UCLA’s Mick Cronin: Schools should emphasize games ‘the players want to play’ in pandemic scheduling

NCAA Division I basketball teams from Maine to Miami, from Seattle to San Diego, were permitted to begin preparing Wednesday for a season whose course remains undefined.

The NCAA announced on Sept. 16 the approved date for the start of regular-season competition, as well as the limit of 27 games, and still few conferences have announced their schedules and almost no teams have finalized non-league play.

This is understandable because of unprecedented challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, including the need for some athletic departments still to be rearranging football games because of positive tests and the necessity to delay establishing that firm start date.

The other issue, though, is that many coaches who do much of the scheduling work may have the wrong priorities in this extraordinary circumstance.

“Everybody should schedule with their players in mind, not selfish thoughts of who gets a home game with fans,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin told Sporting News. “We all need to find a way to put the players first and play the games the players want to play.

“The players’ college careers are getting disrupted. They’re now in season two of disruption. My guys go to the No. 1 public university, and the best campus, and it’s empty.”

Cronin told SN the Bruins will begin their season in an exempt tournament that will require them to travel to Florida and compete against quality opponents Kansas, Seton Hall and Boise State.

“Our players want to play against high-major teams,” Cronin said. “Our players have been deprived of enough.”

The news released Wednesday that Cincinnati and Xavier worked out a date for the 2020 Crosstown Shootout was welcome because it was not a given that they would find their way to the court in this particular season. They will play Dec. 6 at Cincinnati’s Myrl H. Shoemaker Center.

This followed by a couple weeks word that Kentucky and Louisville would play Dec. 26 at U of L’s KFC Yum! Center, ending a debate about the near-term future of the series that included each team’s coach releasing Twitter videos deriding the other.

It might have helped that discussions of these games became public. Because, privately, many teams are having difficulty pinning down opponents because of coaches’ concerns about the difficulty of games or the search by “guarantee game” opponents for the best possible deal in a year when payouts are down because capacity crowds are unlikely to be welcomed to arenas.

Cronin said he opted to make every decision relative to scheduling with safety as the obvious first priority, but player experience close behind. He said all options should be available in case COVID-19 considerations require flexibility. For instance, if UCLA and USC were unable to play against a Pac-12 opponent on a given weekend because of positive tests in its program, they should be instructed to play each other.

“Everything about this year needs to be about the players, not about your resume and your record,” Cronin said. “Absolutely everything.”

The Bruins finished their 2019-20 season with a March 7 defeat at rival Southern California, a result that cost them a share of the Pacific-12 Conference championships. They did not get to compete in the Pac-12 Tournament, which was canceled after preliminary round games were contested. They did not get to compete in the NCAA Tournament, which was called off the same day.

They did not get to spend the summer on campus taking in-person classes and working out at UCLA’s Mo Ostin Basketball Center. Players at some other schools did get the opportunity to train on campus, but such activity was far below what it would be in a normal year, when it would be nearly universal at the high-major level.

“These kids, undeniably, are having their careers disrupted. And they’re fighting through it,” Cronin said. “We’re asking them to not socialize. We can’t use our locker room. Guys have a chair — 12 feet apart in our gym. And they’re happy to do it. They’re happy to be back. We need to put all differences aside and schedule according to what’s best for the kids and try to make it the best experience we can for the players.”

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