It's a Tuesday morning, alarms are going off and Carm Maciariello, whose Siena team is yet to play a game and won't for two more weeks, is waist-deep in Rutgers tape.
But Siena will not be playing Rutgers this season. In fact, Siena and Rutgers last played in 1999, their only meeting. Maciariello was a starter at the University of New Hampshire then. So ... Rutgers?
"I just watch a lot of basketball," he told me this week from his office as fire-alarm tests were ongoing during our interview.
The moment felt poetically appropriate for this year and college basketball in 2020. A calm voice pushing through while alarm bells loomed over all of it. Every couple of minutes a test would go off inside Siena's athletic complex and Maciariello would be forced to talk over it. He and his team have been through a lot in recent weeks. While news of COVID-19 pauses and postponements land daily in college basketball, and teams like DePaul have received attention for not yet playing a game (DePaul finally played its first Wednesday night), you should know there are only two teams left that wanted and were willing to play in November and December but nevertheless are fated to not play one game through the end of 2020.
Reigning MAAC champ Siena is one of them. Reigning NEC champ Merrimack is the other. Siena's been on three pauses, Merrimack on two.
"Honestly it's growing us and making us better," Maciariello said. "Obviously the first emotion you feel is frustration, and my heart goes out to our players. We want to play. These are all great kids. Our season was cut short last year when we were one of the hottest teams in the country. We'd won 10 straight. Now it's about controlling our attitude and mindset and doing what we can."
Maciariello has tried various things to keep his team engaged. As is, due to due to restrictions in New York's Albany County, players are under strict orders about isolation, not even being allowed outside in some cases. It is a mental slog. So there's been book groups, discussing game situations, mock scouting reports and more. Maciariello dressed up as Alex Trebek a while back and did an episode of "Jeopardy!" with his team over Zoom.
At Merrimack, the program has 21 people designated as Tier 1. It went nearly three months, from late summer into the fall, without a positive coronavirus test. Coach Joe Gallo had his team raring to go in late November. But a non-COVID issue tied to the school, then a couple of positive tests, plus losing non-league games against Patriot League teams Boston U. and Army (unlike Siena and Merrimack, the Patriot League opted out of nonconference play and will start in January) meant no games. The Warriors will wait the longest, going until at least Jan. 7 to play their first game.
"These guys, it's been like Charlie Brown in pulling the football away from them," Gallo said, referencing that they twice lost games less than 24 hours before tip. "This is my fifth season and now and it's always your job to have hard conversations with your guys but I don't know if it's been any harder than those times we've been preparing -- and then we're not going to play."
Merrimack was one of the stunners in college basketball last season. In its first year of D-I eligibility, Gallo coached the team to the top of the NEC and set an NCAA record by winning 20 games in the school's first year of Division I inclusion. Ironically, Merrimack wasn't so affected by the halt of the season in March; its last game came at home on Feb. 27, a season-finale home win that clinched the NEC title and was capped with the fitting cutting of nets. Due to NCAA rules about shifting into Division I, Merrimack was not -- and still is not -- eligible to play in the NCAA or NIT tournaments. So when the pandemic hit, the program was in a steady spot.
"Our guys were on such a high," Gallo said. "The first month where it was demoralizing for a lot of other programs, we were still on a high there."
It was braced for an ending. Now it's being tortured for a season's start. By the time Jan. 7 arrives, and if Merrimack can play its scheduled game that day against Sacred Heart, the Warriors will have gone an agonizing 315 days between games, which will stand to be a record until all Ivy League teams, and Bethune-Cookman and Maryland Eastern Shore, break it at the start of the 2021-22 season. Those programs have opted out of this season. Merrimack allowed its players to go home for Christmas. They'll get back to campus Saturday, and when they arrive, every player will be in a different on-campus apartment. They will test for COVID-19 on Saturday and Sunday. Practice is scheduled to resume Monday, which will end 25 consecutive days off and mark only their ninth practice in 44 days.
Gallo has been home a lot, and per CDC guidelines, twice been officially contact-traced and put in quarantine. With a wife who works in HR for a sports medicine company, Gallo became daddy daycare in recent weeks -- which was a huge bonus. Gallo has two boys, the first of whom was born the spring the year got the Merrimack job, so recruiting didn't allow him to be around his child as much as he would have wanted then. With his younger son, Trey, who was born this year, it's been the biggest gift without the energy output of practice and games.
"I got lucky because my wife sleep-trained him three days beforehand," Gallo said.
But with an infant there's only so much to do, so Gallo's remodeled his basement and built out some goodies, adding Golden Tee and NBA Jam arcade games. Gallo admits, "I'm not a huge Zoom meeting guy. I try to limit them because i don't think my team loves them either, but we had one last week with return-to-campus protocol."
Maciariello, who's 42, is in a similar spot. The days have blended so much, his wife recently had to correct him about their baby.
"I have a seven-month-old son, he was born in May," he said. "I've been saying he's five months old but I've been stuck in time because of all this. My wife alerted to me the other day. He's seven months. My daughter is going to be four in March. That's the blessing, in getting to spend more time with my wife and kids."
