There is, it seems, no certainty. Schedules are written in pencil. Pencils come with erasers, and they might be worn to the nub by mid-December. The goal — to be honest, the financial necessity — is to pull off an NCAA tournament come March. How many players and coaches and support staff will test positive between now and then? Add that to the list of uncertainties that spreads from the ACC to the Pac-12.
And then there’s the Ivy League.
“I knew this was going to happen last June,” said James Jones, who should be coaching his 22nd season at Yale.
“News about tough decisions like this is certainly challenging to deliver,” said Tommy Amaker, who would be in his 14th season coaching Harvard. “But our kids, they saw what happened in the spring.”
“Once we get over being angry and mourning this, you’ve got to get off the mat,” said Steve Donahue, who should be entering his sixth season at Penn and coached another 10 at Cornell. “You can’t feel sorry for yourselves. This disease has crushed so many lives and families and businesses. We’re just another aspect of it.”
This month, the Ivy League presidents voted to cancel all winter sports for the 2020-21 school year. This, after the Ivy League got out ahead of the virus in the spring, becoming the first league to cancel its conference basketball tournament. There was pain that came with each announcement. That’s undeniable.
“It’s just heartbreaking for those kids that have this short, four-year window that they worked their whole lives to do,” Donahue said, “and it’s taken away.”
In the nearly two weeks since the most recent decision, though, virus cases have skyrocketed nationally. According to The Washington Post’s coronavirus tracker, the rolling seven-day average for new cases is more than 171,000 — an all-time high. So many colleges are sending home the students who had been on campus and won’t welcome them back until at least mid-January — if not later, if at all.
The college basketball season is supposed to go off — on time — in the midst of all this? No.
“In moments like this, leadership is about relying on and trusting your principles and your people,” Amaker said last week. “That’s how decisions have to be made. We made the decision in the spring that that’s what we were doing in canceling the tournament, and it turned out we were profoundly correct. We were out ahead of it.
“And that’s how the decision was made more recently. It’s not easy. It’s not taken lightly. But I do think at the end of the day, the decision-makers — the Ivy League presidents — were only trying to do what I think is right.”
No one is suggesting that the Ivy League has as much wrapped up in the successful completion of a men’s basketball season as the ACC or the Big Ten. Because conferences receive payouts for each game their teams play in the NCAA tournament, the sport’s major programs rely heavily on repeated, deep runs in March by members of their conferences.
In 2019, for instance, the ACC sent seven teams to the tournament, five to the round of 16, and Virginia won the national title. More teams playing more games means more slices of the NCAA tournament’s television revenue — which is $771 million per year through 2024 and up to $1.1 billion annually.
The Ivy League, on the other hand, annually receives a single bid. It’ll get by.
But while the Ivy sits out, programs across the country are playing some version of Twister in an attempt to start the season — not knowing the impact on the health of their players and staff, not knowing where the virus is headed as winter comes, not knowing whether the tournament that would bring the revenue can be staged at all.
The coaches in the Ivy League? They’re not even practicing. They’re just trying to keep their players — scattered all over the country — engaged. They have done Zoom calls. They have suggested drills.
“We’ve done that for nine months,” Donahue said. “We’re out of all the tricks.”
Athletes at Ivy League schools can’t redshirt. They have eight semesters on campus and eight semesters to be eligible. With that in mind, 10 of Jones’s players at Yale opted out this fall — not just of the season, but of school — with hopes of returning when things return to normal. They’re working at internships and trying to better themselves.
There will be tough times ahead, each coach said. They’ll flip on a game and wish they were the ones drawing up plays. They’ll think about their players.
“Small wins are what we’re trying to search for when we can’t get together,” Amaker said.
But there’s also a bigger picture, one we should all see as the virus surges again. When Wichita State’s team departed the Crossover Classic, the tournament hastened to replace it with Virginia Commonwealth, which was searching for games after the Volunteer Classic was canceled following the positive tests of Tennessee Coach Rick Barnes and others in the Volunteers’ program. The Paradise Jam was relocated from the U.S. Virgin Islands to the District of Columbia, where Howard, George Mason, Belmont and Northeastern were scheduled to play at the convention center in front of zero fans — until Northeastern pulled out Tuesday and delayed the winter season because athletes in five of its sports had tested positive. When California’s Wednesday opener was canceled because of positive tests in Colorado State’s program, the Bears announced Tuesday they instead would play Oregon State in Corvallis, Ore., on Wednesday.
“I look at it this way,” Jones said. “You think about our forefathers and what they dealt with — slavery, world wars. We’re asking guys to stay home and watch TV. This is the worst thing that’s happened to us in our time — other than 9/11. The way we live and how we live is the top 1 percent in the world. The fact that we have this bump in the road for a year or so, that we can’t play basketball, is that really a big deal? What are we talking about here?”
Jones said this by phone from his car. But he also knows, too, he has something his fellow coaches don’t: the trophy for the conference championship sitting on his office desk.
“I’ll get to look at that for another year,” he said. “And then next fall, I will be so excited to get back on the court, I won’t know what to do with myself. I’ll be like a kid on Christmas morning.”
Teams from every other conference will be chasing that same feeling Wednesday, but in a season during which anticipation so often will be replaced by dread, all their efforts may amount to the pursuit of madness.
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