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College Basketball’s Most Improved Players: Part I

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Before the season, we took a look at the players that we thought had a chance to be breakout stars this season.

We’re now halfway through the year, which means that it is time to take a look at the guys that actually did breakout.

Here are the first five in our list of college basketball’s Ten Most Improved Players. The second five can be found here:



OBI TOPPIN, Dayton

Last Year: 14.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 1.9 apg, 0.8 bpg, 0.6 spg
This Year: 19.3 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.3 apg, 1.3 bpg, 1.3 spg

Toppin is the most interesting name on this list because I think there is an argument to be made that, as a player, Toppin hasn’t really gotten all that much better since last season. His efficiency levels are more or less the same as they were during his redshirt freshman season, and while the counting stats are up, some of that can be attributed to Toppin playing more minutes in a larger offensive role for a team that’s playing at a faster pace than they did a season ago.

As one NBA front office member told me, “he was already good,” noting that he had gotten better — consistently dominant, a better rebounder, more confident — “but he’s largely the same guy.”

So how did Toppin go from being a guy that started the season as “well, maybe he can beat out Marcus Evans for Atlantic 10 Player of the Year” to a legitimate candidate to win National Player of the Year?

This is the narrative portion of the program.

I think this season has been a perfect storm for Toppin. He’s putting up big numbers on a really good-not-great Dayton team in a year where all of the best teams fall into that good-not-great category and, for the first time in a decade, there is no obvious frontrunner for NPOY. Combine that with the fact that he has had some viral highlights and that the Flyers went to the Maui Invitational and showed out in one of the most-watched early-season college basketball events, and this is what you get.

I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve all of the attention he’s getting — he does, unquestionably — I’m just trying to put that attention into context.

Breaking him down as a player is almost as nuanced.

He has certainly improved in some areas. I don’t think there is any doubt that he is a better, more confident shooter this season than he was last season. He’s nearly doubled the number of threes he shot as a freshman and we’re only 17 games into the year. He’s only making them at a 33.3 percent clip right now, but Dayton coach Anthony Grant would not allow him to shoot that many threes unless he believed in the work Toppin put in developing his shot. His handle is getting better. His body continued to develop; Grant told NBC Sports in October that Toppin enrolled with the Flyers at 6-foot-7 and 185 pounds. He’s now 6-foot-9, 220.

But that development also needs to be taken into context.

Dayton is a significantly better basketball team this season than they were a season ago. They are a lethal three-point shooting team that is as old as anyone in the country. They put four shooters on the floor at all times around Toppin, and more often than not, allow him to roam as a small-ball five. He’s a threat to pick-and-pop because of his shooting, he’s a lob target as a roll-man due to his length and athleticism, and his physical tools make near impossible for opposing bigs to keep out of the paint. Combine all of those things with the fact that defenses are so spread out because of the rest of the shooters on the floor, and what you get is the nation’s No. 3 offense, according to KenPom. Toppin is probably the most important piece in that offense.

Toppin is also a terrific defensive piece because he can protect the rim, guard bigs and switch onto smaller players.

I say all that to say this: The biggest reason why Toppin is thriving this season is that the pieces around him and Dayton’s style of play allow the things he does best to shine. Whether or not he is actually a better basketball player is largely irrelevant in this conversation, because he is, unquestionably, a more effective basketball player now than he was a year ago.

And the result is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime season for the Flyers and a spot in the lottery of the 2020 NBA Draft.

Click here for the rest of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

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NICK RICHARDS, Kentucky

Last Year: 4.0 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.3, bpg, 59.8% FG
This Year: 13.0 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 2.3 bpg, 66.9% FG

It took two and a half years for us to get here, but I think that we have finally reached a point where Nick Richards is the guy we thought he would be when he enrolled at Kentucky as a McDonald’s All-American.

Over the course of the last four games, Richards is averaging 16.0 points, 10.0 boards and 2.5 blocks. But it’s more than just the numbers. Richards is finally posting games like this against high-major competition, something that he hasn’t done before. It should come as no surprise to anyone that those four games have changed the course of Kentucky’s season. They finally look like the team that entered the season in the top five of every preseason poll.

