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For college basketball, a season begins on the brink


For coaches and other leaders in college basketball, the approach of the upcoming season has been nothing like business as usual.

Not in Indianapolis, where lawyers at the NCAA are busy trying to circumvent a newly passed law that threatens the foundation of an enterprise built on a simple commandment: thou shall not pay players.

Not in California, where that law was passed, and where the clock is now ticking: It goes into effect in 2023 and has an outside chance of leaving the state’s biggest colleges, including UCLA and Stanford, on the outside looking in at March Madness.

And certainly not in Kansas, where the storied Jayhawks face serious questions about whether they will remain eligible come March in the wake of NCAA allegations of recruiting fraud that could sink both the program and its Hall of Fame coach, Bill Self.

“Absolutely, Kansas will always prevail,” Self said last week. “I’d like to think I will as well.”

These two issues will serve as background noise for the upcoming season — not quiet enough to completely be forgotten, but almost certainly not loud enough to drown out the frenzy the sport produces during its three-week title chase at the end.

Trouble is, Kansas could have company. North Carolina State got an NCAA notice in July, and Arizona, Auburn, Creighton, Louisville, LSU and USC have been under scrutiny in the wake of the FBI’s investigations and subsequent court cases detailing back-channel deals between shoe companies, agents and recruits.

The Kansas scenario, involving payments to recruits Billy Preston and Silvio De Sousa, could have the most immediate repercussions, in large part because the NCAA alleges Self knew what was going on (if he didn’t, it could make an even stronger case for the dreaded “lack of institutional control” allegation). Kansas is fighting the charges and Self has vowed he “won’t cut and run” but the No. 3 Jayhawks’ eligibility for the postseason is in flux as the case plays out over the season.

It’s hardly the first time a major program will play a season under the shadow of an investigation (See North Carolina, which won the national title in 2017 while its athletic program was mired in a long-running academic-fraud case).

What makes this season different, however, are the undercurrents of change rippling across the sport. The possibilities bring with them the fantastical thought that, if things really change and players can make some money, maybe they won’t be so dependent on under-the-table payments, and maybe the programs they play for won’t have to break so many rules to sign them.

But it will take time.

California’s Fair Pay to Play Act does not call on colleges to directly pay players — that would be the most straightforward route to turning the NCAA into a pro league — but does allow them to hire agents and sign endorsement deals and make money using their names and likenesses.

Chances are, only the top of the top would see big benefits from this act. And the odds of it going into effect as it’s written in 2023 are remote. The NCAA is looking at changes of its own that would ease the restrictions on athlete compensation, though it also has not ruled out a court fight in California. There is precedent for overturning a law that impacts only one state that is part of a multi-state organization.

Lawmakers in other states are watching closely. Some have drafted similar legislation and members of Congress are jumping on the bandwagon, too.

All of which has Kentucky’s lightning-rod coach, John Calipari, shaking his head.

Calipari has fashioned his reputation as a coach with the players’ best interest in mind, saying his mission is to play by the NCAA rules, then move his top talent into the running for NBA millions as soon as practically possible.

He is also for anything that would help them cash in while they are still in college.

But when he looks at the potential for different laws in different states, for multiple lawsuits and the NCAA weighing in, “the tea leaves tell me there’s one place this is going to get solved, and it’s Congress.”

For now, he will do what Self and every other coach will do while the seas of change are swirling around them this season.

“There are all kinds of consequences that have to be addressed,” Calipari said, “and I’m coaching my team.”

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.