College hoops is starting again. It faces an uphill slog

A social distancing sticker on the voter line at Stegeman Coliseum on the campus of the University of Georgia, on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020 in Athens.  (Joshua L. Jones /Athens Banner-Herald via AP)
A social distancing sticker on the voter line at Stegeman Coliseum on the campus of the University of Georgia, on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020 in Athens. (Joshua L. Jones /Athens Banner-Herald via AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

I packed for five nights in Nashville. I included items not usually in my travel gear – surgical gloves, Purell and a small barrel of wet wipes. I stopped just beyond Monteagle to get gas. It was March 11, 2020.

We in sports media already had begun to wonder how/if COVID-19 might change March Madness. One week earlier, I’d written a little something about how the NCAA tournament might get canceled, though – full disclosure – the pragmatist in me figured the games would go on no matter what.

I finished filling up. I saw an alert on my phone. The World Health Organization had declared this a global pandemic. I drove on. I switched to the coronavirus channel – yes, there was such a thing – on Sirius XM.

I arrived at the Nashville Omni, availing myself of the hand sanitizer in the lobby. I took a nap. (Like a hockey player, I swear by pregame naps.) I woke up and checked my computer. The NCAA had announced its tournament would be played without fans.

With that, the little corner of the world dedicated to sports changed. The SEC had just opened Bridgestone Arena’s doors for its opening session, and now the sport’s governing body had said, “We don’t think it’s safe to have fans.” By halftime of the Georgia game, reports held that other leagues were planning to close their tournaments to fans as of the next morning. I was told that, after the Georgia game ended, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey would make a similar announcement. Just before he took the podium, a media member in the interview area said, his eyes on his phone, “The NBA just suspended its season.”

The sports world was about to stop. Official cancellations of conference tournaments, the SEC’s included, came the next morning. I’d just crossed the Georgia state line when the NCAA announced its billion-dollar tournament, which was scheduled to conclude at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, wouldn’t be played in 2020.

Much has happened since. Baseball made it through a three-month-delayed 60-game season without fans. The NBA and NHL created playoff bubbles and crowned champions. The Masters moved to November. The AJC Peachtree Road Race was postponed from the Fourth of July until Thanksgiving; it later was changed to a virtual format. The NFL started on time but has seen its share of postponements, the most recent being Thursday’s Pittsburgh-Baltimore game. College football started late – as late as November for the Pac-12 – and is struggling. Fifteen games involving FBS teams were postponed/canceled two weeks ago; 16 games were quashed last weekend.

And now the circle is complete. College basketball, the sport at the epicenter of the first set of COVID-cancellations, has re-started – in some places. Duke was supposed to open against Gardner-Webb; that game was postponed. Georgia was supposed to open against Columbus State at 5 p.m. Wednesday; just after 3 p.m., the game was canceled.

The traditional Thanksgiving-week tournament in the Bahamas – the Battle 4 Atlantis – was canceled. An event set in Sioux Falls, S.D., was scheduled as a semi-replacement. Of the eight men’s teams that accepted an invitation, six dropped out. The tournament, known as the Bad Boys Mowers Crossover Classic, planned to allow 850 fans at each session. It was announced Monday fans wouldn’t be allowed. Virus-wise, South Dakota has become the nation’s hottest spot. Who saw that coming?

As difficult as it has been for college football, the path for college basketball in a pre-vaccine world is even more problematic. There are 126 FBS teams; there are 350 Division I basketball programs. The NCAA has moved the entirety of its 2021 tournament to Indianapolis – no First Four in Dayton, no subregionals, no regionals. The ACC announced Tuesday it was shifting its conference tournament, scheduled for Washington D.C., to Greensboro.

Tennessee, ranked No. 12 in preseason, pulled out of a Jimmy V Classic date against No. 1 Gonzaga; coach Rick Barnes has tested positive. Baylor, ranked No. 2, has canceled its first three games; coach Scott Drew has tested positive. Utah has canceled its first two games; coach Larry Krystkowiak has tested positive. As it did with football, the Ivy League has canceled all winter sports, hoops chief among them. Georgia Tech will not sell tickets to the general public this season. Duke won’t allow the Crazies inside Cameron Indoor Stadium.

This was Georgia coach Tom Crean, speaking last week of coaching during a pandemic: “We’ve had numerous cases of COVID on our team and our staff going back to the summertime, and now we’re testing three times a week. Now, when I get that message in the morning (that) everything was negative, I don’t want to say you breathe a sigh of relief, but it’s not a lot different that if you get the message that right now so-and-so is positive. You just have to be able to adjust.”

Then: “If we miss games, if we have people missing games, if we get shut down for a period of time, we’re going to have to make that adjustment, too. It starts with me as the leader of the team. If I show any frustration or panic, then why should I be upset if anybody else does? They’re already feeling the frustration of not knowing what’s coming. They’re already nervous. I see it in my own children. We’re all in this world where we’re doing our best to control it, but there’s a lot of times we can’t control it. I got a dose of this when (Michigan State coach) Tom Izzo got COVID – because I know how diligent he is. I know how anal he is in the sense of, ‘This is what we’re going to do and we’re not deviating from it.’ For him to have no true idea of how he got it, and for me to listen to him describe it, that’s just another dose – it’s uncontrollable. We’ve got to do everything we can to control it, and if it happens, then we’ve got to deal with it.”

We hear that three different vaccines could be ready in early 2021, but we’ve still got to get through Thanksgiving and Christmas. In the meantime, we’re left to do as we’ve been doing – trying to control the uncontrollable. Mike Krzyzewski, the most influential voice in basketball, has said the NCAA and its membership cannot afford the financial losses that would come from another canceled Big Dance, and we’ve seen other sports resume and play to a conclusion. None of those sports did it in the winter, though, and college hoops, unlike college football, is played entirely indoors.

Said Crean: “Am I confident (the season is) going to go the whole way? I don’t think anybody could look anybody in the eye and say that they are.”

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