“He’s getting better,” head coach John Calipari said last week. “He started playing basketball when he was 14, so it’s taken him more time. But who cares how long it takes? It’s, can I get to the point where I’m a significant player? And he is now.”

The genesis of the change is simple, according to a person close to the Kentucky program: Richards believes in himself now.

“You can’t coach a kid’s confidence,” he said. “He has to build it himself.”

With Richards, building his confidence came with actually seeing his work turn into success in the actual games. He needed to see the ball go through the basket. He needed to actually take a game over before it really clicked for him that he can take games over if he played a certain way.

“Some kids you say don’t read your press clippings,” the source said. “With this kid, it helps him. ‘You think I’m good? OK, I need to turn up.'”

And with Richards, the way that confidence has manifested is that he wants the rock. He’s no longer scared when a play is called for him. He posts harder. He runs the floor in transition harder. He’s calling for lobs. He’s ready when tough passes are thrown to him, and, in turn, is catching more of those passes than he had in the pass. All of this leads to guards that are now more willing to give him the ball. They’re not worried that a Nick Richards post touch will lead directly to a turnover anymore.

As a result, Kentucky once again looks like a title contender.

Click here for the rest of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

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DANIEL OTURU, Minnesota

Last Year: 10.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.3 bpg
This Year: 19.9 ppg, 11.9 rpg, 2.9 bpg, 34.6% 3PT

Minnesota knew that they had a player when they landed Daniel Oturu as an in-state, top 100 prospect two years ago, but they did not realize that they were bringing in a kid that had a chance to be a first round pick.

Oturu didn’t realize it, either.

He does now.

“I could tell Daniel to ignore the NBA Draft boards but Daniel knows that right now he is picked 10th on NBADraft.net,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “He knows teams reach out to me. I tell him.”

With some players, this could be a bad thing. You don’t want that going to their head. You don’t want them checking out of a season at the start of league play just because they happened to see their name on a mock draft on the internet. But with Oturu, the simple fact that he has a chance to play in the NBA has been the best thing for him.

“He was immature even for a freshman, but he’s shown maturity [this year],” one source close to the program told me. “He’s got a chance to be a pro now. It’s one thing to talk about it. It’s another thing to be on draft boards. He’s seeing that. His focus level has changed. He’s staying after practice, taking extra shots, working on his game.”

And it hasn’t hurt him that Jordan Murphy has graduated. Now, he’s getting the post touches. He’s getting the isolation at the elbows. He’s the guy that the offense is being built around, and there’s more space for him to operate.

“He makes it look so easy,” one Big Ten assistant coach said. “You know how guards look at bigs like, ‘why can’t you make layups?’ Not him. He just makes the game look so easy, so effortlessly.”

The key now is going to be ensuring that Oturu stays focused on the task at hand. His name is on draft boards right now because he’s turned into a worker. He has to avoid letting the thought get into his head that he’s made it because he was on a mock draft.

“They don’t draft in early January,” Pitino said.

Click here for the rest of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

AMES, IA – DECEMBER 12: Tyrese Haliburton #22 of the Iowa State Cyclones drives the ball in the first half of play against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Hilton Coliseum on December 12, 2019 in Ames, Iowa. The Iowa Hawkeyes won 84-68 over the Iowa State Cyclones. (Photo by David K Purdy/Getty Images)

TYRESE HALIBURTON, Iowa State

Last Year: 6.8 ppg, 3.6 apg, 3.4 rpg, 1.5 spg, 43.4% 3PT
This Year: 16.6 ppg, 7.7 apg, 5.9 rpg, 2.6 spg, 41.7% 3PT

There is not a single person on the planet that watched an Iowa State game last season that thought Tyrese Haliburton was going to be anything other than great.

Part of it is the size. Part of it is the shooting, even if his release makes Shawn Marion look like J.J. Redick. Part of it was the passing ability and basketball IQ. The reason we only saw it in flashes last season was because Iowa State had more talent on their roster than they knew what to do with. It’s why they looked so good when they played well, and it’s why so many people got frustrated when they didn’t.

