College basketball still owns the month of March, even amid a global pandemic, but for a select few teams that opted out of this season because of COVID-19, it will be a vastly different experience.
While some seasons came to a screeching halt -- Chicago State and Maine after nine games, Howard after only five -- others never tipped off at all. The eight Ivy League schools, along with Bethune-Cookman and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, both from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, chose not to play this season.
So what are they doing while their sport is on the brink of taking center stage? We spoke to a few players and coaches to find out:
Luckily, junior forward Mason Forbes has his sister, McKenzie, to help keep him in shape. McKenzie is a sophomore guard who recently transferred to play for Harvard's women's basketball team, and the two have been keeping each other sharp on the court.
Mason said his sister has a higher basketball IQ than he does and that she has been creating all of their workouts, but to keep the competitive juices flowing, they've been training together and playing one-on-one.
They're both home in Folsom, California, and Mason has been there since March. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Forbes hasn't seen his coaches and most of his teammates in person for almost a full year and has been working out on his own, as well as with his sister and former high school teammates.
"It feels weird, these people you see every day in the locker room, such a big part of your daily routine, and all of the sudden you're only hearing them over the phone," Forbes said. "That's definitely been hard and very weird. It has distorted my sense of time, it's felt like the longest amount of time and it's only coming up on a year."
Because of Massachusetts' restrictions, Harvard student-athletes haven't been given a hard date for when they'll return to the court. He went from having his routine planned for weeks to now motivating himself to push forward without a set date to work toward, which has been one of the more difficult aspects of a canceled season.
It has given him time to watch episodes of "Naruto," one of his favorite anime shows, something he wouldn't have been able to do during the season. He has volunteered with a Sacramento group called Neighbor Program that helps feed and provide medical assistance to the homeless. But he has found it difficult to have what was such a big part of his life taken away.
"It's definitely hard emotionally to deal with it mentally. That was difficult coming home initially, it felt like a bit of a free fall," Forbes said. "When you're in the daily hustle and the daily grind of things, you're asking for a break from that monotony of that routine, but I never could have anticipated it would be this dramatic of a break. Right when I got home, I definitely had to reorient myself and reground myself to get a routine back."
Watching games on TV, outside of a few that have featured his former teammates, has also been difficult. It's natural to not want to immerse himself into something he could be taking part in, but it doesn't take away from the emotions he and his teammates have felt from not bonding together on the court.
There are calls every other week, and the team still has academic support. A nutritionist helps provide some structure as well.
But without a goal and without the team being together, Forbes has to remind himself daily that this won't be forever, and at some point, he will get to reunite with his team.
"Refinding a purpose and making sure you're always attending to it, and you always have one in mind," Forbes said. "That's extremely hard to do when you're not around your teammates working toward the same thing. A lot of it is falling on us personally to stay motivated and make sure we're setting personal, individual goals to meet, to stay on track and stay motivated.
"Despite this being so difficult, I always try to find the silver lining, and you kind of have to stay mentally on point." -- VanHaaren
Bethune-Cookman was the first Division I school to cancel sports for an entire year, making the announcement on Oct. 27. The uncertainty posed challenges for men's basketball coach Ryan Ridder.
At the time, his players weren't sure other programs would cancel, if Bethune-Cookman would be the only one, or when they would get another opportunity to play. So the first thing Ridder and his staff did was re-recruit his roster to make sure the 13 student-athletes decided to stay at Bethune-Cookman.
"Being the first team to opt out, there were a lot of voices telling our guys this wasn't the right spot for them," said Ridder, who lost preseason all-league guard Joe French to Florida Atlantic, guard Jordan Preaster to Polk State and forward Justyn King to Hinds Community College. "We lost three guys, but at the end of the day, I thought it could be 10 or 11. I understand the decision to go elsewhere because of the circumstance, but we kept 10 out of 13, and we're pretty pumped about that."
The coaching staff hasn't been with the players in person since Oct. 22. There have been virtual planning, scheduling and strength and conditioning regimens, which the players all completed with different resources in different time zones. March 1 was the first day back for in-person practice, but those winter months were challenging to navigate.
