Michigan State basketball's Tom Izzo should be furious after Virginia postponement debacle

Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
·6 min read

Welcome to the present state of college basketball. How long it lasts, nobody knows.

At 6:18 p.m., Tom Izzo and the Michigan State Spartans took off in a chartered airplane from Capital Region International Airport in Lansing for a 1-hour, 1-minute flight to Charlottesville-Ablemarle Airport in Virginia.

About four hours later in their hotel, around 11:30 p.m., Izzo and the Spartans learned the ACC/Big Ten Challenge game had been canceled. “Postponed due to COVID-19 issues within the Cavaliers’ program,” was how the official release read, less than 24 hours before the scheduled 9:15 p.m. tipoff between No. 4 MSU and No. 18 Virginia.

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo yells from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Detroit Mercy, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo yells from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Detroit Mercy, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020, in East Lansing, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Instead, the team spent the night in the hotel and is scheduled to board that same plane in Charlottesville around 11:10 a.m. and get back home around 12:25 p.m.

If Izzo isn’t furious, he should be.

The Hall of Fame coach already experienced the physical toll of his own COVID-19 case just before the season. His assistant coach, Dwayne Stephens, dealt with the emotional cost of losing his father to the virus in April. Now, his players are left to cope with the psychological ramifications of preparing for and traveling to a major road game only to have it called off.

“Forty years ago, I don't know if I could have done what they're doing in college,” Izzo said Tuesday afternoon before boarding the flight. “They're almost in prison. … I don't want to make light of it, but it's more difficult than we all think.”

It was supposed to be MSU’s second and final road game of the nonconference season. The Spartans next face Oakland on Sunday at Breslin Center, and it is unclear whether the Virginia game — which was to pit MSU’s Joey Hauser against his older brother, Sam — will be made up.

Izzo’s opponent a week earlier, Mike Krzyzewski, was asked after Duke’s loss to Illinois on Tuesday night about the situation.

He did not hold back.

“I don’t think it feels right to anybody,” Krzyzewski told reporters. “I mean, everyone is concerned. I'm not sure who leads college basketball. … For the good of the game, and the safety, the mental and physical health of our players and staff and whatever, we need to constantly look at this thing. And I think that’s a smart thing to do.

“I know the NCAA is worried about the end game. They’re not as worried about the game we’re playing right now.”

This one is on the Big Ten. And the Atlantic Coast Conference. And the NCAA and all of its member institutions for not making it a priority to be on the same page and come to mutual agreements to follow the same guidelines if they tried to play.

Schools within the Big Ten and ACC who were scheduled to play each other supposedly agreed on strict and appropriate levels of pre-competition testing, with one person with knowledge of the situation calling them “strict cancellation guidelines around positive tests” that might be discovered.

But those tests and test results should have been determined before any team stepped foot in an airport.

Instead, MSU-Virginia became the third game scheduled for Wednesday in the leagues’ annual challenge event wiped out due to COVID-19 cases, all emanating among the ACC teams. Louisville had to cancel its game with Wisconsin and North Carolina State with Michigan, both on Monday before anyone traveled. A fourth ACC program, Wake Forest, also had to stop all team activities but was not scheduled to play in the challenge this season.

Remember back to July 9? The first thing the Big Ten did with football was call off all nonconference competition.

“By limiting competition to other Big Ten institutions,” the league said in its statement about fall sports that day, “the conference will have the greatest flexibility to adjust its own operations throughout the season and make quick decisions in real-time based on the most current evolving medical advice and the fluid nature of the pandemic.”

All fall sports got canceled in August. Then football resumed in September, with a league-only schedule and a requirement for six days-a-week rapid antigen testing within the 14 programs. That was meant to create as close to a bubble-like environment as possible, and basketball and hockey would follow.

So what changed for winter sports? Particularly with COVID-19 numbers continually rising regionally in the Midwest and nationally since the season kicked off in early October? With Indiana, Purdue and Michigan football programs all dealing with pauses in the final week of the scheduled portion of the season? And even more specifically, with sports now moving indoors as cases mount?

The Big Ten isn’t saying. But Tuesday night’s late cancellation of MSU’s game is concerning. And it is why an anonymous Power Five coach recently told Yahoo! Sports, “Us playing nonconference games is going to prevent us from playing conference games. Why can’t we figure this out?”

A true bubble like the NBA’s was never feasible because these are not pro athletes under contract. Everything is placed on the players/students to abide by what is being termed “behavior modifications” to limit contact from anyone outside their teams. Including families. In November and December.

Izzo and women’s coach Suzy Merchant’s teams did not spend Thanksgiving with their families. Instead, their players took turns eating their turkey dinners in Breslin Center’s concourse, and their parents and loved ones joined them via video call during their meals.

It is all about trying to artificially provide some semblance of normalcy during a dysfunctional and disruptive time. Even though everyone knows it is completely abnormal.

"It's difficult for everybody's kids," Izzo said. "And sometimes as adults, we don't understand that."

Izzo said he and his staff are working on plans to do something for Christmas, a day his team is scheduled to host the Badgers for a Big Ten showdown, MSU's first Dec. 25 game in program history. Krzyzewski on Tuesday night said the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball Oversight Committees might want to revisit as soon as possible to allow players to be with their families.

“It’s probably a time when they should, for mental health,” Krzyzewski said. “But we’re just plowing through this.”

The uncertainty of the pandemic is why the Ivy League last month canceled all its winter sports. There is a disconnect with those others still trying to plod along that won’t be fixed until conferences’ protocols align for all sports. Krzyzewski said coaches and administrators do not even get a regularly updated list of schools around the country that are on pause due to COVID-19 issues. He called it “sad.”

Because without consistency, clarity and communication, there will be more situations like MSU’s abrupt and abbreviated trip coming.

“You got people saying the next six weeks are gonna be the worst,” he said. “I mean, it’s already pretty bad.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Tom Izzo should be furious after MSU-Virginia postponement debacle