The first upset of March Madness is in and it involved tournament favorite Gonzaga.
Coach Mark Few provided the play by play.
“There was a roaring game of Catan going on (Tuesday) night,” Few said. “That’s a (Corey) Kispert, Joel (Ayayi) kind of (board) game. It gets pretty competitive. Just to let you in on a little secret, they were taken down by trainer Josh Therrien in a little bit of an upset.”
Life inside the NCAA Tournament’s controlled environment hasn’t all been fun and games, but the top-ranked Zags are finding ways to break the monotony of long hours inside hotel rooms in Indianapolis. On tap for Wednesday: Wiffle ball, football and Catan, Part II. Or is it Part III, after Ayayi’s claim on Twitter he has one victory?
The NCAA brought the entire tournament to the Indianapolis area, establishing strict safety measures to limit the potential impact of COVID-19 on 68 teams. It’s worked thus far: Replacement teams weren’t necessary and 68 teams are locked into the bracket, although several might be missing a player or two.
Teams spent 24 hours in quarantine after arriving. Players are typically in one of three places: their rooms, meeting and/or dining rooms (following social-distancing protocols) on their hotel floor or the practice courts at the Indiana Convention Center, which is connected by skywalks to nearby hotels.
“It’s pretty strict here for sure,” GU junior guard Andrew Nembhard said. “There’s not really interactions with other teams. Just kind of ourselves and trying stay distanced with masks on and having our time when we can come together and do certain activities.”
Gonzaga had some input with officials about ways to enhance the players’ tournament experience. Few is on a coaching committee that exchanged ideas with NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt.
When Gonzaga was in Indianapolis in early December to face West Virginia and Baylor – the latter canceled by COVID concerns in GU’s program – Few arranged for Gavitt to address the team.
“Dan deserves so much credit, and his staff, to put this together and pull it off,” Few said. “He really asked our guys some great questions and he listened to them. They’re trying to make this thing as player friendly and customer friendly as they possibly can.”
In many ways, playing the regular season during a pandemic and experiencing numerous scheduling changes served as preparation for the NCAA Tournament.
The Zags are familiar with testing and travel protocols on road trips. The team was semi-isolated in Spokane during the season. It stayed in a Spokane hotel for several days before and after the West Coast Conference Tournament in Las Vegas. Gonzaga has emphasized team-building activities for several years, often at the direction of strength and conditioning coach Travis Knight.
“That was something we took for granted when I first started coaching. Now we make a concerted effort to work on that side of the things, the mental side of things,” Few said. “Travis is always challenging them with fun, interesting things.”
How players and teams handle the tournament protocols, especially squads that could be on site for three-plus weeks, figures to correlate with their on-court performance.
“A big part of this is if you have to have a team that’s good enough to win this tournament, but also more so than other years, how they handle just this. It’s different,” said Few, who expects restrictions to loosen up later in the tournament. “There’s going to be some maturity involved, ability for the guys to have great perspective and you’d better like who you are hanging out with because that’s who you’re hanging out with.
“Fortunately for us, we do like hanging out together.”
The Zags planned for another 7-on-7 football session with Kispert and Jalen Suggs as quarterbacks on opposing teams. Kispert reportedly got the better of it in a summer matchup.
“I’ve been training behind the scenes for months now for this rematch, all primed and ready to go,” Kispert said. “I think Jalen has been showing off in front of the cameras too much, personally. We’ll see what happens.”
Few’s family is bringing him extra Zags gear for practices and other functions that he didn’t pack for the trip.
“Clean clothes, it’s a battle,” said Few, noting that two managers are staying outside the controlled environment to “grab anything and everything we might have forgotten.”
Kispert, an avid golfer, brought his putter and some golf balls. He practices putting with a water bottle serving as a target inside his room.
“Games like Catan and football and everything in between is really helpful to keep your mind off what’s coming this week,” he said. “There’s a time to focus and a time to have fun and we’re really good at separating the two.”
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