This is a diary of a week of college basketball games in Indianapolis. This will be updated as games continue in the Hoosier State.
INDIANAPOLIS — Here in basketball’s holy land, the local teams have gone quiet. Butler has had to miss three games because of the virus, and is not scheduled to play again until Dec. 14. IUPUI can’t even open before Dec. 12. The NBA and Pacers are weeks away from tipping off.
So what’s all those dribbling noises coming from Bankers Life Fieldhouse?
A college basketball tour de top-25 has come to town. No. 1 Gonzaga showed up, as did No. 2 Baylor. No. 5 Illinois and No. 7 Kansas. No. 11 West Virginia and No. 20 Kentucky. Chance and the scheduling challenges of the times have put them all in one place — the same city where the entire NCAA tournament might land in March. Four heavyweight games, and a big window into what the elite are up to in the early season. Even if the public can’t come in and watch.
And so, a week in Indianapolis, and a rare basketball feast, played around a pandemic — until the surprising ending, which maybe wasn’t that surprising . . .
Kansas is already in town, having come straight from two games in Florida. The good news this day is that the Jayhawks make it official; they are indeed in the Associated Press top-25 for the 222nd consecutive week, going back to 2009. That passes UCLA of 1966-80 for the all-time record.
Normally, they might go out and celebrate, but they’re not going anywhere. The hotel is their lifeboat. Outside, microbes roam the streets. Coach Bill Self describes life on the road in the coronavirus age:
“There’s not much for the guys to do. Hey, let’s hustle back and get to your room by yourself. That’s kind of how this Florida vacation, this Indy vacation has gone so far...We wanted to take our guys out even on a boat on Saturday (in Florida), maybe do a little sunset cruise, do anything. And we couldn’t do it because of social distancing. We’d have to get three boats. I don’t think the school would be very happy with us if we did that.”
The Kentucky Wildcats — Kansas’ opponent Tuesday night in the Indy portion of the Champions Classic — were not scheduled to travel until the morning of the game out of virus concerns, but decided to come in the night before, ahead of bad weather. They’re staying across the street from Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The walk from one to the other is all they’ll see of downtown Indianapolis.
The Baylor Bears, here since Sunday night, are waiting with hugs when their coach finally gets to town Tuesday morning. Scott Drew has been in quarantine after testing positive, and watched from 1200 miles away as his team crushed Louisiana by 30 points and Washington by 34 in Las Vegas. He mentions how he couldn’t be happier to be back on the job, after refereeing his kids’ fights for 10 days in Waco. Coaching from a distance isn’t easy.
“You want to help,” he says, “Zoom calls only do so much.”
Still, the routs were nice, even from afar. “Definitely big leads made it easier to withstand.”
With Baylor, Gonzaga and Illinois all tucked away at their hotels, awaiting the next day’s Jimmy V Classic games — Baylor has been so careful that Drew owns the program’s only positive test in 13 weeks — the spotlight is on Kentucky vs. Kansas in the Champions Classic.
The last time Bankers Life Fieldhouse was supposed to have a game was nearly nine months ago. That was the Thursday morning in March when fears about the exploding virus brought everything to a stop, just before Michigan was to meet Rutgers in the second round of the Big Ten tournament. The players were literally yanked off the court during warmups. The Great Silence had begun.
Nine months later, the crisis still boils. In normal times, downtown Indianapolis would be teeming on a game night such as this. Pennsylvania Street, which goes by the main entrance, would be flooded with Kentucky blue. But normal still seems light years away. Traffic is sparse, the lights of the city shine on mostly empty streets; no fans, no ticket scalpers, no blue, no anything.
Bankers Life Fieldhouse had been undergoing renovation. They have to rush to get the court down in time for Kansas’ morning shootaround. “I know we had to personally mop the floor when we got here because it wasn’t playable,” Self says. “They hadn’t even had time to mop it.”
Inside the building Tuesday night, before thousands of vacant green seats and black curtains to hide the upper decks, the announcer reads the starting lineups...for whom? Between media and workers, there might be 50 people watching who are not directly affiliated with either team. No cutouts in the stands, either. Two traditional heavyweights with historically fervent fan bases might as well be playing in a park somewhere. “It didn’t have the feel at all of a game. It had the feel of a scrimmage,” Self says afterward.
MAUI INVITATIONAL: Bracket, schedule and scores
And so they begin. There’s a story circulating that Kansas star Marcus Garrett has been ill and might not play. Headache, stomach problem, some breathing issues. Oh-oh. But no, he tests negative. It’d better be right, because he’s out there. “I didn’t know he was going to try until we got on the bus,” Self would say later.
