Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh athletics

If you Google the phrase “March Madness 2020”, you’ll come across a Wikipedia page, titled “2020 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament.” 

Look to the right under the Final Four logo for an event that never existed. It reads in glaring red:

“Canceled due to COVID-19 Pandemic”.

We all remember where we were as the dominoes kept falling in the sports world. First was the NBA suspending its season after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. That was followed by the subsequent events of the NCAA cancelling the men’s and women’s tournaments and the entire spring sports seasons. 

Flash forward to today and we’re still living the pandemic. But amidst all the pandemonium, college basketball is set to return for the first time since the cancellation of the Big East Tournament at halftime of the game between St. John’s and Creighton on March 12. 

The ACC is poised for a rebound season after having a down season in 2019-20. It would’ve only resulted in potentially only five teams in the “Big Dance”.

As we prepare to tip off the non-conference slate Wednesday for the ACC in 2020-21, all 15 ACC coaches stopped by for a video conference to discuss their thoughts on a unique season we are about to embark on. Let’s see what their thoughts are on “The Pandemic Year” in college hoops. 

Ready For Tip

As each and every coach gave their opening remarks, there was one word to describe their tone throughout the video conference. It was “relief”.

“We’re all grateful to hopefully having the opportunity to play,” said Clemson head coach Brad Brownell. “Basketball is a godsend for them. We’re interested to play and interested to see how it all works out.”  

“Our guys have been following protocols and we’ve been anxious for awhile,” Pittsburgh’s Jeff Capel said about the season.

Capel said the team is “ready” to get the season started, mentioning the Panthers have been back on campus since June 28. They’ve been on the court since July 20.

“It’s a lot of work, but we’re excited to do the work,” Capel noted about the unusuality of the season. 

A Certain Optimism 

Speaking of Capel, his former boss and legendary Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski or “Coach K” said the Blue Devils have not had any positive tests since they started testing daily on Oct. 14. Duke is projected to finish second in the ACC. 

Boston College head coach Jim Christian said that they’ve had one manager and a walk-on in quarantine, but no positive tests. The unnamed walk-on was placed in quarantine due to his roommate, a non-athlete, testing positive for COVID-19.

“Boston College is doing everything possible to keep us safe,” Christian stated. 

Capel seemed confident in the prospect of getting games in. He went as far to say he would take a bet that the Panthers would be able to get at least 20 of their 27 games in. 

Levels Of Uncertainty

With that being said, getting 20 out of 27 games in is quite a hopeful number. One positive test could stop a team from playing for two weeks. 

“It’s not like football,” NC State’s fourth-year coach Kevin Keatts pointed out. “We’ll miss four or five games if we’re not around for two weeks.”

Football teams could also afford to have 10 guys out at once. Basketball, however, may struggle to play with just one positive.

“We can’t promise anything,” said Louisville’s third-year head coach Chris Mack. “We’re going to have to be flexible; things will change day to day.”

Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey expressed some of the same concerns as his colleagues. 

“I think we’re all concerned with how this’ll play out,” he said. “We’re playing into the teeth of this virus with our season; let’s be honest. I don’t know if we’ll get to play all our games, but we’re going to try like heck to play most of them.”

Legendary North Carolina coach Roy Williams said the Tar Heels were “excited and ready to play”, but he also has been deeply concerned about the virus. He had strong words when discussing COVID-19.

“It’s killed over a quarter million people,” Williams said. “You’re damn right I’m afraid of it. Heck, I don’t want to get the thing. Over 250,000 people have died from the thing, so if you’re not afraid of it, you’re crazy.”

A New Norm

One of the more blatantly different things we’ll see during the upcoming season due to the pandemic is very few fans in the stands — if any. 

We won’t see one of the best environments in all of sports in Cameron Indoor Stadium at Duke in its normal capacity this season, as there will be no “Cameron Crazies” there to turn Cameron into a bounce house for two hours straight. 

Krzyzewski said that the Blue Devils have “created really nice things to honor the Cameron Crazies.” The longtime head coach said he’s not as much as interested to see how his team responds, but how their opponents respond, as “every team wanted to beat us in Cameron because of our [Duke’s] fans.”  

Brownell said he’s been told that there’ll be around 1,800 fans admitted into Littlejohn Coliseum.

“We’ll be grateful for 1,800 or whatever it is,” the 11th-year Clemson coach said. “We’re just fortunate enough to get to play.”

“It’s going to be different,” Keatts acknowledged. “Every team is going to have to create their own excitement. Our motivation is going to have to come from our coaching staff and our team.”

A Lil’ Rusty

Another unfortunate absence from the 2020-21 preseason, is the opportunity for teams to scrimmage other schools. That usually provides a chance to “get right” before the season starts. That won’t happen this year, and that comes as a concern to many coaches.

“Our new guys are going to be thrown right into the fire,” Keatts stated. “There’s going to be adjustments.”

Georgia Tech’s Josh Pastner admitted that he “didn’t really know where we’re [Georgia Tech] at.” The Yellow Jackets finished fifth in the ACC standings last season and return the majority of their production from 2019-20, but having to run non-contact practices is something that’s worrisome to Pastner. 

Into the Bubble

After the experiments of the NBA, Major League Baseball, WNBA, and NHL bubbles were a success, the NCAA has already confirmed that the 2021 NCAA Tournament will be held in one location — likely in the Indianapolis metropolitan area. 

“Whatever they have to do to have that experience is critical,” Brownell said, showing full support for a bubble-formatted tournament. 

Virginia Tech head coach Mike Young said he liked the idea of a bubble, and joked that it’s hard to grasp staying in the same city until a team is eliminated. 

Coach K made some final comments before signing off for an 11 a.m. practice.

“We need to have the tournament,” the coaching legend said. 

It seems these coaches are just enthusiastic at the chance to be able to be back on the floor again.

Back To Basketball

Aside from all the craziness going on in the world in 2020, college hoops has finally arrived. It should be a fun year in the ACC — one that’ll be interesting because of coaching in a “virtual situation” as Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes joked. 

It’s finally time to sit back, put your feet up and watch college basketball. The first ACC game begins on Wednesday at noon ET as Virginia Tech hosts Radford.