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Top-rated recruiting classes not always key to hoops title

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PHOENIX — Memphis’ Penny Hardaway has become one of the nation’s top recruiters in two seasons as a college coach.

The former NBA star signed a solid recruiting class in his first year, and his second, headed by projected lottery pick James Wiseman, was No. 1 in the country, according to a composite of ranking sites compiled by 247Sports.

The top-rated class has ratcheted up expectations in Memphis. The Tigers were ranked in The Associated Press preseason poll for the first time since 2013 at No. 14 and picked as co-favorites with Houston to win the American Athletic Conference.

“They all have this swag about them that they feel like, ‘Hey, we want to go out there and prove, whether you like it or not, we want to play the best and we want to go out and prove we can be No. 1 in the country,” Hardaway said.

The Tigers face a historical hurdle to get there.

Landing the top-rated class doesn’t always lead to a national championship. Duke, led by Jalil Okafor, in 2015 and Kentucky in 2012 are the only two teams in the past 15 years to win a national championship with the top-rated incoming recruiting class.

In the one-and-done era, not to mention the yearly exodus of transfers, the best recruiting classes rarely stay together for very long. Incoming freshmen, no matter how talented, still need time to adjust to college life and the college game.

Older teams don’t wilt under the pressure because they’ve been there before. Young teams often take longer to jell.

“Creating habits is what we have to do,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We’re not trying to break their old habits. They’re not changing them. They’ll pop up. Create new ones. Create professional habits that will carry you.”

The Wildcats have been the standard bearer in the correlation between top recruiting classes and success on the court. Kentucky landed the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class six times and was in the top four the other times under Calipari.

The Wildcats won their 2012 title with a group led by freshman Anthony Davis, and the program has reached the Sweet 16 eight times, including four trips to the Final Four.

“None of us coaches in the SEC feel badly for John Calipari and the fact that he has to rebuild his roster every year,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “I’m certainly at the top of that list. John does not get near enough credit for what kind of coach he is.”

But Kentucky and Coach Cal also are anomalies.

Virginia won last season’s national title with an incoming recruiting class ranked 65th. Villanova’s two national titles were with classes ranked 28th and 29th. Connecticut was 37th before winning its 2014 national title and Louisville checked in at No. 79 nationally before its 2013 championship.

Kansas and coach Bill Self consistently have top-level recruiting classes and make deep NCAA Tournament runs, but the Jayhawks’ 2008 national title came from an incoming class ranked No. 49.

Arizona has racked up consistent top-10 recruiting classes but has yet to reach the Final Four in 11 seasons under Sean Miller. Programs like UCLA, Ohio State, Syracuse and Texas are typically among the top recruiting classes, but the last NCAA title from that group was the Orange in 2003.

Highly rated recruiting classes certainly make teams better. Having consistency within the program and cohesion, more often than not, is what leads to national championships.

“We really try and find guys that are going to fit this culture,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We really try to explain to them what it is and then let them make the decision. Our recruiting is different. It’s not the bells and whistles. It’s really getting to know the people. The family and the kid and explain to them what this is and have them come here and watch practice and talk with the guys.”

Wright brought in a stellar recruiting class for this season, topped by five-star players Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Bryan Antoine. The Wildcats’ 2019 class was fifth in the 247Sports composite, behind Memphis, Kentucky, Duke and Oregon.

Hardaway’s 2019 class is arguably the most talked about in college basketball. The 7-foot-1 Wiseman has been projected as the No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NBA draft. Forward Precious Achiuwa also could be a lottery pick and five other freshmen come highly rated.

“I think these kids understand what they’re reading and they see it and it drives them,” Hardaway said. “We’ll see how they handle that going out on the court.”

Duke had a similar recruiting class last season led by Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish.

The Blue Devils lost in the Elite Eight to Michigan State while Virginia, led by a group of primarily veteran players, won the national title.

Highly touted recruiting classes generate buzz and add high-level talent to a program.

It’s not always enough to win a national title.

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.