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Sweet 16 Preview: Biggest questions facing teams in South 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. 

First up, the South. 

VIRGINIA: Are they mentally tough enough to win two more games?

Look, this is not going to stop being a thing until Virginia does what they need to do to ensure that it is no longer a thing.

Tony Bennett has had this thing rolling in Charlottesville for six years now. In the previous five NCAA tournament, there were four times that Virginia was a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed. In those seasons, they lost to:

  • No. 4 seed Michigan State in the Sweet 16 in 2014.
  • No. 7 seed Michigan State in the second round in 2015.
  • No. 10 seed Syracuse in the Elite 8 in 2016, when they blew a 15 point lead in the final eight minutes.
  • UMBC.

And at this point, I think that it is pretty evident that this is a mental thing. If the meltdown against UMBC wasn’t enough to tip you off, then the way that Virginia started against Gardner-Webb in the first round this season — digging a 30-16 hole as they played about as scared as a team as good as Virginia can play — should have been all the proof that you needed.

At this point it is not about the opponent to me, not when the other three teams in their region are all beatable.

It’s about Virginia.

And their ability to handle the moment.

TENNESSEE: How good is Tennessee defensively?

Last year, with essentially this same group of guys, Tennessee finished the season as the No. 6 defense in KenPom’s rankings. This year, that is not the case. The Vols are hovering around the top 40 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. They go through stretches where it seems like they are coasting — frankly, this is a thing on both ends of the floor — and where this has been manifesting is with their ability to run teams off of the three-point line.

In Tennessee’s last six games, they have been lit up from the perimeter. They’re 4-2 in that stretch, which includes the two NCAA tournament games where they blew big leads. When Colgate erased a 15 point second half deficit to take the lead in the first round, they shot 15-for-29 from three. Iowa’s comeback was more a result of the Hawkeyes pounding the ball into the paint, where their bigs were able to go one-on-one because Tennessee didn’t want to leave shooters. Auburn shot 15-for-40 from three in their blowout win in the SEC title game.

I say all that to say this: Tennessee, who ranks 207th in defensive three-point percentage, is likely going to have to get through Purdue — who gets 39 percent of their points from beyond the arc this season — and Virginia — who is sixth-nationally in three-point percentage — to get to the Final Four.

(Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

PURDUE: Will we get Good Carsen or Bad Carsen?

The most impressive part about the coaching job that Matt Painter has done this season, the incredible thing about the fact that Purdue won a share of the Big Ten regular season title this year, is that all of this happened while Carsen Edwards was busy operating as a super-high usage and uber-low efficiency player. There were just nine players in college basketball this season that posted a higher usage rate that Edwards — putting that in context, R.J. Barrett wasn’t even all that close — but Edwards finished Big Ten play with an offensive rating of 100.0 (which is not good) while shooting 34 percent from the floor and 30 percent from three. In the four games before exploding for 42 points against Villanova, he shot 26.9 percent from the field. He was 4-for-24 at Indiana. He was 3-for-16 at Nebraska. He was 7-for-35 in two games against Michigan State.

And despite all of that, Purdue still finished the season with the fifth-best offense in the country and the second-best offense in the Big Ten, according to KenPom.

Point being, when Edwards struggles, Purdue is still really good.

But when he gets it going?

When he’s Good Carsen instead of Bad Carsen?

The Boilermakers are downright scary.

Should I mention that Tennessee has really struggled to guard on the perimeter since they lost to Auburn to close the regular season?

OREGON: Just how good are the Ducks?

Oregon might be the hottest team in college basketball right now. They’ve won ten straight games. Eight of those games have been either on the road or on a neutral court. They are in the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed, and they are playing precisely the brand of basketball that Dana Altman has become famous for: A talented lead guard surrounded by three big, athletic wings and one ridiculously athletic rim-protector in the middle.

(Let me take a victory lap here: I said before the season started that Oregon would be better playing Kenny Wooten at the five and not playing Bol Bol, and … well … here we are.)

But they haven’t really beaten anyone all that impressive during this run. Eight of the ten wins in this streak came against Pac-12 competition, and even those they won at Washington and beat Washington by 20 on a neutral court, it’s still a Washington team that lost to Cal. The win over Wisconsin is solid, but it seems silly to get too worked up over beating the fifth-beat team in the Big Ten.

Let me be clear here: I think that Oregon is legit, but there certainly is a possibility that all this success is simply a by-product of kicking the tail of everyone in a bad league and getting hot against a No. 5 seed at the right time.

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.