Heading into 2021, both coaches have eagerness to have the return of a routine, which they think will be much more likely with a league-only schedule. But there is concern about ramping up with proper cardio to be ready to go after being away from action for so long. Merrimack's players have to go for runs on their own outside and they can't get into gyms to get shots up. Gallo said it will be back to square one on Dec. 28, but he's thankful they installed a lot of their offensive sets in throughout October and November, so it will be knocking off rust in that respect.
Siena is the type of team capable of getting into the NCAA Tournament and winning a game. It's got two mid-major studs in Manny Camper and Jalen Pickett. It won't start its season until Jan. 3 and 4, when it will play Monmouth in back-to-back games.
"We're making sure our guys are healthy and making sure we follow the letter the law," Maciariello said. "We aren't circumventing the law and it's a life lesson for our guys. We don't want to show that we don't care, or that hey, school X, Y, and Z was able to use that loophole. We're not into loopholes. We're into player safety and we firmly believe we're doing everything we can."
Expect tournament details soon after New Year's
While the initial goal was to make a public announcement before the ball dropped on 2020, it's now likely that the NCAA will instead, in the first week of the new year, reveal/confirm it will hold the 2021 men's NCAA Tournament in the greater Indianapolis area. One source added that as of late last week, everything was not quite buttoned up with venues, local health officials and other power brokers, all of whom need to sign off on this humongous project before the NCAA can take the significant step of officially declaring greater Indy as the for-sure site of the 2021 men's NCAA Tournament.
Having all medical protocol understood and agreed upon with local health officials is the most important thing. Until that is done, a release won't be. There's also the matter of securing the venues, some of which are still in the preliminary stages of being considered.
I previously wrote about how Mohegan Sun's Bubbleville could help the NCAA in some ways in its ongoing prep. The NCAA has received information and counsel from the NBA, the WNBA and other professional outfits as well in an effort to best prep for its unprecedented tournament. And ESPN.com published an article this week about how the National Collegiate Hockey Conference put forth a model this month that the NCAA should lean on come the spring.
In talking to sources, my expectation is that the NCAA will use six venues for the first and second round of the NCAA Tournament, then only three -- maybe four -- for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. In theory (if little-to-no fans are allowed) Bankers Life Fieldhouse should be the spot for the Final Four and national title game and the most commonly used venue throughout the tournament, but there's this little issue of it, you know, being the home arena for an NBA team. It's not reasonable to ask the Pacers to go three weeks without a home game, so some serious workarounds have to be made. If you're wondering about the Pacers' schedule, they currently have nothing scheduled beyond March 4 as of now, as the NBA will wait a couple more weeks before fleshing out the back end of its slate.
I can report none of Indiana's huge high school gyms will be used and the same is probably going to be true for venues on the campuses of Indianapolis University, Franklin College and Marian University -- all colleges outside the Division I structure. Reading the tea leaves, I think these seven venues are all in the mix to host the 2021 NCAA Tournament:
- Bankers Life Fieldhouse (home of the Pacers)
- Hinkle Fieldhouse (Butler)
- Indiana Farmers Coliseum (IUPUI)
- Mackey Arena (Purdue; 75 minutes northwest of Indianapolis)
- Assembly Hall (Indiana; 60. minutes south of Indianapolis)
- Worthen Arena (Ball State; 70 minutes northeast of Indianapolis)
- Lucas Oil Stadium (home of the Indianapolis Colts)
Expect six venues to host on the same day for the first round of the tournament, in which case you'd have the Indianapolis-based arenas get three games and the schools on the outskirts getting two in the afternoon slots. No venue will host four games in one day due to cleaning protocols that will mandate a longer changeover time between games. Bank on a creative schedule in those first four days of the first two rounds, which should make for fun viewing if the tournament can be staged. And yes, barring circumstances that force a change, sources said the field will as usual be 68 teams. The Horizon League and IUPUI will serve as hosts, and other schools and/or leagues in the region could join the fold as well. In a normal NCAA Tournament, with sites around the country, there are at least 14 schools or conferences that act as hosts. Indiana Sports Corp. will also play a significant role.
In terms of practice space, the commodious Indianapolis Convention Center will house team practices with as many as 20 practice courts, according to one source. Indianapolis has covered skywalks from its myriad hotels to the Convention Center, so teams will have the option of getting there by foot or taking a bus.
As of now, the NCAA still intends on finishing the tournament around the same time as it's been scheduled: the Final Four on April 3, the national title game on April 5. Selection Sunday is still scheduled for March 14. The tournament would likely take two weeks from start to finish from the first First Four game until the national championship, making room (perhaps a week's time?) for travel and quarantine between Selection Sunday and the First Four getting underway.
A lot remains on the table with significant decisions still to be made. The selection committee isn't scheduled to formally meet again until early January.
Anyone in college hoops sounding a possible alarm because of Keyontae Johnson or nah?— Ray Curren (@currenrr) December 24, 2020
There is a lot of concern and some of those voices should become more prominent once Keyontae Johnson's family approves (as they've said they will) for the release of details about his condition and health history. A lot of people are waiting on more answers before making declarations, which is smart, but lacking that information right now in the midst of a public health crisis is not optimal. If Johnson's situation can affect the life or situation of someone else, that story needs to be told as soon as the doctors have all they need to explain the nature of his collapse. Important to remember that because a college basketball player collapsed mid-game, that doesn't mean college basketball is the only sport threatened by this. College football, college hockey, gymnastics, wrestling, skiing -- all NCAA sports stand to be impacted, as they should be.
