s Michigan’s defensive coordinator and in his first-year with the program after leaving Illinois State.

But he’s also just five years removed from teaching social studies as a high school coach in Illinois. His path to Illinois State is fascinating in and of itself — as documented by CBS Sports, he accepted the job, then turned down the job, then accepted it again — but perhaps the most telling part of this entire story is that Yaklich was hired by Beilein having never met the man before his interview.

The way this works in most coaching circles is that you hire from within your network. You get a job, you know who you want on staff, you know the work they’ve done and how they coach and how they recruit and whether or not you can handle spending the long, dreary hours on the road recruiting together. You hire your friends, basically.

Beilein bucked that trend.

He not only hired Yaklich, but he also hired Deandre Haynes off of that Illinois State staff, another move that is entirely uncommon.

And the results couldn’t be better.

This is who Beilein is at his core. He, too, was a teacher before matriculating into the coaching ranks. He never worked the system to get ahead. He started out as a high school coach. He won there and then got a job at a community college. From there, he coached at a Division III school, a Division II school, Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia before ending up in Ann Arbor.

He is the outlier.

And it only makes sense that he is the guy that has found the other outliers and turned them into a team that is just two wins away from cutting down the nets on the final night of the college basketball season.

“He looks for pieces that fit together,” Robinson says. “He doesn’t necessarily recruit five stars. We do, but he mostly looks for guys that will get stuff done for him and will buy into what we’re doing here. That’s what we’re all about, building a culture that will last and grow over time.”

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.