Iowa Men's Basketball

Keep playing college basketball or not? Iowa's Fran McCaffery gives a firm affirmative

During pandemic, Iowa coach says playing is critical for players' mental health

Iowa basketball players come off the court following their 106-53 win over Northern Illinois Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Ar
Iowa basketball players come off the court following their 106-53 win over Northern Illinois Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Iowa’s highly-regarded men’s basketball opponent Saturday is an illustration of what this season will be like and has already been.

Gonzaga, the No. 1 team in the nation, was immune to defeat in games against Kansas, Auburn and West Virginia. But it canceled its Dec. 5 showdown with No. 2 Baylor in Indianapolis and four home games that were scheduled within the last week because of positive COVID-19 tests within the program.

The Zags paused activities until Monday. They play No. 3 Iowa Saturday in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Last week, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski questioned if the sport should continue during the pandemic.

“I would just like for the safety, the mental and physical health of players and staff to assess where we’re at,” Krzyzewski said.

“People are saying the next six weeks are going to be the worst,” Krzyzewski said. “To me, it’s already pretty bad. On the other side of it, there are these vaccines that are coming out. By the end of the month, 20 million vaccine shots will be given. By the end of January or in February, another 100 million. Should we not reassess that? See just what would be best?”

On an ESPN telecast of a college basketball game last week, commentator Jay Bilas said “It’s a fair question to ask, ‘should we be doing this?’ We are going to continue to see these kind of disruptions over and over again.

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“We’ve been advised by our government to not travel over the holidays and yet these players are traveling. There are a lot of questions that need to be asked, but we have not had that national conversation. And that’s been a failure in leadership. It’s the NCAA, one, but then it’s also all the different conferences.”

Iowa has played all six of its scheduled games. Iowa State had a home game with DePaul canceled on Dec. 6 about an hour before it was supposed to start because of coronavirus protocols in DePaul’s program. Northern Iowa announced Sunday that it was pausing team activities and wouldn’t be playing at Wisconsin Wednesday or at Marshall Saturday.

Maryland has had four opponents cancel because of positive tests. Northwestern’s scheduled game against SIU-Edwardsville Sunday was canceled hours before it was to start because SIUE had a positive COVID-19 test.

Kansas’ scheduled game against Tarleton State Sunday was canceled Friday because of a case within Tarleton State’s program. Coincidentally, Tarleton State was one of the teams Gonzaga was supposed to host last week before the Zags paused their activities.

“Some games have been canceled,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said recently, “and when they’re canceled they’re canceled for the right reasons.

“Fortunately, we haven’t had any yet, and we may. If we do, we’ll cancel them. We’ll make the prudent decisions at the time. But over 80 percent have been played without issue and we’re going to continue to play them.”

McCaffery is on the side of those who is very much in favor of this season continuing as it has been.

“I’m 100 percent behind our league and the NCAA’s decision to play college basketball for a variety of reasons,” McCaffery said, “not the least of which is our players have been fortunate enough due to the diligence of our conference and also our institution to have really sound protocols with regards to health and welfare.

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“But health and welfare extends beyond whether or not we get COVID. Our mental health is absolutely critical. Kids aren’t in school, kids don’t go anywhere, they don’t socialize. But we have the opportunity to come together every day in practice and prepare to do something we love to do and compete and provide something the fans enjoy watching on television.”

Unlike high school sports, or nearly the entire general population, Big Ten basketball and football teams have access of daily COVID-19 testing.

“For us, with daily tests it gives you a clear picture every day on who’s positive, who’s negative,” said McCaffery. “So we can confidently go to practice knowing we’ve got a team full of guys who tested negative and we can interact with each other and impress upon them the importance of being diligent with where they go and who they go there with, and understand this could be jeopardized by making poor decisions in that regard.

“Going back, when school first started I’m not sure every student, athlete or not, was making good decisions.”

McCaffery said he wouldn’t send any player onto the court if he thought if it were unsafe.

“We’ve provided a safe environment,” he said. “It’s what’s best for these kids to be focused and concentrated on what they want to do and what they’re capable of doing. They’re having fun doing it.

“What would we be doing? We’re not playing basketball, we’re not going to school. You’re not socializing. What are you doing? Nobody’s doing anything. And it’s not the right way to live.

“We’re all thrilled for the opportunity and I think it also helps you appreciate to never take for granted this opportunity to play college basketball. It’s pretty special.

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“I feel the same way just having the opportunity to coach these young men and how proud I am of them and what they’re doing and how mature they’ve been. We’re just going to keep plugging forward.”

Comments: (319) 398-8440; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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