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Monday Overreactions: This is Tony Bennett’s best coaching job of his career

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Luwane Pipkins, Providence

Providence has just about played their way into the NCAA tournament thanks for a February that saw them win five games against ranked teams and earn six of their eight Quad 1 wins on the season.

And if you have been following the Friars closely this season, it may come as a surprise to you that the best player on the floor in those two games was point guard Luwane Pipkins. The grad transfer from UMass had 24 points in an 84-72 win over Marquette in the Dunk on Tuesday night and followed that up with 27 points in a 58-54 win at Villanova on Saturday.

Cooley’s offense has always been at its best when he has a star point guard on his roster, and Pipkins looks like he is starting to emerge as that guy.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: West Virginia and Texas Tech

Shout out to West Virginia and Texas Tech, because they pulled off some of the most impressive conference bid collusion that I have ever seen this week.

What is bid collusion you ask?

It’s when teams that have bids locked up lose to conference foes that are on the bubble to help ensure that those teams will be in the NCAA tournament as well. West Virginia lost at Texas on Monday and then fell to Oklahoma in Morgantown on Saturday. Texas Tech? They lost to Oklahoma in Norman on Tuesday and then lost to Texas at home on Saturday.

Oklahoma and Texas are the only two teams in the league that entered the week on or near the bubble.

That is bid collusion at its finest.

Well done, boys.

RELATEDBubble Watch | Bracketology | Conference Tournaments

MONDAY OVERREACTIONS

1. MICHIGAN STATE IS BACK, BABY

The No. 24 Spartans went into College Park and put together the best, most through and most dominant performance we’ve seen from them this season in a 78-66 win over No. 9 Maryland.

Is Michigan State back?

I think so, and I wrote an entire column about it on Saturday night.

2. THIS IS THE BEST COACHING JOB OF TONY BENNETT’S CAREER

The Cavaliers got 15 points, nine boards and 10 blocks from Jay Huff to put together their best win of the season, a 52-50 triumph over No. 6 Duke in Charlottesville on Saturday afternoon.

And for me, this is the crown jewel of what has been the best coaching job of Tony Bennett’s career. Look, this Virginia team is not all that talented. Their point guard, Kihei Clark, is the size of Baby Yoda. They play two bigs together that weigh a combined 197 pounds in Mamadi Diakite and Huff. Their shooters can not shoot. They are trying to piece together a rotation that includes the likes of Kody Stattman and Casey Morsell, neither of whom are ready to contribute on a stage like this.

Yet, here we are on March 1st, and Virginia is sitting one game out of first place in the ACC regular season standings. They are 21-7 on the season. They are 13-5 in the league. They have won six in a row and nine of their last ten. They were leading with under four minutes left in all five of the games that they lost in league play.

Virginia has no business being this good.

But it looks like they are.

3. SHAKA SMART MAY HAVE JUST SAVED HIS JOB

Texas won two games against ranked teams this week and put themselves into a really good position to try and snipe an at-large bid, but what is a far more interesting storyline with this program is what’s happening with their head coach. Over the last month, Shaka Smart has had to endure everyone wondering whether he would be replaced by Chris Beard or John Beilein. We weren’t even talking about whether or not he could survive this season. We skipped that part and went straight to hiring his replacement.

And it’s hard not to laugh at the irony here. Shaka went into Lubbock and got a win that could get him another season while coaching against the guy that everyone is speculating will be the coach to replace him. I see you, Shaka.

Texas is one of the best jobs in college basketball. It is the flagship program in a talent-rich state at a school where the athletic department has more money than they know what to do with while simultaneously caring very little about basketball. Oh, and Austin is a fun place to live, too. If Texas were to open, it would be the job that might actually make the coaching carousel get weird this spring. If it doesn’t open, you have to start wondering just how many changes are going to be made.

I like Shaka Smart. I don’t want to see him get fired. I also don’t think that he is the right fit for that job. Seeing how this plays out over the course of the next month is going to be absolutely fascinating and one of the biggest storylines in the sport.

4. IMMANUEL QUICKLEY IS THE MOST UNDER-APPRECIATED PLAYER IN THE COUNTRY

At this point, I think Quickley is a lock to win the SEC Player of the Year award. On a team where no one on the roster seems to have any kind of consistency, Quickley has been the rock. In his last 18 games, the 6-foot-3 off-guard is averaging 19.1 points and shooting 46.4 percent from three. He makes all of his free throws. This is anecdotal so I don’t know if it’s entirely accurate, but I’m pretty sure’s hit every single big shot that he has taken this season.

Quite simply, Quickley has been immense. He is Kentucky’s best player and the reason why they have a chance to make a run to the Final Four this season.

5. UDOKA AZUBUIKE HAS THE MOST IMPORTANT ANKLE ON THE PLANET

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again here: Udoka Azubuike is the most valuable player in the country because he allows Kansas to be able to play four guards, and the four-guard look is the reason this team is elite defensively and a cut above the rest of the country. He’s the best defensive center in the country and he is also the best lob-catcher in college basketball. He’s limited as a player, but in the role he is asked to play for the Jayhawks he is an absolute monster.

And on Saturday, he twice rolled his right ankle. He was able to return to the game after rolling it the first time, but he re-injured the ankle later in the game.

So just how worried should we be able Azubuike’s ankle? Bill Self said he was “fine,” and I don’t think that’s just coach-speak, because Self also told reporters this: “The way he laid on the ground initially, amputation may have been a viable course of action. But he came back, and we probably don’t win the game unless he’s able to give us some minutes.”

OK, I’ll be the one to say it: I’m glad you didn’t need your ankle amputated, Doke.

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.