INDIANAPOLIS — Coaches Mark Few of Gonzaga and Scott Drew of Baylor scheduled Saturday’s game for all the right seasons.
They wanted their teams to have another early-season test and play in front of a national TV audience. The game on CBS between the nation’s top two college basketball teams figured to draw excellent ratings.
For now, No. 1 vs. No. 2 is off.
Less than 90 minutes before tip-off, the teams announced the postponement because of two positive COVID-19 tests in the top-ranked Bulldogs program. In a joint statement, the schools said one player and one nonplayer in the Gonzaga travel party tested positive. The unidentified player didn’t play Wednesday against No. 11 West Virginia.
“We’re disappointed to not be able to play one of the most anticipated games of the season, but we are following the advice of public health officials,” the coaches said. “When we decided to play during a pandemic, our priorities were protecting the health and safety of student-athletes and following public health guidelines, and we’re proud of how both programs have held true to those promises.
“There are much greater issues in this world than not being able to play a basketball game, so we’re going to continue praying for everyone who has been affected by this pandemic.”
Before heading back to Waco, Texas, Drew told reporters on a Zoom call both programs wanted to play but it was determined they couldn’t do it safely after consulting with the Indiana State Health Commissioner, the Marion County Public Health Director and both team physicians.
The coaches hope to reschedule the game for later this season. Drew said they’re already discussing possible make-up dates and potential sites though the more immediate priority was getting home and completing finals.
“We’re looking at a bunch of different options, so it’s probably too early to say we’ve targeted in on something,” Drew said. “I think a neutral site would be how both of us would still prefer it. But at the same time we want to make it happen. So whatever has to happen we’ll do.”
Gonzaga and Baylor arrived in Indianapolis this week for the Jimmy V Classic. The Bulldogs (3-0) beat the Mountaineers 87-82. Baylor (3-0) pulled away late to defeat No. 5 Illinois 82-69 in Wednesday’s second game.
Both teams spent the next three nights in Indy, preparing for a game that could have taken place last March — if COVID hadn’t forced the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament — or could happen again this March in Indy.
So they were eager to play this one.
“Scott and I talked about this a lot this past summer,” Few said Wednesday. “We thought this was the right thing to do. We both knew we would have highly rated teams and we knew we had to find a place and time to play it. To have it here in Indianapolis, the home of the Final Four makes it special.”
“They (the Bears) are good, really, really good. They were really good last year and now they’re older and they’re hungrier. They’re March ready already in November.”
But even if they had played, it wouldn’t have been quite as the coaches envisioned.
The newly renovated Bankers Life Fieldhouse hosted three top 20 games this week — No. 7 Kansas beat No. 20 Kentucky on Tuesday in the Champions Classic. All three were played in front of empty seats, without cardboard cutouts in the stands. The only crowd noise came from music piped in during timeouts.
It made an impact.
Coach Bill Self said when the Jayhawks arrived for practice Monday, they first had to mop dust off the court. The game was so quiet, conversations between the coaches and referees or coaches and players could be heard in the second deck of the arena. Self compared it to a scrimmage.
By Wednesday’s second game, the raucous reactions from the Illinois and Baylor benches produced the energy that had been lacking.
Drew, who missed Baylor’s first two games this season after contracting COVID and returned Wednesday, appreciated the bench noise.
“The coaching staff did a great job preparing me for what it would be like,” Drew said. “But you walk in and it’s like a scrimmage. It’s a big-time game and yet it feels like a practice or a scrimmage. People being around people, you get energized by it. I thought our bench was really outstanding. Just really, really good.”
And whenever they do play, Drew knows one thing — people will be watching.
“We knew it was going to be one of only three meetings with two No. 1s,” Drew said, referring to a split decision between The Associated Press poll and coaches’ polls. “We were hoping the coaches knew more than the media. If both of us are still ranked there when we do play, it will only mean we’ve both had good years and it will be even bigger.”
The postponement comes amid Indiana’s spike in COVID cases.
The state health department reported Saturday that an additional 7,793 cases and 78 deaths had been confirmed since Friday. More than 375,000 residents have been diagnosed with the virus and 5,910 have died since the start of the pandemic. Another 297 probable deaths have been reported based on clinical diagnosis in patients for whom no positive test is on record.