Basketball

Aztecs basketball players won’t be home for Christmas

Read more at www.sandiegouniontribune.com

Last year, San Diego State’s basketball team played Dec. 22 in Los Angeles. The game ended, and most players left from Staples Center with their parents for Christmas. Others went to LAX to catch flights home. Only one rode the bus back to campus.

This year, SDSU played Dec. 22 in San Luis Obispo. The bus home was full.

They’ll be spending Christmas on campus in their apartments.

College basketball teams were left with essentially two choices in this pandemic-tinged season, neither particularly appealing. They could send players home for Christmas, knowing that meant an individual quarantine upon their return if they didn’t contract COVID-19 and a program-wide pause if they did. Or they could keep them on an empty campus.

SDSU chose the latter.

“We couldn’t let them go home for Thanksgiving,” said coach Brian Dutcher, whose team opened the delayed season with games on either side of Thanksgiving. “Now we’ve got Christmas. We always like to give them a couple days off for Christmas, but in order to play — and the kids want to play more than anything — we’re all sacrificing something. I just feel awful they have to sacrifice time with their families in order to play basketball games.”

The NCAA requires that players get three consecutive days off — no practices , no games, no travel, no conditioning — over the semester break, and in some respects that makes it worse. Players bused back to campus immediately after Tuesday’s 74-49 win against Saint Mary’s in San Luis Obispo, then had Wednesday, Thursday and Friday off because the schedule doesn’t allow for a three-day break elsewhere.

The team had a meal delivered to the players Thursday night. The plan for Christmas dinner is to eat together, properly spaced, inside Peterson Gym.

“We always have a family environment, but we somehow have to find a way to go a step further to make them feel like we’re there for them,” Dutcher said. “We’re trying to work that balance, to give them as normal a year as we can but at the same time knowing we have to sacrifice in order to play basketball games and continue what they’re doing.”

There’s also this: They weren’t supposed to be home for Christmas this year anyway.

The Aztecs originally were part of the eight-team Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu, which traditionally plays games on Christmas Day. The team would fly home the next day and begin prepping for the Mountain West opener initially scheduled for Dec. 29.

The Diamond Head was moved to Florida and later canceled, creating a gap in the schedule the Aztecs filled with Saint Mary’s. The adjusted conference schedule doesn’t begin now until Jan. 2 against Colorado State, and attempts to find a quality game early next week have so far failed.

UC San Diego let players return home for three days this week, then will test them immediately upon their return Saturday and practice in masks without contact until they receive clearance to resume full operations. Cal Poly’s program was paused Wednesday, likely wiping out the Tritons’ Big West games there Jan. 1 and 2. USD, which also is on pause for an unspecified amount of time, allowed players a short break; its next game is Dec. 31 at USF.

SDSU’s protocols for athletes require a mandatory seven-day quarantine if they leave the county outside the team bubble. Players quarantined when they arrived on campus in late August before being cleared for practice, and they haven’t left since (except for two games).

They were given the option to go home following the Saint Mary’s game with the understanding they likely wouldn’t be available for the Jan. 2 game. All 12 scholarship players plus walk-ons opted to stay.

“It’s just something we’re going to have to do for this season,” senior Jordan Schakel said. “But I think a lot of us really haven’t had a holiday break in a while. Even in high school, we were playing on and around Dec. 25 anyway. As basketball players, we’re kind of used to it.

“We’ll just enjoy the time we spend together if we’re not able to get home. We’ll make the best of it.”

About half of SDSU’s roster is from Southern California. Parents can visit them in San Diego, but with common-sense limitations. Getting carted to a holiday party at a random cousin’s house is discouraged.

SDSU is on a dwindling list of universities that have not paused their football or basketball programs from positive tests, although three men’s basketball players were left home from the Arizona State trip for precautionary reasons after attending a non-athletic department “social” event.

“They all know we’re living under great caution right now and have to be disciplined in what we do,” Dutcher said. “Even an innocent gathering, if they’re not in our immediate pod, can cause an issue. We’re all trying to pay attention to details, but at the same time they’re young men and they have be reminded and continually educated about what is acceptable in these times we’re living in.”

Duke canceled the remainder of its nonconference schedule and sent players home for Christmas after coach Mike Krzyzewski expressed concern about their mental health. Most programs have kept players on campus, reasoning that an empty campus is safer than the unknowns at home.

The Big Ten scheduled four games Friday, partly to capitalize on the lucrative Christmas Day television slot thinking the NBA wouldn’t start its season until January (the league is now playing on Christmas as well). And partly because, if players weren’t going home, they might as well play.

“We just felt that the safest, best place for them was here, and if they’re going to be here, let’s do what they love to do,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose No. 12 Spartans host No. 9 Wisconsin at 9:30 a.m. PST on Fox. “Let’s help the mental health of everybody and do what they love to do, and that was play.”

The best Christmas present: The state of Michigan recently lifted a moratorium on spectators at sporting events to allow 250, so players’ families can attend the game.

Read more at www.sandiegouniontribune.com

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