“It’s on now.”
Those were the first words out of the mouth of BYU men’s basketball coach Mark Pope when he addressed the media after the Cougars earned a No. 6 seed in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
The way this tournament is “on” is unlike any previous NCAA tournament in numerous ways because of the pandemic.
First of all, the entire tournament is being staged in Indianapolis and surrounding areas.
Games have traditionally been played in a Thursday-Saturday, Friday-Sunday format, with First Four games competed on Tuesday and Wednesday. This year, all of the First Four games are all on Thursday with first and second round games following a Friday-Sunday, Saturday-Monday format.
Teams are largely confined to their hotel rooms during the length of their stay in the tournament, allowed out only for practice, weight lifting, team meetings and games. Hotel ballrooms are being fitted with basketball courts for practices and meals are being brought in.
Then there’s the COVID-19 testing, which will be constant.
What’s a team to do?
“First and foremost we’re going to try and stay on top of our studies,” BYU senior guard Alex Barcello said. “We need to make sure our grades are as good as we can make them. We’ll have study hall and we’ll be hitting the books. Hopefully we’ll play a couple of games and get out of quarantine.
“Maybe we’ll go play hide-and-go-seek in the halls, or laser tag or Mario Kart. Whatever it is, whatever crazy ideas, we’ll have fun with it.”
Pope and his entire staff have put their heads together to come up with the best ways to utilize the time they are given while in Indianapolis to stay prepared as well as safe and healthy. Finding out that Duke, Virginia and Kansas had to shut things down during their conference tournaments was a sobering bit of information.
“I’m telling you guys, I got PTSD when I heard about those teams,” Pope said. “We have a group of 18 to 21 year-olds that can’t leave their rooms. There are a lot of things to plan.”
Part of the process is preparing to play two different opponents in their first round game. No. 11 seeds Michigan State and UCLA meet up on Thursday and the Cougars get the winner on Saturday in the first round.
Opponent’s positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing have made the 2020-21 season an exercise in adaptability. BYU has had plenty of practice in altering its schedule and preparation.
“I think that can help us a lot,” Barcello said. “After the selection show we were in the locker room and joked that this is kind of what we’ve done all year. They are both really great teams and they play at a high level so we are going to be as prepared as we can be.”
Senior center Matt Haarms said the Cougars are looking forward to following their mantra of getting better every day despite the unusual circumstances in Indianapolis.
“Whatever kind of time we’ve had on the court this year we’ve really made the most out of that time, regardless of what way it happens,” Haarms said. “Spending time with this coaching staff has been really productive. This will be a great week to focus on ourselves.”
Haarms spent four years of his life in West Lafayette, Ind., while attending Purdue and his career is coming full circle during the NCAA Tournament. He said he didn’t know how much his familiarity with the state will be an advantage and – knowingly or unknowingly – referenced the classic basketball movie “Hoosiers” as well.
“The game of basketball is the game of basketball,” Haarms said. “The hoops are all the same height.”
The place to play
BYU’s first round game will be played at one of the most storied arenas in college basketball.
Hinkle Fieldhouse (originally called Butler Fieldhouse) was built in 1928 and was the largest basketball arena in the United States (15,000) until 1950. It is the sixth-oldest college basketball arena still in use. It was designated as a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1987. The final scenes for “Hoosiers” were filmed there in 1986. The movie is based on the improbable Indiana state title run by Milan High, which defeated the much larger Muncie Central High at Butler Fieldhouse in 1954.
Honors rolling in
Barcello was named one of 42 players nationwide to receive All-America honorable mention honors on Tuesday by the Associated Press.
The honor comes along with Barcello being named to the WCC First Team as well.
Barcello is averaging 15.9 points, 4.7 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game for a Cougars. He scored a career-high 29 points where he was 7-for-7 beyond the arc, a BYU record for most 3-pointers in a game without a miss, this season against San Francisco.
Iowa’s Luka Garza, Baylor’s Jared Butler, Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu, Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham and Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert were named First Team All-Americans by the AP.