"Being the first team to opt out, there were a lot of voices telling our guys this wasn't the right spot for them. We lost three guys, but at the end of the day, I thought it could be 10 or 11. I understand the decision to go elsewhere because of the circumstance, but we kept 10 out of 13, and we're pretty pumped about that." Bethune-Cookman men's basketball coach Ryan Ridder
"Outside of opting out of basketball, you're talking about a lot that goes into the mental well-being and academic support, where some of those things get lost in translation with everyone upset about the season," Ridder said. "Some of our kids, when they went home, they had to get a job. We have a kid (Calvin Poulina) who went home to the Netherlands. We're in constant contact with them, a Zoom every week, but their routing has probably been one of the hardest parts of this."
It hasn't all been bad, though. Ridder notes he was able to take a mid-winter vacation with his family for the first time in his career. It will likely be the last time he'll be able to do that, but he tried to enjoy the time he had and, similar to what he was saying to his players, make the best of the situation.
"Obviously, there are some ups and downs, but our staff got into this to impact young people. So when the vehicle that drives that is taken away, you have to take a step back and find ways to wake up and be passionate about what you're doing," Ridder said. "The mental battle of not getting to compete on an outside level, heck yeah, it's been tough. Definitely understand the stance of our institution, understand the decision, but it doesn't mean it was easy for any of us.
"It's been a whirlwind of emotions, but I think there's light at the end of the tunnel." -- VanHaaren
Mike Martin, Brown's men's basketball head coach, found himself running practice with his three daughters in the driveway or the neighborhood street when weather would permit over the past few months. He was so used to coaching that it gave him a sense of normalcy and also allowed him to spend extra time with his family that is typically hard to come by this time of year.
His team found out its season was canceled by a webinar on Nov. 12, and while he wasn't shocked, Martin was still holding out hope a season would be salvaged.
"It's going to be 20 months, or thereabouts, between Division I games for our program," Martin said. "So that makes a significant impact on our student-athletes. I think the way we try to build relationships and the culture of our program, the way we do things every day, keeps these guys connected in our program, and so far that's been the case."
From right before Thanksgiving in November to early February, the Brown coaches had contact with the student-athletes through only video or phone calls. They held some team activities via videoconference but mainly relied on the athletes themselves to stay on top of training, conditioning and practice.
Without a full routine, it made it difficult once players returned to campus in February.
Each player's situation differed depending on the state he lived in and the access he had to facilities and resources. When they returned, the players' fitness levels and conditioning were noticeably different.
"When we stepped on the court on Feb. 4, which was the first day of our spring semester workouts, we as coaches had not been in the same gym with them since March 7, when we played Dartmouth last year," Martin said. "For the freshmen, we hadn't been in the gym with them at all. Some guys had 11 months of very limited access to training."
The team is now limited to 12 hours of physical activity per week, compared to the regular 20 hours. That typically consists of an hour of strength and conditioning three times per week, three hours of individual skill drills and fundamentals broken up into four 45-minute sessions and three practices that are two hours in length.
The practices aren't what they used to be, though, as Brown is still under strict COVID-19 protocols.
"We can't work out being closer than six feet apart, so we're wearing masks and socially distant," Martin said. "But it's been great, we're back in the gym and we're able to get creative with the drills we're doing, trying to get these guys back into some kind of routine and playing shape." -- VanHaaren
Maryland-Eastern Shore Hawks
Tired of the typical team video meetings, Maryland Eastern Shore decided to get creative. With Jeopardy! music playing in the background, slides of NBA trivia questions and a countdown clock ticking, the players were quizzed -- and humbled.
Dr. J? Moses Malone? Bueller? Bueller?
"We thought we knew more than we did," said redshirt junior Jahmal Wright, noting his group came in "a solid second place."
"Sometimes you've gotta mix it up," coach Jason Crafton said. "You're not in the locker room anymore, you're not on a bus, you're not in the hotel, you're not in the airport. It was like, 'We've gotta start coming up with some cool things we could do.'"
