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Sweet 16 Preview: Biggest questions facing teams in Midwest Region

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The Sweet 16 will kick off on Thursday, and the beautiful thing about the final four rounds of this year’s NCAA tournament is that we are guaranteed to have 15 games that will feature dynamite matchups.

There’s an argument to be made that the top 15 teams in the country are still alive, with the 16th being the hottest team in all of college basketball.

With that in mind, we are going to dive into every team left, region by region, and give you the biggest question that needs to be answered if they are going to have a chance to win the national title. 

We covered the South here, the West here and the East here. Last up, we have the Midwest.

NORTH CAROLINA: So about Nassir Little …

At this point, we just about know everything that North Carolina has to offer.

Coby White is going to spend his evenings attacking in transition as quickly as he is physically capable of doing. Cam Johnson is going to shoot and shoot and shoot. Luke Maye may not be having his best season as a Tar Heel, but he’s struggling and still averaging 14.9 points and 10.6 boards while pulling defenses out of the lane because of the threat of his ability to shoot. We know what Kenny Williams is. We know what Garrison Brooks is. We know all about UNC’s bench … for the most part.

The guy that has been the enigma all season long has been Nassir Little, but over the course of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, he played his best back-to-back games of the season, averaging 19.5 points. Now if we’re being fair, part of that production was a by-product of the matchup. Iona wanted to run and Washington played a zone. Both of those styles are exploitable for a super-athletic 6-foot-7 forward who plays in an impressive motor.

The matchup against Auburn is similarly beneficial for Little, and I don’t think it’s crazy to say that Little getting into a rhythm for the last two weeks of the season totally changes what UNC’s ceiling can be.

KENTUCKY: What’s up with P.J. Washington?

I’ve made this point before, and I’ll make it again right here: The reason that Kentucky went from being a team that had the potential to be a top six team in America to actually being a top six team in America came during the six-week stretch where P.J. Washington turned into a monster.

And in case you haven’t heard, Washington spent the first weekend of the tournament in a cast. Not a soft cast. Not a boot. Not even an elaborate brace. An actual hard cast:

Screengrab via CBS

P.J. added some fuel to the fire on Wednesday when he posted a video clip of himself walking without the cast on, which is not entirely unexpected, but the question still remains: Just how healthy is he? Going from needing a hard cast for an injury on your foot to playing at the level required to be a contributor for a team battling the likes of Houston, North Carolina and Auburn in a matter of days is a big ask.

And if he’s not totally healthy, is it worth it to risk further injury for a kid with lottery pick potential?

And if it is, will be capable of performing up to the level that we have come to expect?

We won’t actually have answers to any of these questions until the games tip off on Friday night.

HOUSTON: Are the Cougars good enough to beat the big boys?

Before I dive into this fully, let me just say this: The Cougars are a really good basketball team. Kelvin Sampson is a really good coach. It’s not a fluke that they are sitting here at 33-3 in the Sweet 16.

That said, they haven’t exactly played the toughest schedule. They beat LSU at home by six points earlier this season, but that is far and away their best win. Knocking off Oregon when Oregon was still bad is not all that impressive. Sweeping Cincinnati and picking off UCF in Orlando is solid, but neither of those teams made it out of the first weekend of the tournament. What else have they done that would ‘wow’ you? Beating Utah State? Or Ohio State?

My point isn’t to say that Houston can’t go out and win two games against the teams that are left in the Midwest Region, rather that we have yet to see them do it.

And part of my concern is that the level of talent on this Houston roster just isn’t commensurate with the rest of the teams in their section of the bracket. Houston doesn’t have a pro on their roster. They have a slew of really good, tough, veteran guards, but is that going to be enough when Kentucky has a bunch of first round picks manning their perimeter? As good as Houston’s frontcourt as a whole has been, this is still a group where the whole is much great than the sum of the parts. Will that be enough against Kentucky when Kentucky is firing on all cylinders?

AUBURN: What happens when the transition game isn’t their best option?

The way that Auburn wants to play under head coach Bruce Pearl is not all that dissimilar from what Shaka Smart was trying to do at VCU during the Havoc years. They are going to pressure teams, they are going to gamble for steals, they are going to sacrifice from second chance points for leak-outs and they are going to do everything they can to turn defense into offense.

Auburn leads the nation in defensive turnover percentage and steal percentage. They play at one of the fastest tempos in the sport. Their goal is to get a stop, get out in transition and get a quick three up from the likes of Bryce Brown, Jared Harper or Malik Dunbar.

But what happens when Auburn is forced out of their transition game?

Or, as is the case against North Carolina, playing as fast as possible is not necessarily the optimal way to play?

Can Auburn win a game where they have to rely on executing in the halfcourt?

Because that may end up being this case this weekend.

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.