The atmosphere is so 2020ish. From the fourth deck, you can clearly hear Self call out the number of in-bounds play through his mask. There will be few private conversations this night in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. John Calipari’s exhortation during one late Kentucky timeout: “WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?” When Calipari presses official Patrick Adams about a call, Adams’ response is clear. “I heard you the first time.” With the team chairs spread out over three socially distant rows, subs can be hard to locate. When Calipari wants Isaiah Jackson to re-enter the game, he finds him 20 yards away in the back row. Later, Self draws a technical foul in the second half when his disagreement about a call is plainly heard. It begs the question: Might there be a jump in technicals this season, with no crowd noise to hide coaching anger?
The game is competitive, if not an artistic beauty. Kansas scores five points in the first 10 minutes, with eight turnovers. Yuck. Kentucky starts 0-for-6 from the 3-point line. In the end, how to explain the Jayhawks shooting 29.9 percent, missing 10 free throws, getting 12 shots blocked, and still winning 65-62? One reason is the 23 points from redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson, 21 in the second half. Another is the 35 gritty minutes from the feeling-poorly Garrett.
“That was ugly,” Self said. “But the key to having great seasons is to somehow win games when you’re not good...Us getting to 65 seems pretty remarkable, the way we shot it.”
Calipari does not mourn Kentucky’s continued woes from the 3-point line, as much as the 16 turnovers, many by his point guards. Yes, the Wildcats go 3-for-21 from the arc, and combined with the 0-for-10 against Richmond, that makes 3-for-31 in two defeats. No matter how talented the players, that won’t do. Then again, Kansas shot lousy, too, and Self ventures that the Bankers Life goals might have had something to do with it. “Tightest rims I’ve ever seen in my life.”
But the turnovers were a big Kentucky problem, and sure signs of a young team. Calipari, with his annual restocking, is accustomed to growing pains in December. “They’ve got to go through this. This is all part of the growth of this. Sometimes — I think Bill Belichick said — you have to know things that keep you from losing to learn to win. What keeps you from losing is not turning it over.
“These guys have to grow up and grow up fast. This is a no-excuse program. You want to make excuses, you shouldn’t be here.”
With Duke’s defeat in Durham by Michigan State, the night ends up a rarity. This is the 10th Champions Classic and it’s only the second time the bluest of the bloods — Kentucky and Duke — have both lost. This year is different all right, in so many ways. Self predicts normalcy will never happen, and mentions a text message he received from someone.
Stay positive and test negative.
“That’s basically what I think every team’s goal is right now.”
Out with Kansas vs. Kentucky, in with Gonzaga-West Virginia and Baylor-Illinois. The design at center court has been changed in 24 hours, from the Champions Classic to the Jimmy V Classic. Everything else is pretty much the same in Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
There was some question recently if Gonzaga would even get here. The Zags had a player and staff member test positive, and often, things can spread after that and the next word you hear from a school is cancellation. But Mark Few had plans in place, as Gonzaga went on the road for two games in Florida, and then a week here. “That’s why we took two planes, we took two buses, we separated everybody in every room,” he says. “I’ve been preparing since Day 1 for positive tests.”
How’s this for a coaching match? West Virginia’s Bob Huggins is fourth on the all-time victory list among active coaches with 884. Few is No. 1 in percentage with a 601-124 record. You could make a reasonable case they are the two most accomplished active college coaches in America without a national championship.
And here they are together. Funny thing. Few hasn’t lost often, but the first of his 124 defeats came almost 21 years ago to this very day — Dec. 4, 1999 — against top-ranked Cincinnati. Who was coached by Bob Huggins. They’ve met five other times since, and Few has won them all, three times knocking Huggins out of the NCAA Tournament.
This night is a long way from feeling like March. Some arenas are piping in artificial crowd roars, but not here. Any noise will have to come from the game itself; the dribble of the ball, the squeaks of the shoes, the chatter from the bench, occasionally music from the public address system. When none of that is happening, such as before a free throw, Bankers Life is so quiet, it sounds like someone is getting ready to putt at the Masters. Know when else it's still? Gonzaga freshman phenom Jalen Suggs has to be helped off the court with an ankle injury in the first half. You could have heard popcorn fall to the floor, if any concession stands were open.
Suggs returns in the second half, by the way, convincing Few he can play. “He was limping around on the first up-and-down,” Few says later. “I told him if he keeps limping, I was going to pull him out. And he quit limping.”
Gonzaga needs all hands, as West Virginia gives the Zags their first serious push of the season. Gonzaga trailed a total of 42 seconds in blowing past Kansas and Auburn in Florida, but the Mountaineers go up by as many as nine points, and are in front for more than 25 minutes. Gonzaga has trouble finding an answer for Derek Culver, with his 18 points and 15 rebounds.