Without a season, the focus for UMES has been bonding -- a critical step for a program that hired Crafton in April 2019 and has eight players who have yet to play a game for the team. They're all on campus, taking COVID-19 tests twice a week and a hybrid form of classes, and workouts have been broken into smaller groups and focused on skill development.
"The initial shock when it first happened was like a punch in the face -- it was hard," said Crafton, who estimated it has been about 30 straight years of having a basketball season in his life. "I told our guys we gave ourselves a small period of time, now we have to get over it. What's the next play?"
Crafton has used this time to bring in a series of guest speakers -- former NBA players and executives, along with five upcoming sessions focused on mental health and personal finances. They've also done a videoconference scouting report on Villanova as if they were going to play them. The hiatus from games has also provided opportunity to focus on increasing the team's GPA, which was at 3.2 in the fall. Wright, a sociology major, said he is taking the biggest course load he has ever had in college.
"I took the books a lot harder because there's no excuse," said Wright, who has a GPA over 3.0 and expects to graduate this year with two years of eligibility remaining. "At first I was a little disappointed with the season being canceled, but knowing what could happen with COVID in the most extreme cases, and knowing our institution had our health and safety at heart, I just took it with a grain of salt, and now I'm focused on helping my team and lead them into the next season as we prepare."
Wright and Crafton both agreed the sting of missing the season has faded with time. And yes, they will watch March Madness.
"It actually hasn't been hard for me to watch basketball at all, especially since our guys started to see the dropoff -- like teams playing two or three games, and then having to get shut down," Crafton said. "Going through a season where, we're a brand-new team with a brand-new coach and eight new guys, to be sitting here thinking about playing a game one day and then not again for three or four weeks, we weren't even ready to play a season like this. The teams that have veterans are more equipped to go through stuff like this. If you're a brand-new program, it's a recipe for disaster." -- Dinich
Nobody at Yale is sitting around sulking. There's no time.
Coach James Jones recently returned from a 10-day trip to Puerto Rico, where he was bubbled and tested for COVID-19 daily to serve as an assistant coach for the USA Basketball AmeriCup qualifying team. He wasn't the only Bulldog who left campus. Instead of enrolling in classes, 10 players spread across the country for internships -- learning about things such as import-exports, hedge funds and real estate investment.
They're gaining something priceless without losing a year of eligibility.
"That was my sell to them: OK, if you're going to be out of school, let's put you in a situation where you're going to be better coming back," Jones said. "How can we get better? You're going to get an internship which you normally wouldn't have. You're going to have a résumé builder, you won't lose eligibility. I just think it's the best of both worlds. It would be very difficult to be in school right now and watching everybody else play and knowing you can't."
Jones, who has a vote in the coaches' poll, is watching as much as he can. ("There may be those who are bitter and upset about us not playing," he said. "I wouldn't be one of them.") He said he has a better understanding of other teams and leagues than he normally would.
While Jones said he understands and accepts why he can't coach his own team, he couldn't resist an offer to assist what he called a "fabulous" team that comprises former NBA pros, including Joe Johnson, Josh Boone, Brandon Bass and Isaiah Thomas. Jones said they had six practices, but it took only two days for the players to learn the schemes.
"I certainly need to coach," he said. "That's just part of my DNA. It's who I am, it's what I do."
And he has done it well.
The school's all-time winningest basketball coach has led the Bulldogs to five Ivy League titles, three NCAA tournament berths and six postseason appearances. Last season, the Bulldogs won 23 games -- including their fourth Ivy League title in the past six seasons -- and were set to play in the NCAA tournament for the second straight season before it was canceled because of COVID-19.
"Every single kid on my team, I'm certain, grew up wanting to make the NCAA tournament," Jones said. "And I can't go to bed until I watch 'One Shining Moment' on CBS. Now to have had highlights in it, it's awesome to have been a part of it. One of the best things that have come out of this for me is I've been rejuvenated as a coach. I can't wait to get back on the court. I can't wait to coach again. I can't wait to have my guys in the gym running sprints and learning and the smiles and comradery and love we have for each other. I can't wait to get back to all of that."
He just has no idea when. -- Dinich