College basketball begins strange season in empty arenas

The strangest anticipated season in college basketball history kicked off Wednesday with dozens of games in arenas across the country.

Like everything else in this pandemic world, it was strange and disjointed.

Cancellations, protests, quarantined players, swarmed audiences, masked cheerleaders, socially distant couches – the beginning of the season matched the chaotic build-up.

One day, who knows how many are left.

“I’d like normalcy, I’d like a routine, but that’s not what we have now,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams. “You can do everything you can and still make a mistake. But in the process, you have to do everything you can do and be willing to handle everything. “

College basketball, like the rest of the sports world, was confused last March when the rising coronavirus pandemic stopped it all.

Cancellation of the NCAA tournament cost the NCAA $ 375 million in revenue, so the organization managing college sports was determined to make it through the 2020-21 season.

The prelude to Wednesday’s start followed the lead of a college football season full of cancellations, shutdowns, and last-minute substitutions.

Dozens of college basketball programs were canceled due to positive COVID-19 tests, including big names like Tom Izzo, Scott Drew and Jim Boeheim. Games are canceled almost every hour. Programs went in and out of multi-team events like a game of whack-a-mole.

The first big event in Connecticut called Bubbleville became more like Juggleville when teams dropped out, replacements came in, and scheduling became like sorting through AAU brackets.

While gamblers socially distanced themselves at the Mohegan Sun casino, no fans were allowed in the 10,000-seat arena for the opening game between Virginia and Towson, a late replacement for coronavirus-stricken Maine.

Cardboard cutouts filled the spaces behind the baskets, and recorded audience noise was funneled in to replace the roaring roars of true fans. Screeching buses and squeaky sneakers echoed in the empty seats, and seats on the benches were spread out for social distance – as they were in arenas across the country.

Typically one of the toughest road locations in college basketball, Kentucky’s Rupp Arena was limited to 15% capacity and felt like the doors had just opened rather than the usual buzz at the tip.

“We have to create our own energy,” said Iowa preseason All-American Luka Garza, who had 26 points and 10 rebounds in a victory over North Carolina Central. “As a basketball player I have no problem with that. I play the same whether I’m at LA Fitness or in front of 15,000 fans. “

Ten members of South Carolina’s top-ranked women’s team followed the lead of the NBA and WNBA social justice by continuing to take their seats for the national anthem for their 119-38 win over Charleston.

“We just wanted everyone to know that we haven’t forgotten what’s going on,” said security guard Zia Cooke. “This is a basketball game, of course, but we wanted to use our platform.”

Numerous other teams sat or knelt during the national anthem, including the women of the state of North Carolina. The Virginia men’s team had “UNITY” on their warm-up shirts and the Towson players had a raised fist on their backs.

Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing made a different kind of statement during the season opening of the Hoyas against Maryland-Baltimore County, draping a white towel over his shoulder in memory of John Thompson. Several other coaches followed suit to honor the Hall of Fame coach who died in August at the age of 78.

Some teams never made it to the floor.

The Georgia opener against Columbus State was canceled hours before the tip due to positive COVID-19 testing within the Division II team. Lipscomb’s match against Campbellsville Harrodsburg was also canceled due to problems with the corona virus.

On the women’s side, the No. 9 UCLA game was called off after an 80-minute wait at Cal State Fullerton to get COVID-19 test results and Rutgers’ opener was called off due to a positive test in Monmouth’s schedule.

“This is clearly a situation unlike any that I’ve dealt with in my 31 seasons of coaching college basketball,” said Georgia coach Tom Crean. “This season has been a surreal experience all round. This is really that. “

Oklahoma and Monmouth became the latest teams to shut down all activities due to positive COVID-19 testing.

The game largely went as usual on the track.

Drake took care of the first game of the season, winning 80-70 in Kansas State. Ayo Dosunmu, senior from Illinois, showed why he was an All-American preseason, finishing with 28 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a 122-60 win over North Carolina A&T.

Announced Oklahoma State freshman Cade Cunningham, another preseason All-American, had a great debut, finishing with 21 points and 10 rebounds in a 75-68 win over Texas-Arlington.

The day before Thanksgiving, players, coaches, and fans were grateful to have college basketball again. Nobody knows where it comes from.

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AP Sports Writers Pat Eaton-Robb, Doug Feinberg, Paul Newberry, Beth Harris, Steve Megargee, Aaron Beard, Noah Trister and Pete Iacobelli contributed to this report.