Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
INDIANAPOLIS — When this execrable basketball game was over, Bankers Life Fieldhouse shut down immediately. The Kansas Jayhawks waved at the Kentucky Wildcats, who waved back, and both went their separate ways to the locker rooms. The music was turned off, and since there were no fans the arena went silent in a matter of seconds.
The quiet provided a window to reflect on a stunningly ugly matchup of bluebloods, and the unsettling season that lies ahead.
Kansas won, 65-62, in a rock fight that saw the two teams combined to make 8 of 42 three-point shots (19%). At one point they were 3 of 30 before, ahem, heating up. The Jayhawks won while shooting 30% from the field, which shouldn’t be possible. Kansas coach Bill Self said the newly remodeled arena had “the tightest rims I’ve ever seen in my life,” but still termed his team’s first-half offensive performance “inept.”
But that aesthetic struggle was the least troubling part of the night. There were reports before the game that Kansas defensive specialist Marcus Garrett would not play because he was ill—which immediately prompted COVID-19 concerns. The Jayhawks were coming off a game last Friday against Saint Joseph’s, which on Sunday paused its season after a positive test in the program.
Then Garrett did decide to play, something Self said he did not know would happen until he got on the bus to go to the arena. Self said Garrett first began feeling ill last Friday, then tested negative Saturday and again Tuesday via a PCR test. But the coach’s description of Garrett’s symptoms only escalated concerns.
“He was having a real problem with headaches and bright lights,” Self said. “His stomach was messed up. He said he couldn’t get his wind.” Shortness of breath, headaches and nausea are all among the laundry list of COVID symptoms.
While the ESPN broadcast crew, and later Self, were praising Garrett for his toughness, a lot of other people were wondering how responsible it was for him to play. It’s entirely possible he was ill with something unrelated to the virus, and the test results would back that, but the average American workplace would have sent him home no matter whether he tested negative. College athletic programs have thrown around the “abundance of caution” phrase a lot in the last few months, and playing Garrett would seem closer to an absence of caution.
These are the gray areas college basketball will try to navigate while keeping its season on a shaky course from now until March. Dozens of games already have been canceled, moved and rearranged on the fly, lending an unmistakable AAU feel of impermanence to the proceedings. Many more will follow.
The very fact that this game was being played in this fashion underscored that the season was off to a wobbly start. For the previous nine years, the Champions Classic was a splashy November ESPN doubleheader matching the same four teams—Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State—and rotating between big basketball meccas. This year it was two singleheaders in different locals: the Blue Devils and Spartans met in Durham, N.C. earlier Tuesday, and this game was the nightcap in Indy.
Twice previously, the Champions Classic has been played here, the heartland city that can lay claim to being the capital of college basketball. Less than two hours from the Kentucky border, the Indy doubleheaders have been awash in Kentucky fans. But this time there were no UK car flags flapping in the wind driving north on Interstate 65, and the streets around Bankers Life were vacant. No out-of-town fans were Christmas shopping at the Circle Centre Mall. The buzziest place in Indy during big basketball events is the lobby bar at the JW Marriott—filled with NBA scouts, fans, ticket scalpers and assorted hustlers—but it was closed and silent Tuesday.
Inside the arena, NCAA vice president for basketball Dan Gavitt pulled out his phone on the club level and dialed a man on the floor level. Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart, chairman of the men’s basketball committee, answered, turned and waved to Gavitt. Neither had credentialed access to the other’s level, so that was the extent of their meeting.
Those two men will play key roles in shaping what the 2021 NCAA tournament will look like—and it is likely to closely resemble what we saw in Bankers Life on Tuesday. The NCAA announced recently that it will move the tournament to a single metropolitan area for the duration of the event, and that Indy is the probable host city. This game could have been a trial run for many NCAA contests in the same venue, up to and including the Final Four. (Venerable Hinkle Fieldhouse could also be an option, although it lacks the modern amenities of Bankers Life.)
A Big Dance without fans is a real possibility, though the hope is that local regulations will permit some attendance by March. Gavitt said the outlook at present is to start with lowest expectations and hope to add to the scope as plans progress. There are several months of runway ahead, but also no tangible evidence that the virus climate is significantly improving.
Kansas and Kentucky will be in the field, if there is indeed a full field of 68. Even if neither of them looked like teams capable of the proverbial deep run Tuesday night.
The Jayhawks were title favorites last year before the tournament blew up and are retooling this season without benefit of the usual killer recruiting class. That is in no small part because of looming NCAA sanctions, as a major infractions case winds its way toward a conclusion sometime in 2021. They do have a veteran team led by Garrett and Ochai Agbaji, but the star Tuesday against Kentucky was redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson (23 points, 10 rebounds).
“We don’t come close to winning the game without him,” Self said.
Wilson broke his ankle in the second game of the season last year, after playing two minutes in the first. Kansas didn’t need him to have a dominant season then, but it needs him now and he delivered in a huge way against the longer Wildcats.
“This isn’t something I’m shocked by,” Wilson said.
Considerably more shocking: Kentucky sitting at 1–2 for the first time since 2009, when the coach was Billy Gillispie. Yes, this is the worst start in John Calipari’s 12 seasons in Lexington, and this loss to Kansas comes after Cal’s worst non-conference loss in Rupp Arena—a 12-point upset at the hands of Richmond.
Now, the Spiders are good. And Kansas is good. But this is Kentucky, and after pairing the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class (again) with the eligibility of three transfers (big man Olivier Sarr, point guard Davion Mintz and forward Jacob Toppin) the expectation was that the Wildcats would again be Final Four contenders.
They may well still get there, of course. Kentucky is now famous under Calipari for dysfunctional starts and stronger finishes. But wow, is there work to do with this team. (Some of which Calipari tried to do during the game, bizarrely running onto the floor after a timeout to instruct one of his big men on where and how he wanted him to post up.)
Kentucky is shooting 19% as a team from three-point range. The Cats went 0–10 from three in the loss to Richmond, then followed that up with a 3–21 gem against the Jayhawks. Their two most talented freshmen, B.J. Boston and Terrence Clarke, are both 0-for-college from three—Boston is 0-11, Clarke is 0-8. The team as a whole is shooting horrifically and not passing it well, either—just 13 assists total in those two losses.
Problems there begin at the point guard position, where freshman Devin Askew doesn’t look like some of the ultra-athletic Calipari points guards of the past and Mintz is not elite in that department either. The two combined for three assists and seven turnovers against Kansas.
“This is a no-excuse program,” Calipari said after the game. “If you want to make excuses, you shouldn’t be here.”
If Cal practices what he preaches, we don’t have to listen to his annual “we’re young” mantra from now until March. Throw out the excuses, but add a layer of preparation for the quietest, strangest and most unsettling season we’ve seen in college basketball.