And Haliburton?

He was fine playing the background.

“If you’ve ever been in a situation where you’re making a big change in your life, there are situations where you just try to fit in,” head coach Steven Prohm said earlier this season. “Sometimes that’s good, but sometimes it can take away a little bit of who you are. It didn’t take away who he was as a person or his spirit, but he tried to just fit in playing-wise. It helped that team.”

“I had a role last year, and I had to buy into that,” Haliburton said.

The Iowa State staff knew he was going to be special this year when he went to Greece and starred on the gold medal-winning U19 team. He had the ball in his hands on a roster with a bunch of other future first round picks. Nothing about this season has surprised anyone in Ames.

“I know what I’m capable of,” he said.

And that’s because he’s put in the work.

One of the things that impress people around the Iowa State program is the way Haliburton works. He practices the passes that he’ll make out of ball-screens. With his left hand, with his right hand, baseline drifts, pocket passes, finding shooters in the weakside corner. He does all of that on his own, and it’s paying off.

Click here for the rest of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

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MARCUS ZEGAROWSKI, Creighton

Last Year: 10.4 ppg, 3.4 apg, 3.2 rpg
This Year: 17.1 ppg, 4.8 apg, 3.8 rpg

The most important part of Marcus Zegarowski’s development from a guy in Creighton’s backcourt to the guy in Creighton’s backcourt has been, quite simply, his health.

As a freshman, Zegarowski dealt with a hip injury that required offseason surgery. He also missed three games after breaking a bone in his hand. He was all kinds of banged up, and while he hardly had a bad freshman season, there was a level that he couldn’t get to. Part of that was because he was, physically, limited. Part of it was because the injury sapped some of the belief he had in himself, not only to be able to make certain plays, but to be the voice that he needed to be on the floor.

“There’s a confidence level that has developed,” head coach Greg McDermott said. “His leadership has gone to another level. As a freshman, he was a little hesitant to step on toes and let his voice be heard.”

Not anymore.

Not only is a healthy Zegarowski now playing the best basketball of his life, he’s doing so as the leader on a team that has cracked the top 25.

“It happened faster than I anticipated,” McDermott said. “I couldn’t imagine a better fit for how we want to play.”

“I think they are best when they have a guy who is a passer and a playmaker,” a Big East coach told me, “and he fits their system perfectly. He’s always been that type of player, and I think he’s just improved his game. He’s been very effective.”

One thing that I have noticed about Zegarowski from watching Creighton play this year is that he always looks angry, like someone used his airpods and gave them back without charging them. I asked McDermott about this, and he said, chuckling: “He doesn’t change that expression much. He’s really hard on himself and doesn’t celebrate as much as he should. He’s a perfectionist from a basketball family, but I think a really important part of a point guard’s job is to be the same person. You know what you’re going to get day in and day out. He’s really dependable.”

Click here for No. 6-10 of our list of College Basketball’s Most Improved Players.

Race and Sports in America: Steph Curry, Charles Barkley on impact of George Floyd’s death, Black Lives Matter

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Stephen Curry and Charles Barkley were among the athletes that say down and spoke with NBC about the intersection of sports and race in America.

The Black Lives Matter movement reached a crescendo in late May, when a police officer knelt on the neck of a Minneapolis man named George Floyd for eight minutes and 46 seconds, suffocating him while knowingly being recorded. The murder, which followed the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbary, set off weeks of riots and has led to two months of protest across the country and around the world.

Race and Sports in America: Conversations is a one-hour show with two segments that debuts on NBCSN on Monday, July 13 at 8 pm ET.

It will be simulcast on Golf Channel, Olympic Channel, and the regional sports networks. Along with Curry and Barkley, Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, San Diego Chargers coach Anthony Lynn, golfer Troy Mullins, tennis player James Blake, former Saint Louis Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith and former Pittsburgh Steeler Jerome Bettis participated in the discussions.

Below, you can find an excerpt of Barkley and Curry discussing the way they are treated by white America as famous, Black athletes.


