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Amid college basketball’s pandemic ‘mess,’ calls for pausing the season grow louder

Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said he thinks the NCAA should at least discuss whether playing college basketball is a good idea right now. (Gerry Broome/AP)

Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski swore he was not making excuses Tuesday night after his team suffered its second nonconference loss at home, the first time that has happened in one season since 1982-83. But he nonetheless raised the question after the Blue Devils’ 15-point loss to Illinois: Should college basketball teams be playing amid a national coronavirus spike that is causing games to be canceled and teams to scramble on a daily basis?

“I don’t think it feels right to anybody,” Krzyzewski, major college basketball’s all-time leader in career victories, told reporters. “I’m not sure who leads college basketball, you know. It’s done by committee. You have [an] oversight committee, you have this committee, and anything that’s led by committee is not agile in handling a situation. And so we made an assessment, and there was a consensus. It wasn’t, like, well planned that we’re going to start November 25. …

“Basically, it was more of a mentality of, ‘Get as many games in as possible.’ And I think I would just like, just for the safety, the mental health and the physical health of our players and staff … like, to assess where we’re at.”

In mid-September, about six months after the cancellation of the 2020 men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments, the NCAA announced that this year’s basketball season would begin Nov. 25 with teams allowed to play 27 games, at most. A handful of Division I programs — the eight-member Ivy League, Bethune-Cookman and Maryland Eastern Shore — opted to cancel their men’s and women’s seasons. But dozens of teams that have played on — including top-ranked Gonzaga; No. 7 Houston; 12th-ranked Tennessee, which didn’t play its first game until Tuesday night; and No. 18 Virginia, the most recent NCAA men’s champion — have had to pause their seasons because of positive coronavirus tests. Hundreds of games have been postponed or canceled, some of them within hours of tip-off after teams already were on-site.

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During Tuesday night’s Duke-Illinois telecast, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said the country was in much better shape with the pandemic when the NCAA decided a few months ago to move forward with its basketball seasons. But with coronavirus numbers spiking across the nation, Bilas said it might be time to consider whether the season should be paused until the virus is better under control.

“The question I have is, if we were deciding to start now, would we start now?” Bilas said. “The answer, I think, would be no.”

“I’m sensitive to the fact that the players want to play. I get it,” Bilas continued. “But we also have to acknowledge that the circumstances have changed. . . . If we were playing outdoors and there were lightning in the area, we wouldn’t canvass the players to decide if they wanted to play. We would say: ‘It’s too dangerous. We’ve got to pause for now.’ ”

Rick Pitino, the longtime coach who’s in his first year at Iona, has repeatedly called for the NCAA to delay the season until after the new year, saying in mid-November that teams should be restricted to conference-only schedules and that the NCAA tournament should be played in May instead of its usual March.

When the season started Nov. 25, the Gaels were in the midst of a 14-day, NCAA-mandated shutdown after a person associated with the program tested positive for the coronavirus. Iona’s first four games were canceled, and it has seen two more called off since because of coronavirus issues with opposing teams.

“What a mess,” Pitino tweeted Dec. 3 in announcing that the Gaels’ home opener against Merrimack was canceled. “Hopefully, we’ll someday celebrate our freedom from this virus. Stay safe.”

The NCAA last month announced that it plans to hold its 2021 men’s basketball tournament in one location, possibly Indianapolis, to limit the spread of the coronavirus and to avoid interruption of the wildly popular event, which generates more than 70 percent of the NCAA’s $1.1 billion in annual revenue. There are no plans to adjust the women’s tournament or to change the dates for the men’s version of “March Madness,” whose early rounds are typically staged at 13 locations around the country.

In response to a request for comment on whether pausing the season has been considered by the sport’s leadership, the NCAA referred The Washington Post to comments made by President Mark Emmert in an interview Tuesday with the Associated Press.

“We’ve done a whole array of things, many of which member schools in the past have said: ‘No, no, no, we can’t do that. That’s not right.’ Well, we’re doing it. And the sporting world hasn’t collapsed,” Emmert said of how the governing body has addressed issues stemming from the pandemic, including scheduling. “And so can we, as we move forward, say, well, why can’t we continue to do that? Why can’t we continue to provide more flexibility? Why can’t we continue to think more creatively about scheduling models and about the way we run a variety of elements of the associations?"

Stanford women’s coach Tara VanDerveer is one win from tying Tennessee’s Pat Summitt for the most in the history of women’s college basketball (1,098), but her next attempt to do so — Friday against UC Davis — was canceled Tuesday. The top-ranked Cardinal relocated to Las Vegas because of Santa Clara County’s ban on athletic activities that involve physical contact or take place indoors, while the Aggies paused their program to comply with Yolo County’s new coronavirus regulations.

“The pandemic, the situation we’re in, it really makes you appreciate each game,” VanDerveer told the AP after her team ascended to the top spot in the rankings even though three of its games had been canceled or postponed. “Each game is so precious, and we’re so excited to be playing. We’re here in Vegas. We don’t know what our schedule is. We’re working the phones, trying to get games.”

Teams indeed have been creating new schedules on the fly. Iona’s first game — Nov. 30 against Seton Hall, another team that was amid a coronavirus pause when the season began Nov. 25 — was scheduled only two days before it was played. No. 2 Baylor, meanwhile, had its first three games of the season canceled after Coach Scott Drew tested positive. But instead of sitting idle, the Bears flew to Las Vegas on Thanksgiving night for two tentative games without even knowing the identities of the opponents (Baylor would score wins over Louisiana and Washington in Las Vegas, with assistant Jerome Tang coaching the team in Drew’s absence).

Maryland’s previous game before Wednesday was Friday afternoon’s rout of Saint Peter’s, which replaced George Mason on the Terrapins’ scrambled schedule after a positive coronavirus test in the Patriots’ program. Maryland was scheduled to depart for a game the next day at James Madison via bus after Friday’s game, but the game against the Dukes — themselves a replacement opponent for Maryland after a Dec. 1 game against Towson was canceled — was called off about 15 minutes before the Terrapins were scheduled to leave College Park after James Madison reported a positive test within its program.

Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon was asked about the uncertain situation.

“We were disappointed the game got canceled Saturday. We were packed and getting ready to get on the bus. Just to get away and travel might have been good for everybody’s mojo, but didn’t happen,” Turgeon said. “You adjust your schedule to the lost game, and we’ve had a little bit more practice time because of it. We would have had a little bit less. So you’ve got to think of that as a positive. And just kind of go from there. It’s one day at a time. It really is.”

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