How Kansas Jayhawks, Iowa Hawkeyes avoided COVID-19 issues — and what it means for the NCAA tournament

March 8, 2021 8:39 am by Web Desk

Kansas Jayhawks star David McCormack remembers the eerie feeling on campus when he finally returned last summer. The normally bustling university, where 28,000 students are enrolled, was quiet.

“You get back on campus and you’re ready to see student life,” he said.

At that point, McCormack and his colleagues around the country did not know what to expect in the months ahead. Unlike the NBA, which had regrouped in a bubble after a temporary stoppage, or college football and the NFL, where leaders had consistently maintained confidence in plans to stage a season, college basketball had already felt the heartbreak of losing its most important event when officials canceled the 2020 NCAA tournament due to concerns about COVID-19.

That’s why the college basketball folks who have reached this point — just days before Selection Sunday — are grateful the sport has moved forward but also are quietly cautious about what’s next. Optimism? Yes. But those within the sport aren’t celebrating yet because they know how quickly everything can change.

They also, however, have learned lessons that they will apply as protocols for conference tournament action, and the sport’s signature event will demand more rigorous testing and new rules that could eliminate a team from the field and cost it a shot at a national title because of multiple positive tests.

For Kansas, adherence to restrictions seemed to help the program weather a rocky stretch in January, when the Jayhawks went 3-4 in the Big 12. Coach Bill Self hasn’t made excuses for that portion of the season, admitting his team just wasn’t very good then.

By avoiding the lengthy pauses that have affected other elite programs, such as Baylor and Michigan, Kansas was able to play through those challenges and rebuild its momentum. The Jayhawks have suffered just one loss since Feb. 6 — 75-72 on the road against Texas — and regained their mojo.

“Having more games definitely helped us find our rhythm,” McCormack said.

Only Kansas, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Iowa State completed the 18-game slate in the Big 12. Self called some of that fortuitous, but he also credited the folks behind the scenes who have helped keep the program focused.

“My guys and our entire staff, they’ve done an unbelievable job,” Self said. “So much of this is good fortune, maybe luck. Our guys did a good job putting them in a position to maybe play the percentages. … That could all change next week. Our guys have hung in there pretty good.”

Iowa Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery held a team meeting prior to the start of the season. His message was clear: Socialize within the team and stay vigilant about reaching Iowa’s dreams, which parties and bars could ruin. The emphasis of safety, McCaffery said, helped the team bond as it managed to escape some of the rough spots experienced by other programs. Iowa had two games postponed because of issues with its opponents.

“We had a goal in mind to have a great season and remain together in how we live our lives,” McCaffery said on Sunday. “A lot of guys didn’t have a lot of knowledge as to what was going on. The only thing we held on to was each other. … I think the maturity level of the guys in the locker room and the commitment level has been the key to everything.”

Luka Garza, a Wooden Award contender who will have his number retired by Iowa after the season, said the team adapted to the new rules. Weekends typically spent with other students in Iowa City, Iowa, became more time spent with teammates after practice and games this year. They can’t seem to escape one another, but they don’t mind.

“Before the season, we had a meeting to make sure that everybody on this team is doing what we’re supposed to do,” Garza said. “If we’re going to get COVID, it’s going to be from an unfortunate error. I just have to credit all my teammates for being consistent with that. It’s been great, and it’s grown us closer together. … We haven’t had any really disrupted rhythm by a long pause. I think it has been good for us. It’s a credit to all our guys.”

The lengthy grind of the 2020-21 campaign has also humbled coaches, players and staffers, who now understand how quickly things can end. While some programs have enjoyed the fruits of continuous action, others have had to reset, some multiple times. Baylor and Michigan — both sidelined for multiple weeks — have not made excuses for the rust both showed after their returns.

Baylor struggled in its first game back from a three-week pause, a 77-72 home win over Iowa State on Feb. 23, before losing at Kansas four days later. But the Bears have since won three in a row over West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.

Michigan’s first half against Wisconsin on Valentine’s Day following a long pause was rocky. But the Wolverines looked better after halftime of their win, the first of five consecutive post-pause victories.

Last week, they sealed the Big Ten regular-season title — the first for Michigan in seven years — a humbling accomplishment for coach Juwan Howard.

“It has been a very challenging time to play basketball during the pandemic,” he said last week. “Our players love the game of basketball, and they compete.”

Still, there is a lot of time between now and the first day of the NCAA tournament. While most conference tournaments will demand frequent testing, a hiccup could change the entire field. Protocols for the NCAA tournament could mean elimination — and replacement by one of the first four at-large candidates left out of the 68-team field — if a team is hit with multiple positive tests.

It’s that fear that prompted Josh Pastner to keep his Georgia Tech team on the road after its 75-63 win at Wake Forest on Friday. This week, the Yellow Jackets — an 11-seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket forecast — decided to stay in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, rather than travel home to Atlanta during the NBA All-Star break before making the trek to Greensboro, North Carolina, for the ACC tournament.

Pastner said he didn’t want to risk anything by going back to Atlanta. His precautions don’t only include travel plans, though. When the team enjoyed an ice cream bar at its hotel on Saturday, he made sure that every player wore gloves.

“We’re here,” Pastner said from the team’s hotel. “We thought, with Atlanta and the All-Star Weekend, we said, ‘Let’s just avoid that.’ We thought it would be best to stay.”

Pastner isn’t the only coach doing everything he can to help his team prepare for the postseason and the rules that come with it. Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said the Big Ten’s decision to move its tournament to Indianapolis will help his team get acclimated.

“Obviously, it’s going to be a bubble,” he told ESPN Radio last month. “It’s going to be very restricted. You’ve got everybody in single rooms. See, I think you have to be very careful and dialed-in. We’re bringing gaming systems. We’re bringing beanbag chairs. We’re bringing workout gear. Workout equipment to put in our meeting rooms. All of those things to keep some level of normal life. You just can’t have athletes go to practice, play your game and then go back to the rooms by themselves. We’ve got to create some sort of mental release for them to have fun.”

It will all end in Indianapolis. Some of the teams that will compete for the sport’s final prize have spent weeks in limbo at different points in the season. Other teams have been largely uninterrupted. But they’ve all shared the same determination through the inescapable adjustments that come with competing in a pandemic.

Many coaches believe that the NCAA has managed to create a safe environment for the first men’s basketball national championship tournament held at one site in the sport’s history. Once the teams have settled in, they expect everything to run smoothly.

But the coming days will offer a reminder of what happened a year ago, when the hopefulness and excitement of the tournament was quickly crushed by reality. Once the NBA put its season on hold after Rudy Gobert tested positive last March, it was clear the NCAA wouldn’t be able to continue, either.

Now, the sport has returned to the same juncture. And it is ready — again — to dazzle the sports world for three weeks in March and April. College basketball — knock on wood — will host its first postseason and NCAA tournament in two years.

For many, there is a sense of pride attached to that achievement because they know the work that has been done behind the scenes to support players, coaches and staffers in this unique season.

“In college basketball,” Pastner said, “everyone involved — administrators, coaches, players — deserve an enormous amount of credit.”

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