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Zion Williamson Era, unfortunately, peaked on first day of season

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Duke never got better.

They peaked, quite literally, on the first day of the season, a 118-84 beatdown of then-No. 2 Kentucky that many of us, myself included, just could not get out of our heads.

That team was the best team in the country on that day, and there isn’t a soul on the planet that would argue that fact rationally. But the reason that a roster featuring Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones got bounced in the Elite Eight — after they should have been bounced in the second round and could have been bounced in the Sweet 16 — is because the team they were that day is the team they were on Sunday, when Michigan State sent them back to Durham, 68-67.

Duke never got better.

College basketball caught up.

It’s not the first time that head coach Mike Krzyzewski has struggled to find a way to make a roster full of uber-talented freshmen work. Early exits from the NCAA tournament have become fairly common for the Blue Devils, but I’ll stop short of criticizing the man for losing by one point to the team that won both the regular season and tournament titles in the toughest conference in the country. It’s the same reason I refused to criticize Duke for failing to get to the Final Four last year, when Grayson Allen’s game-winning jumper pulled an Aubrey Dawkins and rolled off the wrong side of the rim.

In a one-game knockout events, the margins really are that fine.

That said, Coach K is not beyond reproach for the way that he managed this team and this season.

I will go to my grave saying that the best lineup that Duke could have put out on the floor featured Zion Williamson at the five. He can protect the rim. He’s not going to get beaten on the block by many, if any, college bigs. He’s a terrific defensive rebounder that can grab-and-go with the best of them. Would that have put him at risk of getting into foul trouble? Probably. Would he have worn down more quickly playing the five? Maybe. But it is frustrating that we didn’t end up getting more of Williamson at the five.

And, frankly, there is a reason for that.

Duke’s perimeter options never showed up the way Duke needed them to. the 0-for-10 performance that Jack White posted against Syracuse damaged his confidence so badly that he wouldn’t hit another three for nearly seven weeks, and he was the guy that could have made a difference. He was big enough to help shoulder the load in the paint. He could protect the rim. He was a better perimeter defender than some folks realize. And, in theory, he could shoot. His regression was another part of the long-term problem for this group.

And if we’re being honest, “in theory, he could shoot” is more or less a perfect way to sum up everyone on this Duke team.

Because the whole they-can’t-make-threes conundrum never went away. Duke finished the season 327th nationally in three-point percentage. Cam Reddish, who frustrated everyone until the final seconds of the season, ended the year with a lower three-point percentage than Williamson. R.J. Barrett ended the year shooting 30.8 percent, which was significantly higher than either White or Tre Jones shot. Their best shooter, Alex O’Connell, wasn’t strong enough with the ball or good enough defensively to earn consistent minutes. For him to see the court, one of the star freshmen had to sit or Duke had to roll with a frontline of Williamson, Barrett and Reddish, and Coach K wasn’t having that.

Perhaps the biggest indictment was that Williamson, once again, went the final three possessions without getting a shot off. It’s the same thing that happened in the loss to Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational.

Like I said, Duke never got better.

It wasn’t all bad for Coach K.

For the majority of the year, he actually schemed up some pretty good sets to create just enough space to allow Barrett and Williamson to get downhill going left. He won a couple of games by the timely switching of defenses. He had everyone in the program on the same page, playing together and playing hard and caring about each other. In the one-and-done era, that’s not the easiest thing to do.

But this season will be remembered for the fact that Duke never figured out an answer to their flaws.

And they never changed the things that needed changing.

That, unfortunately, falls on Coach K.

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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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

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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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

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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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.