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Ja Morant’s thrilling season comes to an end in the second round

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HARTFORD, Conn. — Ja Morant, perhaps sensing this would be his last opportunity to score for Murray State, turned on the jets and darted through three defenders for a driving layup.

That gave Morant 28 points and Racers fans one final thrill in a season full of them. Moments later, with Florida State way ahead and about a minute and half left on the clock, Morant came out of the game. He received a warm ovation from the Murray State fans, took a seat on the sideline and draped a towel over his head.

As the clock wound down on Florida State’s 90-62 victory against 12th-seeded Murray State in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, Morant wondered what more he could have done for his team and what could have been.

“I was just hurt not being able to take the floor with these guys for the rest of this season, for another game or possibly two, three, four,” Morant said. “But it’s been a great season. I really was just thinking back on what all we have accomplished this year.”

Two days after Morant became the talk of the tournament with a triple-double that had NBA stars Steph Curry and Luka Doncic marveling at the sure-fire lottery pick, his breakout season ended with far less fanfare. He dazzled early, going 5 for 5 from 3-point range in the first half against the Seminoles, flashing his step-back and cross-over jumpers. He had 18 points at the half. But Florida State was winning everywhere else, forcing turnovers, getting into transition and knocking down 3s.

Morant had only four assists after notching 16 in the first round. He leads the country at 10 assists per game and the Seminoles were determined not to let Morant pick them apart. The 3-pointers looked good, but as far as Florida State was concerned that was a good sign.

“We knew that eventually that’s not the way they want to play,” Florida State’s Terance Mann said.

Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton chuckled at the suggestion the Seminoles did good job on Morant.

“Because to be honest with you, I’m still not sure that we stopped Morant, and I’m not sure anybody can,” Hamilton said.

Morant was 2 for 9 in the second half. His only other bucket was, of course, highlight-worthy. The lanky 6-foot-3 point guard drove right at 7-foot-4 Christ Koumadje and flipped in a layup while getting fouled.

“I’m really just hard on myself. I’m never no good. I feel like I could have done a lot of things better tonight. Just pick my teammates up,” Morant said.

Stopping Morant is probably not going to be a problem for college coaches anymore. After being lightly recruited out of high school, Morant ascended to stardom this season as a sophomore, and is now projected to be a top-three pick. In a quiet locker room after the game, Morant dutifully said he has not made up his mind about entering the draft and was not sure when he would.

“I’m not focused on that right now,” Morant said “I’m just trying to celebrate a wonderful season with my teammates.”

Teammate Darnell Cowart made it pretty clear he was not expecting Morant to be back.

“Would you leave?” Cowart asked reporters after the game.

Murray State won two straight Ohio Valley Conference championships with Morant and made the NCAA Tournament twice. Morant was a promising freshman role player on last year’s team, but this season he blossomed into a sensation. His tournament triple-double, just the ninth recorded by the NCAA, turned him into a celebrity.

“I thought he was able to really do a tremendous job of blocking out all the noise and just staying focused on becoming the best player he could be,” Murray State coach Matt McMahon said.

Saturday marked the end for Murray State’s season, but Morant’s story seems to be just getting started.

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.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.