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Final Four field boasts tough defenses, veteran lineups

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The Final Four features tough defenses, a surging team that hasn’t lost in five weeks and one Hall of Fame coach.

Virginia, Michigan State, Texas Tech and Auburn earned their trips to Minneapolis for this weekend’s national semifinals by emerging from regions filled with high seeds. The Cavaliers are the last top seed, while the Spartans, Red Raiders and Tigers ousted the other No. 1s in the regional rounds.

Here’s a look at each team:

VIRGINIA

The Cavaliers were in the top six of the AP Top 25 all year while winning a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title.

WHY THEY’LL WIN

Their defense tests even the best offenses by clogging the paint to turn away penetration. And while running a clock-controlling offense, the Cavaliers are more efficient (123 points per 100 possessions, according to KenPom) with their limited possessions than ever under Tony Bennett.

Veterans like Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome (or Mamadi Diakite, judging by his overtime-forcing shot in the Elite Eight against Purdue) can hit tough shots for a team that finally has its Final Four breakthrough.

WHY THEY WON’T

If the Cavaliers struggle for stops, the pressure increases on an offense prone to droughts, even on the best of nights.

They hit just enough outside shots to survive Purdue’s Carsen Edwards scoring 42 points Saturday. But in Virginia’s loss to Florida State in the ACC Tournament, the Cavaliers went six second-half minutes without a basket and couldn’t catch up as the hot-shooting Seminoles took control.

MICHIGAN STATE

The Spartans, a No. 2 NCAA seed after winning the Big Ten Tournament, pushed past No. 1 overall seed Duke in a tense regional final.

WHY THEY’LL WIN

The Spartans have veteran confidence from winning 14 of 15 games and join Virginia in the top 10 of KenPom’s offensive and defensive efficiency rankings.

Big Ten player of the year Cassius Winston is a masterful floor leader (20 points, 10 assists against Duke), and is complemented by Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman (19 points against Duke) inside.

Michigan State also has the experience edge on the sideline, too. This is Hall of Famer Tom Izzo’s eighth Final Four compared to the other three coaches making their debuts.

WHY THEY WON’T

While the Spartans took care of the ball in the regionals, they ranked among the nation’s worst in turnover margin this season.

Michigan State isn’t particularly deep after several injuries, notably losing guard Joshua Langford (season-ending foot injury). And Ward has yet to crack double figures since returning from a five-game absence following a hand injury.

TEXAS TECH

The Red Raiders went from unranked in the preseason to reaching their first Final Four as a No. 3 seed.

WHY THEY’LL WIN

Simply: Defense and Jarrett Culver.

The Red Raiders, who have won 13 of 14, lead KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings (84.1 points allowed per 100 possessions). They were dominant against Northern Kentucky, Buffalo and Michigan in the tournament, then held top-seeded Gonzaga — KenPom’s No. 1 offense — in check.

Texas Tech is allowing 37 percent shooting while averaging nearly 17 points off turnovers in the tournament.

As for Culver, the 6-foot-6 sophomore and Big 12 player of the year is averaging 21.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in the tournament, exceeding his season averages.

WHY THEY WON’T

Defenses will focus on Culver, who carries a big load by taking 176 more shots and 93 more free throws than the next-closest teammates.

The Red Raiders also aren’t great on the boards. They’ve largely navigated around that problem after being outrebounded in nearly half their games (17 of 36), though the problem surfaced in five of six losses.

AUBURN

The Tigers have had a wild ride from seventh nationally in December to unranked and now surging to their first Final Four. They’ve also had significant off-court issues, including a federal corruption case that led to a guilty plea for former assistant Chuck Person and the suspension of assistant Ira Bowman amid allegations he was involved in a bribery scheme during his time at Penn.

WHY THEY’LL WIN

The fifth-seeded Tigers are playing with free-flowing confidence after 12 straight wins, including against Tennessee (twice), Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky. And they can bury 3s in bunches behind upperclassmen Bryce Brown (16.0 points) and Jared Harper (15.4).

The Tigers are at their best when harassing opponents into mistakes, taking a 33-14 edge in points off turnovers in two regional wins.

WHY THEY WON’T

They lean on 3-pointers, with the romps against Kansas and UNC coming on difficult-to-sustain efficiency (30 of 67, 44.8 percent) that could make them particularly vulnerable on an off night.

Auburn also took a big hit with the loss of sophomore Chuma Okeke (12 points, 6.8 rebounds) to a serious knee injury. Okeke provided a lift by sitting behind the team bench Sunday against Kentucky. His production will be difficult to replace.

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.