UNCASVILLE, Conn. — The longest, rockiest, most dramatic offseason in college basketball history is finally behind us.
It’s over. Forever in our rearview mirror.
The date now reads Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020. Today is the day college basketball again has a season. No major American sport — team or individual — had a longer halt than college hoops. March 12, the day the NCAA Tournament was canceled and the day all sports in America went on ice, was 258 days ago.
We finally made it.
Thank you, college basketball, for being back in our lives. Thank you for finding a way back — even if plenty of us doubted whether it was truly going to happen. Thanks for being here during the week of Thanksgiving, when the sport helps make up the tapestry and adorns the edges of a sports viewing experience dominated by professional and college football. It’s going to look a lot different. There are no games happening in Maui or the Bahamas. Final Four contenders Baylor, Duke and Tennessee had to push off playing on opening day due to COVID-19. No, there will be no normal for the next three, four, five or maybe even six months (if the NCAA Tournament winds up not happening until April or May).
But the season is here now, and damn does that feel good to write. It’s been hard to dodge the negative news that’s pelted college basketball on a near-daily basis for the past month-plus. And that news should be taken seriously. This is a global pandemic. The sport has been struggling to get off the runway, but that bird will fly. Amid all the noise, keep this in mind: more than 80 games between two D-I teams are scheduled for Wednesday, and another 34 vs. non-Division I opponents are slated on top of that. Across the country we will have college basketball. Sure, by the time you read this we might have lost another two, three or five games.
This will seem like a bigger deal in college basketball because the sport has 357 teams. College football has 130. The NFL has 32. The NHL has 31. The NBA and Major League Baseball have 30. This sport is bursting with 357 teams in 49 states and is going to try and hold a season as winter approaches and the coronavirus situation is worsening in every state in America. College basketball will worry about going to an all-out controlled environment by the time the NCAA Tournament comes. For now, it will be patchwork, it will be messy, but the powers-that-be have determined that there must be games.
We are having a season. It starts today.
There will be criticism. Some of it will be justified.
But we will have games.
I had a chance to speak with Virginia coach Tony Bennett, Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley and Rhode Island coach David Cox after their practices here at Mohegan Sun on Tuesday. We hit on a couple different things with their teams, getting settled in Connecticut’s “Bubbleville” and the not-so-patient wait to get cleared with testing earlier in the day. But above all that, these coaches gave off a sense of gratitude for being able to finally begin again. This pandemic has been a rage on mental health for everyone, but especially the players.
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The players want this. Don’t forget about them — they matter most, far as I can tell. The most important people in this wobbly experiment of a season are the players. They want the opportunity. They’re putting their health at risk but are, in effect, opting to play a game for free, and do so because they crave a return to competition and a bend toward some normalcy. I took in practices with four teams Tuesday here at Mohegan Sun, which will be host to approximately three dozen games in the next 10 days. I can report that moods are high, players are eager to finally get some good back in the form of games and doing what they love as much or more than anything: hoop.
It’s been a hellish ride to this point. Mohegan Sun lost two teams to testing issues on Tuesday. Stephen F. Austin had a non-essential person in its travel party test positive, while Maine had a lagging positive from a previous test prior to its departure to Connecticut. Flexibility is key. Bennett was joking that scouting and prep at this point is just another spin of the wheel of randomness that is 2020. Towson coach Pat Skerry agreed. His staff had to prep for four different opponents over the course of about 48 hours.
Those two teams — Virginia vs. Towson — will be who start the day here at Mohegan. Here’s Wednesday’s schedule:
Around the country, we’ll have goodies. There’s UCLA vs. San Diego State in probably the best game of the day — and that’s on CBS Sports Network at 10:30 p.m. ET. Elsewhere, Saint Mary’s vs. Memphis and Northern Iowa vs. Western Kentucky are also pretty good. We don’t have the marquee game; the coronavirus made sure of that. (The Champions Classic is next week.) But Thanksgiving will bring us No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 6 Kansas. That is stupendous.
This is going to be bouncy on an every-week basis. I’m excited about Luka Garza being back with Iowa. I’m ready to see Cade Cunningham star for Oklahoma State, and interested to check out Kentucky’s, which is again loaded again with some irresistible talent. With Tuesday’s news that Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard was at Gonzaga, Mark Few pretty obviously looks to have the best roster in the sport.
We won’t have to wonder much longer. The games are here. College basketball — both men’s and women’s — were the only mainstream sports to not crown a champion in 2020. College hoops had to wait the longest. Now comes a wicked endeavor of trying to do this from late fall all the way through the winter. The players have made it known that they want in. They deserve their chance. However erratically, cautiously and stubbornly, we are doing this.
Today is a day for cheer, for joy, for optimism and, on the day before a most treasured national holiday, today is a day for giving thanks.