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‘The wrong side of history’: On the day the NCAA tournament died

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For the last five months, we have talked about how weird, how unprecedented and how unpredictable the 2020 college basketball season has been.

So it’s only fitting that it came to an end like this: With the NCAA self-imposing a tournament ban due to the spread of a global pandemic.

Coronavirus.

On Wednesday afternoon at precisely 4:16 p.m. ET, the NCAA sent out a press release announcing that all winter and spring championships would be cancelled. That included the 2020 men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments and came on the heels of every single conference tournament that had not been completed being cancelled, including the Big East tournament, which was ended after Creighton and St. John’s had played one half of basketball.

And in the end, it was the only choice that the organization had.

Postponing the event would have been, logistically, a near-impossibility. We have no idea what a timetable is for when it will be safe to play games again. What do you do with the students who get sent home because their campuses are going to online-only classes? Will they be in shape after spending a month or more away from their team, their practice facility and their coaches? Will they still be academically eligible?

More importantly, how will you keep the best players in the sport from beginning to focus on their professional careers and preparing for the draft? If May Madness were to happen, how would the NCAA balance that with the combine, or with next year’s freshman class arriving to campus?

Who are the automatic bids? Teams play an entire season with the idea in mind that they are going to get a shot at winning an automatic bid in their league tournament. Can you just change the rules like that?

And how, logistically, would you put together a 68-team, 13-city event in the span of, what, a week? Two weeks? Finding gyms, finding transportation for the teams, carving out time for those games to be broadcast.

That would be a nightmare.

In theory, it’s probably possible. In practice, however, I do not see how that gets done.

But playing the event next week was simply not an option, either. The coronavirus has a two-week incubation period. People are carrying the virus right now, as we speak, and have no idea that they are. Case in point: The CAA announced that an official that worked a game on the first day of the event tested positive for coronavirus. He did not show symptoms until 72 hours after the game that he was officiating had ended.

It seems virtually inevitable that there is going to be at least one Division I basketball player that tests positive for the virus. Imagine a scenario where the NCAA tournament was set to be played on time, like nothing was amiss, and after Creighton’s first round win St. John’s announces that one of its players has tested positive. Anyone that has had any recent, direct contact with a person that has tested positive is supposed to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Creighton would be scheduled to play their second round game the next day.

What would the NCAA do in that situation?

Without an adequate protocol for that precise scenario, there is simply no way that the NCAA tournament — any tournament, for that matter — could proceed.

It’s that simple.


I was getting my makeup finished when the news broke.

The American was first, announcing at 11:44 a.m. ET — just 16 minutes before today’s conference tournament action was set to begin — that they would be cancelling their event in Fort Worth. The Big Ten’s announcement came through seconds later. It was followed by the SEC, and the ACC, and the Pac-12.

I was on set at NBCSN. I was prepping to do studio analysis of VCU-UMass, the first of four games to be played in the Atlantic 10 tournament on the network. The news came through at 11:56 a.m. Our control room was alerted before anyone else. The event was being cancelled. The game that was supposed to tip in four minutes, where the teams had already gone through their entire warmup, would no longer be played. We had three minutes to shift gears, and spent the next 90 minutes live on national television trying to process the news along with everyone else.

I bring this up because of the immediacy of it all. One high-ranking source in a top-eight conference told me that he had spent the morning texting with administrators in every other power conference, working through their thought process and letting them know that “we’re inching closer to cancelling this thing.” Another source in a different high-major league said that they were on a call with their board of advisors that morning and that the shift was quick and immediate once the dominoes started to fall.

As one power conference associate commissioner told me, “I’m extremely concerned about being on the wrong side of history.”

If anyone was, it was the Big East, who opted to allow Creighton and St. John’s to play a half of basketball. Commissioner Val Ackerman sharply criticized the NCAA when asked about the decision to allow their Thursday tournament action to start.

“We had NCAA staff, who we’ve been looking to for guidance on a video conference with our presidents a few hours ago, and they did not let on that even they knew that some of these moves were being made by these other conferences,” Ackerman said at a news conference. “So that’s kind of how the last 24 hours have gone.”

As the images of teams getting pulled off of the court, packed into busses and sent back to their hotels started spreading, one thing became evident: It was only a matter of time before the NCAA tournament was toast.

And I’m sad.

I’m sad because March Madness is what I structure my entire life around. My family understands this. They allow me to do it. My parents and grandparents keep schedules clear in case they need to help out with the kids. My wife sacrifices nights and weekends to allow me to be able to work and travel. It’s the annual crescendo, from the February bubble watches to the conference tournaments to the insanity that is the first weekend until, finally, the Final Four.

My favorite week of the year.

So yes, I’m crushed.

This sucks.

But I’m just a guy that loves the sport and is lucky enough to talk about it and write about it.

The guys that are hurting more are the seniors that are not going to get a chance to play in the tournament. Hofstra hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament in 19 years. Their two-best players are seniors. It’s not going to happen for them even though they earned it, and I can’t imagine what they’re going through.

Or what about the kids at Dayton, or San Diego State, or Baylor. Those programs had a chance to do something that they have never done before and may never be in a position to do again. We’re talking about No. 1 seeds. Final Four contenders. Teams that could have won the national title.

What about seniors like Cassius Winston or Udoka Azubuike? Or the fans that had invested hundreds if not thousands of their own dollars to attend these events?

It sucks.

But it’s what had to be done.

So forgive me if I spend the next six hours drinking beer and watching videos of Gus Johnson losing his mind on YouTube.

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.