Michigan State going to be OK?— Brandon Champion (@BrandonthaChamp) December 24, 2020
Yes, I think so. If "OK" means Michigan State finishes in the top four of the Big Ten and is a No. 4 seed or better, then it's going to be OK. If anything, the Northwestern loss looks better after NU went and won at Indiana.
Are any conferences going to try and play their tournament? The normal weekend before the NCAA tournament seems risky to me. Your thoughts?— Eric Aldridge (@ealdridge1389) December 24, 2020
The majority of leagues are currently still planning to hold their conference tournaments. But there will be tweaks to formats and I do think a couple of leagues will opt out and award the top team the auto bid. Expect clarity on this by the middle of January in most cases. There's a note on the Big West league tourney in Final Shots below.
how do you predict xavier will do. They played well against a very good creighton team.— Alex Graboyes (@AlexGraboyes) December 24, 2020
I was a seller on Xavier heading into the season but have seen enough: this will be an NCAA Tournament team. The Big East is setting up to be a quagmire in spots No. 3-9, but Xavier is going to finish top-five in the league and that's going to be good enough to get a ticket.
Arkansas is 8-0 but hasn’t really played anyone. How good are they really? Top tier SEC or a 5-7 seed come March?— maybe: Brendan Stepek (@tallguyStepek) December 24, 2020
You can find an answer to this in Tuesday's power rankings!
@MattNorlander You mentioned on the Eye on College Basketball podcast that Kentucky has the largest beat in the country. Who would be the other teams in the top five with largest beats?— Evan Miyakawa (@evanmiya) December 21, 2020
This is a good Q. Kentucky is No. 1. The media landscape has obviously changed in the past decade, though some teams still have pretty healthy beats. From afar, this is how I'd rank the biggest in men's college hoops. The Triangle area is tricky because of how close the schools are to each other: 1. Kentucky 2. Kansas 3. Indiana 4. Duke/UNC 5. UConn
What programs, players, and/or coaches are getting a pardon for thier start to the 20/21 season?— Jeff Martin (@rockchalkjeff) December 24, 2020
Timely. The list wasn't long to begin with but the two I think are clear here are Brad Brownell and Shaka Smart.
How many of these teams make the tournament? Duke, UNC, Kentucky, UCLA?— Marnie Mitchell (@TheRealMarnieM) December 24, 2020
Louisville-Kentucky outside the commonwealth prediction?— Nick Laughead (@ntg816) December 24, 2020
Louisville 73, Kentucky 67.
Lots of chatter on Twitter about this..... is Gremlins a Christmas movie?— Bryan Smith (@b_smizzle) December 24, 2020
Confession: watched this movie at a friend's sleepover when I was maybe 8 years old and it creeped me out and I never went back.
If you and Jalen Suggs played 1on1, would you score— #WinTheMayo (@LAHohn_Sports) December 24, 2020
If Suggs is going 100%, the answer is absolutely not.
- Announced Wednesday: Chicago State has opted out of the remainder of the 2020-21 season. The Cougars, who did not have their head coach due to coronavirus precautions, finish 0-9.
- Steve Pikiell has been a head coach since 2005. He's coached in 508 games. On Wednesday night in the second half of Rutgers' come-from-ahead loss at Ohio State, Pikiell was assessed the first technical foul of his career.
- Iowa's Luke Garza dropped "only" 22 points on Purdue Tuesday night, getting him to 17 straight Big Ten games with at least 20 points. That hasn't been done in 33 years. NPOY frontrunner.
- How broken are parts of this season? If Wake Forest's Jan. 3 game at Georgia Tech doesn't move, the Demon Deacons will have gone 37 days between games. Due to a rash of positive tests within the program and postponements against other opponents, Wake Forest lost or pushed six games off its schedule from opening day.
- The Big West is moving its league tournament to Las Vegas in 2021, with all 10 teams qualifying regardless of record and playing at the Mandalay Bay Events Center.
- One of the best stories in college hoops this season is Hofstra redshirt freshman Kvonn Cramer, who went 1,366 days between competitive basketball games. That's almost four years. He was a Big East-level recruit who missed his final two years of high school due to injury and health problems, then sat out at Hofstra last season while rehabbing. On Tuesday, he helped the Pride to a road upset win over Richmond.
- I couldn't help but notice: Georgia's started 7-0 (against an iffy schedule) after losing Rayshaun Hammonds and Anthony Edwards.
- I couldn't help but chuckle: Mo Williams, the coach at Alabama State, who became an NBA champion playing alongside LeBron James and was 14-year NBA veteran, took to Twitter on Wednesday in desperation. The man apparently needs three PlayStation 5s.
- The Washington Post shines a light on New Mexico State spending six figures to relocate in Arizona ... only to play two games vs. non Division-I teams so far.