DAMON HACK:  It’s interesting.  You guys have all played at the highest level.  You’ve had people that would cheer for you when you were in uniform.  But if you were walking down the street and not wearing your uniform and you had a hoodie on, they might look at you a little bit different.

How do you navigate that?

CHARLES BARKLEY:  The notion that rich and famous Black people are treated like regular Black people, that’s not right.  We get treated great.  But I always worry about how we treat poor Black people.

You know, there’s a great thing  and Spike Lee, who I really admire and respect  in that movie, “Do The Right Thing,” that’s a perfect illustration what Ozzie is talking about, what I’m talking about, when the guy says, you know, you hate Black people.  He says, yeah, I hate Black people.  He says, who is your favorite entertainer.  He says Michael Jackson.  He says, who is your favorite jock.  He says, Michael Jordan.  He’s says, they’re Black.  And he said, well, they’re not “Black.”

And that’s the disadvantage that us four we’re at a disadvantage because White people treat us great.  And, like I say, I’m not worried about how they treat us because it really comes down to economics, too, at some point, because rich Black people aren’t treated like poor Black people.  And that’s the thing we’ve got to really engage conversation.

How can we get more Black people and poor White people also, but they’re in the same boat, give them economic opportunity.  That’s what America’s really got to grapple with.

STEPH CURRY:  I think one thing you said, too, is the preconceived notions of how they view rich, successful Black people as anomalies and our intelligence and our well spokenness, that’s always the first thing you hear.  If somebody knows how to be articulate, if they know how to

ALL:  So well spoken.

STEPH CURRY:  Come into a room  that’s the subtle racism and prejudice that kind of starts to add on itself.  And if another White person hears that comment, they’re going to think the same thing.  And it’s not going to trickle down to anybody else, and be able to create opportunities for somebody else to get that in that room and prove their value, prove their worth.

It’s just shifting perspectives and, again, holding everybody accountable whether it’s a private conversation, whether it’s a tweet, whether it’s a video.  Whatever it is, to do the right thing, no pun intended, but to see everybody as equal and that’s all we’re asking for.

Kara Lawson hired as new Duke head coach

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Duke announced on Saturday that Kara Lawson, a former Tennessee guard and ESPN commentator, has been hired as the new head coach of the school’s women’s basketball team.

Lawson, 39, had been an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics before accepting the job at Duke, where she will be replacing Joanne McCallie. McCallie announced earlier this month that she would not be returning to the program.

Lawson is the first Black head coach in the program’s history, the second Black head coach hired by an ACC school this offseason and the third Black woman coaching an ACC women’s team. In total, there are five Black head coaches in the league on the women’s side.

Zion’s attorneys: Court filing claiming $400K payment contains fraudulent information

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Attorneys representing Zion Williamson in a lawsuit filed by former his marketing agent Gina Ford have claimed that the allegations set forth in her latest court filing are “fraudulent” and “a desperate and irresponsible attempt to smear Mr. Williamson.”

Ford claimed to have obtain “newly-discovered evidence” regarding her lawsuit against Zion, specifically that the player and his stepfather accepted $400,000 from a marketing agent named Slavko Duric in October of 2018. Zion signed a contract with Ford and her company, Prime Sports Marketing, on April 20, 2019, five days after he declared for the NBA draft. Less than two months later, he backed out of that deal to sign with CAA, the most powerful agency in the business that will also be representing his basketball interests. Ford is suing Williamson for breach of contract.

The outcome of the case hinges on a law in the state of North Carolina known as UAAA — the Uniform Athlete Agent Act — that requires a contract to make it clear to a student-athlete that by signing with an agent, they forfeit their remaining eligibility. This marketing contract did not have that language in it, and Williamson’s lawyers are arguing that this made the contract itself invalid. Ford’s attorneys, on the other hand, are attempting to prove that Zion was actually ineligible at the time, meaning that he was not protected by UAAA, and this evidence is their latest attempt to do it.

Except, according to the attorneys representing Zion Williamson’s family, all of the evidence in the latest filing in this lawsuit is fake.

