St. Joe's coach Billy Lange (above) doesn't buy the bubble talk surrounding the NCAA. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
The most popular word in the basketball world these days is “bubble.”
The NBA’s successful use of a large quarantine zone at Walt Disney World to host the end of the 2019-20 regular season and the entirety of the 2020 playoffs has inspired college administrators, basketball coaches, and hoop fans around the country with hopes that something similar could be pulled off at the amateur level.
Saint Joseph’s men’s coach Billy Lange isn’t too convinced.
“I feel that the whole word ‘bubble’ is being way overused,” the St. Joe’s coach said by phone earlier this month. “What the NBA is pulling off right now is a testament to a single focus, extreme resources, and committed manpower. College basketball may not necessarily be built like that universally.”
Lange knows what he’s talking about. He’s experienced life at Division I, as a head coach and assistant coach; at Division II, as an assistant coach; at Division III, as a player and head coach; and in the NBA, as an assistant coach –– all before taking over the Saint Joseph’s men’s hoops program last spring.
So when he’s discussing the differences between the college game and the pros, especially regarding that all-powerful bubble, Lange speaks from experience.
“The scorekeeper has two jobs, the referees have two jobs, the sports information people work for multiple sports,” he continued. “It’s almost a disservice to the NBA to not recognize the amount of people and money, resources and uninterrupted thought that they have put into being able to pull these games off.”
“They’re making it look so easy that we think it’s easy. It’s not easy.”
While financial and geographical difficulties might limit the bubble opportunities in the college game, that isn’t stopping decision-makers from putting the idea out there.
In a Zoom press conference earlier this week, Villanova head coach Jay Wright mentioned that a bubble was something the Big East had under consideration for part of the schedule; other area Division I coaches have said their leagues have also considered bubble scenarios, even if they’re not the most likely to happen.
But Lange’s points are valid. Running the NBA bubble meant quarantining all the players, coaches, team personnel, media, and other support staff for months; nobody is allowed any guests, family included. That’s on top of the costs of the thousands upon thousands of tests, masks, gloves, thermometers, and other equipment necessary to ensure such an environment. That's something most schools outside the Power 5 couldn't afford in a normal year, much less one where everybody's budget has been impacted by the novel coronavirus.
Back on City Avenue, Lange’s Hawks are on campus, where SJU is attempting to keep its students on campus and in classes while avoiding a COVID outbreak. Students, wearing masks, attend courses in socially-distanced assigned seats, though professors have the ability to hold courses outdoors or online if they so choose.
Photos posted to the SJU men’s basketball account this month show the team together on campus and in workouts, always wearing masks but otherwise attempting an air of normalcy.
“Look, anytime you put masks on and you’re trying to communicate through a mask and breathe through a mask, it’s not normal, so it’s not normal,” Lange said. “But [if] Chadwick Boseman can shoot five motion pictures going through chemotherapies and surgeries, we just have to create normal. It’s literally that simple for us.”
Pandemic aside, this is a critical offseason for the Hawks, whose previous summer was one of extreme fluctuation. Seven members of Phil Martelli’s final rotation departed following Martelli’s firing via either transfer, graduation, or turning pro; Lange scraped together last year’s rotation with a mixture of transfers, some late-committing incoming freshmen, a previously-little-used grad transfer and a couple walk-ons; their final record of 6-26 (2-16 A-10) was rather unsurprising.
There was no such exodus this offseason; the team’s top five scorers are returning, including redshirt senior and third team all-A10 selection Ryan Daly (20.6 ppg/6.8 rpg/4.3 apg) and redshirt junior forward Taylor Funk (9.4 ppg/5.1 rpg), who missed all but seven games last year with a hand injury.
Now eligible are Gonzaga transfer Greg Foster Jr., a 6-5 redshirt sophomore guard, and Anton Jansson, a 6-10 redshirt freshman forward who arrived on campus mid-season last year. Xavier transfer Dahmir Bishop, a 6-4 guard and another mid-season arrival, can begin playing his sophomore season in December, which thanks to the new NCAA start date of Nov. 25 will be closer to the beginning of the season than usual.
There’s also two more true freshmen: 6-5 wing Jadrian Tracey, out of West Oaks Academy (Fl.), and Neumann-Goretti product Jordan Hall, a super-versatile 6-8 wing/guard who brings a different element to the court than anybody else on the Hawks’ roster with his passing and shooting abilities.
With 11 available scholarship players on the roster, all of them will get their chance to see the court if a season happens, even though workout time thus far has been limited.
“What do they look like when they go against guys older than them? We don’t know yet,” Lange said of his newcomers, “but from what we’ve been allowed to view and evaluate, they look great.”
The Hawks’ season was supposed to begin against Maryland at an unannounced date in early November, but the new season start date of Nov. 25 means that game is either off or will have to be rescheduled. Everything’s up in the air at the moment, with programs waiting on their reconfigured conference schedules before they can turn their attention to the shorter non-conference slate.
Like the rest of Division I, the Hawks and their coaching staff have begun the tentative countdown to the 2020-21 season. In this COVID world, no plan is set in stone until it’s finished. For now, the goal is to tip-off Thanksgiving week, with an Atlantic 10 season to follow.
“Where I’ve adjusted is I don’t over-plan each day,” Lange said. “I’ve got a vision, it’s an overall plan, but I’m staying very flexible. I try to say ‘this is what we want to accomplish in these three days, and then after these three days, let’s assess where we are.’
“As long as it’s moving us towards the vision, that’s good, I feel like that’s a real positive for us. It might not be moving us at the rate [in any other year], but at least we’re moving forward.”