Let’s start with the criticism before we get to the common sense: It is true that Duke isn’t having the kind of success it’s accustomed to thus far this season — just 2-2 after a 83-68 loss to Illinois on Tuesday.
So plenty of people will dismiss coach Mike Krzyzewski’s recent comments that maybe attempting to play this season right now makes no sense. Even Coach K knows the blowback is coming — he’s well aware that the Blue Devils have as many haters as fans.
“Look,” Krzyzewski said Tuesday, “I know somebody will take what I’m saying … and make it like I’m making excuses. I don’t make excuses. We need to get a lot better.
And here is where Krzyzewski is worth listening to and not just because he is a 73-year-old Hall of Famer who has coached teams to five NCAA titles and three Olympic gold medals. It’s because what he has to say about this halt-and-stop season is exactly what coaches with less gravitas and less stature are saying privately.
Namely, that the sport shouldn’t have attempted this under the current calendar and should consider pausing and pushing everything back — make March Madness into May Madness, or even June Madness, for example. By then, vaccines and other treatments should make life far smoother.
“For the good of the game and for the good of the safety and mental and physical health of players and staff, we need to constantly look at this thing,” Krzyzewski said. “ … I don’t think it feels right to anybody.”
Over 50 games have already been canceled or “postponed” in a season that began on Nov. 25.
That includes everything from last Saturday’s scheduled showdown of No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Baylor, to a Wednesday game between Michigan State and Virginia that was scratched hours after the Spartans flew to Charlottesville.
Exponentially more will fall by the wayside due to positive tests, quarantining and tracing protocols. Other than ditching all the standards and just playing (which isn’t going to happen), there is no way around this. Some teams have barely practiced.
Christmas for players: ‘They’re almost in prison,’ says Tom Izzo
“They're almost in prison,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said of his players’ current situation. “I don't want to make light of it, but it's more difficult than we all think.”
It’s far more difficult and it isn’t ending anytime soon. It’s clear that these basketball players are little more than television inventory, a chance for their schools and conferences to sell live sports at a time when neither the NBA nor the NHL have started their seasons.
There is no break for academic finals. There is no break for any kind of reason. Players can’t be sent home to visit families because of the risk of contracting COVID-19. They aren’t visiting off-campus bars or parties or getting pats on the back as they walk through campus. In most places, no other students are even there.
Everyone is penned in except when television cameras are pointed at them. Every day is just another day — the Big Ten even has a quadruple header scheduled for Christmas afternoon.
“A lot of kids aren’t going to be able to go home for Christmas, probably a time when they should for their mental health,” Krzyzewski said.
“Something just doesn’t feel right about it right now,” Pitt coach Jeff Capel said Monday.
Look, business is business and college basketball is big business. Figuring out how to operate during the pandemic is the challenge of every enterprise. Having already lost the 2020 NCAA tournament that funds so much of college athletics, the goal is simply to get to the end and cash the check.
The NCAA is working on playing the 2021 tourney entirely in the Indianapolis area to cut down on travel and create a pseudo-bubble. Krzyzewski understands this.
“We can't have it where two years in a row you don't have the NCAA tournament,” Krzyzewski said in August.
Except, did it have to happen in March?
Should NCAA Tournament, March Madness be delayed in 2021?
Veteran coach Rick Pitino, now in his first season at Iona, has been shouting about pushing things back until a January or even a March start date, when vaccines are available and perhaps the worst of the pandemic is behind America.
“Spiking and protocols make it impossible to play right now,” Pitino said.
There would be less television money in May or June, of course. The traditional March date is when the ratings would be highest. But how much revenue is being lost right now with strict standards, canceled games and things like Michigan State’s roundtrip charter flight to Virginia for no reason?
Right now the season is essentially thousands of “amateur” athletes living in quarantine, missing the crowds and excitement that come with playing college hoops, while hoping that some portion of their schedule actually happens.
No fans. No family. No normalcy, other than the traditional winter calendar.
Krzyzewski noted that the decision to start in late November was made by a committee before vaccine breakthroughs were announced. New information calls for new consideration.
“There are these vaccines that are coming out, that people say by the end of the month, 20 million vaccine shots will be given to our healthcare [workers],” Krzyzewski said. “And by the end of January or February, another 100 million.”
Now that we know this, should the timetable of the season change? College basketball is a lot of fun, but it’s a lot more fun when Gonzaga and Baylor actually play or Cameron Indoor is rocking with fans or players aren’t cooped up because no one wants to consider just waiting a little bit.
“Should we not assess that?” Krzyzewski said. “You know, just what would be best?”
If not, why not?
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