Bubble Madness: As players check off bucket list, tournament experience will be diminished

Teams may have underlying concerns once the college basketball postseason arrives
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When he was a small child, Oklahoma’s De’Vion Harmon began keeping a checklist of all the things he wanted to accomplish as a basketball player.

“I was around second or third grade,” Harmon said Monday. “And I used to write down goals every year. Stick them on my wall back at home, back in Dallas and check 'em off as they go. I still do it. I'm 20. Been 12-13 years, and I still do it. And I'll probably do it for the rest of my life.”

One of those goals — play in March Madness — was unceremoniously taken away from him last year when, as an OU freshman, the season was cancelled right before the Big 12 Tournament began.

Now, a year later, OU again appears worthy of an NCAA Tournament invitation, and this time, for now, the tournament is on — sort of.

In a few weeks, the Sooners and the rest of the Big 12 Conference will play in a “bubble” in Kansas City, and then try it again at a reimagined NCAA Tournament that’s been centralized in Indianapolis.

There are a million details to iron out. The logistics will be a challenge. With daily tests and contact tracing and young people trying to navigate a pandemic, anything could happen.

But OU coach Lon Kruger said his biggest concern lies with the players’ emotional readiness for the “bubble” scenario.

“I think the biggest point of conversation is just the amount of isolation that’s going to occur — in Kansas City, first of all, in that bubble,” Kruger said. “We don’t know exactly what that looks like to the letter of the intent. It’s like, you’re not going anywhere, you’re not doing anything, you’re not seeing anyone. And we get that. So how, emotionally, that will be for our guys — and not just our guys, but all the players there.

“And then the same thing is set up to have something similar to that in Indianapolis. So yeah, it’ll be interesting to be there and not have it be a normal celebration experience type-thing. You’re there, you’re locked down — but that’s the way it is. We don’t contest it. We just recognize it’s gonna be different.”

No sight-seeing. No hanging out or even interacting with other teams away from the floor. No friends, no family. No wandering the venue. No grabbing a late-night snack at the corner restaurant. No sitting in the seats to watch your next opponent. No civic adulation.

“We all wish we could have that, right? I guess coach Krug is right,” Harmon said. “I mean, if there's any concern, it would be that one, definitely. Because, you know, we like to be around each other, talk, joke, play video games, stuff like that. So, we don't get to do that as much as we want, if any at all. So that's going to be a different thing.

“Even though we’re gonna be competing against other teams, in the past, you probably talk to other teams and whatever,” Harmon said. “But it’s gonna be definitely different. But, that’s how the past year has been. You gotta adjust to what’s going on. We’ve been doing a great job of that. It’s gonna be a little hard in turn because that’s an experience that not everybody gets as a team and individually.”

OU plays at Kansas State on Tuesday night, then has two games scheduled with Oklahoma State on Saturday afternoon and next Monday night.

Games with Texas and Baylor were postponed indefinitely, and those could get slotted into the week between the regular season and the tournament (March 10-13).

The reality is, Kruger said, is that there’s still a long way to go and a lot of COVID-19 tests to take. Everyone must remain diligent to get to the finish line.

“We have trust in these guys, for sure,” Kruger said, “but that doesn’t mean we don’t keep reminding them. We talk all the time – virtually every day – certainly after every ball game that what we’ve done up to this point doesn’t mean we can relax and do things differently. We have to continue to be smart and disciplined and do the things that give us the best chance to avoid a positive test.”

Kruger said the tests results Monday came back good — “No surprises,” he said. “Again that’s something we talked about in our coaches meeting this morning that, you’re kind of anxious. You almost stop worrying about it, but then on other occasions when we kind of stop worrying about it or thinking about it, all of a sudden we get a positive test. That’s with every team in the country.”

Which teams manage themselves the best — don’t get stir crazy, don’t get cabin fever, avoid crowds, wear masks and otherwise stick with the pandemic guidelines — may be rewarded for that diligence when the bubbles form come March.

“It’s the first time we’ve ever done it this way, so yeah, there’s a lot of questions,” Kruger said. “And there’s certainly a lot of things that will be ironed out as we get closer to postseason. … (We’re) unsure as to what’s gonna be the biggest area of concern until we get there and, I guess, kind of experience it in Kansas City.”

What’s easy to forget for anyone who’s never been at a postseason basketball tournament site is that the games are great and all — they’re the reason you’re there; they’re the reason for the whole thing — but it’s the off days, the moments away from the arena, the new experiences that ultimately form the most enduring memories.

This year, that lack of human interaction may diminish the overall experience — but maybe that ultimately enhances the importance of what happens on the court and the moments with the team.

“When you grow up playing this game, and you write down the list of your goals and bucket lists or whatever,” Harmon said, “you put up ‘being in March Madness; play in it.’ I know that’s what I have on my goals at home. And I can mark that off because we’re gonna be there.

“I won’t get the full experience, but hey, we get to play basketball. That’s the most important thing — get to go out there and compete with my guys and have fun. And even though it’s not the same, go out there and compete. And just win. We’re on the road to a national championship, and I know we can do that.”