Included in the exhibits attached to the motion filed by Ford’s lawyers is a statement from a man named Donald Kreiss, who claims that he invested in a company owned by Duric called Maximum Management Group. MMG purportedly had an exclusive marketing agreement with Williamson, the proof being an agreement that was allegedly signed by Williamson, a letter of declaration to repay the $400,000 that was paid in 2018 and a copy of Zion’s driver’s license.

“The alleged ‘agreements’ and driver’s license attached to these papers are fraudulent,” read a statement from Jeffery Klein, Zion’s attorney and obtained by Daniel Wallach of The Athletic. “Neither Mr. Williamson nor his family know these individuals nor had any dealing with them. We had previously alerted Ms. Ford’s lawyers to both this fact and that we had previously reported the documents to law enforcement as forgeries, but they chose to go ahead with another frivolous filing anyway.”

Here is a photo, courtesy of Wallach’s twitter feed, of Zion’s license.

Via @WALLACHLegal

Speaking as someone that bartended on a college campus for a decade, I would not accept this ID. The ‘E’ at the end of LICENSE is not in bold. The last three digits of his zip code are a different font than the first two. There is no shadow behind his ears in the picture, which is the first thing I was taught to look for on an ID I thought was fake. Most conspicuous? His weight is listed as a height and his height is listed as a weight.

Furthermore, Zion’s attorneys claim that Duric is the same man that tried to run a similar scam on Luka Doncic.

“A simple Google search reveals that Slavko Duric, whose ostensible sports marketing entity has no online presence, purportedly attempted to defraud Luka Doncic … using a scheme in which he forged Doncic’s and his mother’s signatures on a contract,” read a letter, obtained by Wallach. that Williamson’s attorney sent to Ford’s attorney before the motion was filed.

The intrigue into Zion Williamson’s lawsuit is about smearing Duke basketball’s image

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This column was originally published on May 11th of 2020.

The public intrigue into Zion Williamson’s current lawsuit and legal battle has nothing to do with Zion Williamson himself and everything to do with smearing the glossy veneer of the Duke basketball program.

That’s the truth.

The numbers involved in this litigation — reportedly up to $200 million is at stake — will certainly raise some eyebrows, but contract disputes are rarely interesting for anyone that isn’t in law school. That’s what this is. Zion signed a contract with Gina Ford and Prime Sports Marketing on April 20, 2019, five days after he declared for the NBA draft. Less than two months later, he backed out of that deal to sign with CAA, the most powerful agency in the business that will also be representing his basketball interests. Ford is suing Williamson for breach of contract.

The outcome of this civil case is going to hinge on a law in the state of North Carolina known as UAAA — the Uniform Athlete Agent Act — that requires a contract to make it clear to a student-athlete that by signing with an agent, they forfeit their remaining eligibility. This marketing contract did not have that language in it, and Williamson’s lawyers will argue that this made the contract itself invalid.

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft | Early Entry Tracker

(And no, I don’t, for a second, think that Zion was ever returning to Duke. Neither does Ford, or anyone with any common sense. It’s why I wrote this “column” last May, when the rumors of Zion returning to school started rolling through the basketball world. That said, if I was a cynic, I would take a close look at that timeline. Rumors of Zion returning to school just happened to start circulating right around the time that he was trying to find a way out of a marketing contract to sign with a bigger agency? Hmm. Interesting. But I’m not a cynic, so I certainly won’t suggest that it was nothing other than a well-orchestrated PR ploy knowing that this would inevitably end up in the court system one day. Wouldn’t dream of insinuating anything like it.)

Which brings us to Mother’s Day.

That’s when Daniel Wallach of The Athletic first published snippets of the latest Zion Williamson lawsuit that was filed by Ford and her attorneys. Among them were requests for admission that Zion and his family received all kinds of money, benefits and gifts to play at Duke and to induce him to wear Nike and Adidas at different points during his high school career. The legal ploy is simple, really: If Zion or his parents are forced, under oath, to admit that they accepted illegal benefits at any point during his recruitment or while on the roster at Duke, it would mean that he was retroactively ineligible. If he was actually ineligible during his one season in Durham, then the UAAA wouldn’t be relevant. The contract, which, according to Ford’s lawsuit, could only be terminated with cause, would stand and Zion would be on the hook for a lot of money.

