DURHAM, N.C. — Duke will not play any more nonconference men’s basketball games this season, opting to only play ACC opponents who must adhere to the same health and safety protocols for dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
A Dec. 19 home game scheduled with Gardner-Webb is now canceled. Games with Elon and Charleston Southern, previously postponed due to COVID-19 issues at those two schools, will not be rescheduled.
Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski discussed the decision on his SiriusXM radio show, “Basketball and Beyond,” which was taped earlier Thursday before airing at 6 p.m. Thursday. He’s also already informed the players.
“They need a break mental health wise,” Krzyzewski said. “They need a break. And so we made that decision and my team loved it. You could see the relief on their faces. They haven’t been home since (Aug. 1). So that’s what we’re doing. Whatever anyone else does, that’ll be good. But I would like to have more dialogue about it and not just say we’re going to plow through.”
The move also allows Duke’s players to see their families for the first time since summer when the athletes arrived on campus and entered the school’s strict testing and quarantine protocols. The Blue Devils play at Notre Dame on Dec. 16 at 9 p.m. to open their ACC schedule and then will be off until playing at home with Pittsburgh on Dec. 29 at 8 p.m.
Duke’s plan is for the players to be free to visit their families from after the Notre Dame game until returning on Christmas Eve to begin preparing for the Pittsburgh game.
That preparation will include the same testing protocol Duke implemented for its athletes when they returned to campus last summer: Immediate testing upon arriving on campus and quarantine until a negative test is received. A positive test would result in continued isolation along with contact tracing.
Following Tuesday night’s 83-68 loss to No. 6 Illinois, Krzyzewski responded to a question asking whether or not playing games as the pandemic continues to spread felt right by saying it didn’t “feel right” and that the situation should be reassessed.
One of the reasons he cited was the inability of players to interact with their families. With the exception of Krzyzewski’s wife, Mickie, Duke hasn’t allowed any spectators in Cameron Indoor Stadium for games this season.
“You know, a lot of kids aren’t gonna be able to go home for Christmas, probably a time where they should for mental health,” Krzyzewski said during the Tuesday night press conference via Zoom.
Less than 24 hours later, Duke’s game with Charleston Southern was postponed. With the Gardner-Webb game the only one keeping the players on campus between the Notre Dame and Pittsburgh games, the decision was made to forgo the rest of the nonconference schedule and focus on the 20 ACC games scheduled to be played.
In establishing guidelines for the planned NCAA Tournament in March, the NCAA said teams must play a minimum of 13 games to be eligible for selection to the field of 68 teams.
Duke’s decision to free up time for its players to return home comes as state health officials consider the situation with the pandemic “very worrisome.”
The state’s percent positive of COVID-19 tests is 10.7%, more than double the state’s goal of 5%. The death toll from COVID-19 in North Carolina reportedly grew to 5,714 on Thursday while the number of people reported hospitalized by the virus hit an all-time high of 2,444, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. DHHS, said during a Thursday news conference people should not travel during the holiday season to visit anyone they don’t live with.
“Please, please avoid traveling and gathering this holiday season,” Cohen said, admitting it is a “tough ask.”
Duke’s basketball players will have a chance to do just that, though, rather than staying on campus and only interacting among themselves.
“This is the best decision we could make as a program, in making sure that we are doing the right thing for our players,” Krzyzewski said in a statement released by Duke. “This will also allow our team to have time over the holidays to safely enjoy with their families. These kids need to be with their families, at least for a little bit. So we will play the Notre Dame game on December 16, and then allow our team four or five days at home before returning here to prepare for the remainder of our ACC schedule — and hopefully get to play all of them. These kids go through so much, and we need to take care of them.”