Still, the Zags show flashes of their impeccable passing, their relentless offense, their massive cache of scoring. They run up astonishing gaps such as 60-30 for points in the paint and 25-4 in fast break points, and win 87-82. Joel Ayayi’s 21 points lead four Gonzaga players with 17 or more. Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard — who had originally planned to sit out this season but changed his mind — has a big night with 19 points, five rebounds and six assists. He's another new weapon in the Gonzaga arsenal. It's a physical and grinding game, as West Virginia contests tend to be, with four players fouling out and 54 free throws taken. Beating Bob Huggins usually requires a test of steel.
“It was exactly what I expected from West Virginia,” Few says afterward. “It wasn’t pretty but I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. Playing Huggie’s teams, it’s never pretty.”
Huggins frets over his Mountaineers not handling the continual Gonzaga ball screens, not stopping the Zags troublesome back cuts, making too many unnecessary fouls. “We’re every bit as good as they are if we don’t do dumb things. We did dumb things,” he says. “We’ve got to fix some things.”
Afterward, Huggins and Few — with 1,486 victories between them — wave and head their different ways. No handshakes this virus season.
Illinois and Baylor come next, and a clapping chant rolls over the court. Defense! Defense!
What, did fans slip past the front gate? Nope, that’s the Illinois bench, creating the loudest racket of the night with its cheers. Otherwise, mum’s the word. Top-5 showdowns are supposed to be rocking, but not in 2020. Drew says he was prepared for it, but still couldn’t get over the strangeness.
“You walk in...and you know it’s a big-time game, but it feels like a practice or a scrimmage, because no one’s there.”
This says something about what Drew has accomplished at Baylor: The Bears will play in two top-5 matches here this week, against Illinois Wednesday and Gonzaga Saturday. That makes four for Baylor in the 2020 calendar year. They were in only three the previous 114 years of the program.
The Illini seem ready for the moment, and badly outrebound Baylor the first half, while defending the Bears into 36 percent shooting. There are 10 lead changes in the first half — or nine more than Baylor had it its first two games combined. The Bears halftime talk is apparently direct. “Coaches got onto us,” guard Davion Mitchell says later. “They explained to us we’re not sharing the ball, we’re not playing like ourselves. We’re really good when we share the ball, we’re not that good when we go out there try to play one-on-one.”
The game changes the second half. Baylor shoots 54.5 percent, and for the might, its defense has as many steals as its offense commits turnovers (seven). The Illinois backcourt struggles — star Ayo Dosunmu has 18 points but shoots 6-for-18, Adam Miller is 2-for-11, Trent Frazier has five turnovers. Vaunted big man Kofi Cockburn barely makes a dent on the game because of foul trouble.
“It’s all about what we’re trying to accomplish, that’s being able to win when you don’t shoot the ball well,” coach Brad Underwood says. Mission unaccomplished this night, as the Bears pull away 82-69, then gather at one end for a post-game prayer. “It gives us a lot of confidence,” Mitchell says of the second half restoration of dominance. “We know we can play with anyone.”
The next anyone is Gonzaga here Saturday. When Few and Drew got together this summer to plan this meeting, they knew both teams would be good. “We thought this was the right thing to do,” Few says. “We thought it’d be good not only for our programs but it’d be really good for college basketball.” But how could they know it would offer a rare event — one game, two No. 1 teams? Gonzaga is top-ranked in the Associated Press poll, Baylor atop the coaches’ list. It'll be a real showdown in the same downtown where both hope to be in a few months for the Final Four. Only one thing will be missing Saturday.
“It’s unfortunate we can’t have fans, because it’d be a packed arena,” Few says. “Hopefully we’ll put on a good show.”
Moral of the story in 2020: If you wait around long enough, something bad will happen.
Having stayed in town a few extra days waiting for their heavyweight bout, Baylor and Gonzaga were 90 minutes from tipoff when the word came: No game. Positive test results out of the Zags’ camp. With Gonzaga top-ranked in the Associated Press poll and Baylor in the coaches’ voting, it was to be only the third time in history that two No. 1 teams met. Early game of the year candidate. But hype is no match for the coronavirus.
“There are much greater issues in this world than not being able to play a basketball game,” was the message from Baylor coach Scott Drew and Gonzaga’s Mark Few in a joint statement, “so we’re going to continue praying for everyone who has been affected by this pandemic.”
They said they’d try to reschedule, but that is tricky business these days. In a deserted Bankers Life Fieldhouse lobby, a Christmas tree stands lonely guard by the main entrance, and above it, a flashing sign board gives a social distance tutorial on what six feet really means: Eight basketballs, or five coaches’ clipboards, or three arena seats.
But no one is there to read it. No one will play here today. Bankers Life is as quiet as it was in March, when the Big Ten tournament was aborted only minutes from the Michigan-Rutgers contest. This Saturday feels much like that Thursday. Nine months later, many things have changed, but one thing hasn’t: The true dominant power in the game, and everywhere else, remains COVID-19. That is the final lesson of college basketball’s week in Indy.