At this point, it does not appear that there is much evidence proving that Zion accepted illegal benefits. When asked by Dana O’Neil of The Athletic if they have any proof of wrongdoing, Ford’s attorney said, “We have ideas, opinions and some leads of our own. We are looking for information to support our case. This is what we want to know.” Requests for admission are, essentially, fact-finding missions during discovery in civil cases. Put another way, at this point, these requests are nothing more than proof that Ford’s lawyers have heard the same rumors and read the same court docs that people in basketball circles and on college basketball message boards have.

But no one actually cares about the legalese here, because if they did, they’d realize that Zion is under no obligation to answer, and even if he is somehow forced to, nothing will come of this for a long, long time.

The people that care this case care about catching Coach K in a lie. They care about proving that the holier-than-thou way that Duke carries itself is fraudulent. They care about finding a way to get something — anything — to stick to the program that recruits better than anyone else in an era where recruiting is the Wild, Wild West.

Do you remember when Lance Thomas dropped $30,000 in cash as a down payment for $67,800 in jewelry a year before Thomas and Duke won the 2010 national title? Nothing came of it. Remember when Corey Maggette admitted to receiving payments from Myron Piggie before becoming a member of the team that made it to the 1999 national title game? Nothing came of that, either. Nothing happened when Wendell Carter’s name popped up on expense reports submitted by Christian Dawkins. Nothing happened when Michael Avenatti alleged that Nike paid Marvin Bagley’s family.

All told, there are 13 high-major programs that are dealing with the fallout from the FBI’s investigation into college basketball: Alabama, Arizona, Auburn, Creighton, Kansas, Louisville, LSU, Memphis, N.C. State, Oklahoma State, South Carolina, TCU and USC.

Duke, despite a cloud of smoke surrounding Zion that would make Seth Rogen envious, has been hit with … nada.

The public is looking for their pound of flesh, and nothing would satiate that bloodlust quite like an admission from Zion Williamson in this lawsuit that he was paid to go to Duke.

Ivy League calls off fall sports due to outbreak

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The Ivy League on Wednesday became the first Division I conference to say it will not play sports this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic, a person with knowledge of the decision told The Associated Press. The league left open the possibility of moving some seasons to the spring if the outbreak is better controlled by then.

The decision was described to the AP by a person speaking on the condition of anonymity in advance of the official announcement.

Although the coalition of eight academically elite schools does not grant athletic scholarships or compete for an NCAA football championship, the move could have ripple effects throughout the big business of college sports. Football players in the Power Five conferences have already begun workouts for a season that starts on Aug. 29, even as their schools weigh whether to open their campuses to students or continue classes remotely.

The Ivy decision affects not just football but everything before Jan. 1, including soccer, field hockey, volleyball and cross country, as well as the nonconference portion of the basketball season.

Power Five conferences told The Associated Press on Wednesday that they were still considering their options. But it was the Ivy League’s March 10 decision to scuttle its postseason basketball tournament that preceded a cascade of cancellations that eventually enveloped all major college and professional sports.

“What’s happening in other conferences is clearly a reflection of what’s happening nationally and any decisions are made within that context,” said Dr. Chris Kratochvil, the chair of the Big Ten’s infectious disease task force, adding that there is no “hard deadline” for a decision.

“Clearly, regardless of what happens in the fall, sports are coming back eventually,” he said. “So we want to make sure that whenever that time (is) right to return to competition, that we have the infrastructure and the recommendations in place to be able to do so safely for the student-athletes, staff, coaches, fans, students.”

Ivy League schools are spread across seven Northeastern states that, as of mid-July, have seen some success at controlling the COVID-19 outbreak. But most of those states still ban large gatherings; under the Massachusetts reopening plan, Harvard would not be allowed to have fans in the stands until a vaccine is developed.

Harvard has already announced that all classes for both semesters will be held virtually; dorms will be open only to freshmen and seniors. Yale said it would limit its dorms to 60% capacity and said most classes would be conducted remotely. Princeton will also do most of its teaching online, with dorms at half capacity.