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College basketball

Mass. Division 1 men’s basketball coaches preview the 2020-21 season

Coaches vs. Cancer: A discussion with the men's Division 1 basketball coaches of Massachusetts

College basketball was among the first sports to be impacted by COVID-19 last March, as the pandemic silenced March Madness and left the NCAA without champions. Now, eight months later, as area programs begin preparing for the 2020-21 season, coronavirus is again at the forefront of the conversation.

Speaking as part of Tuesday’s “Coaches vs. Cancer” roundtable discussion with the men’s Division 1 coaches of Massachusetts — a fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society’s Coaches Vs. Cancer Foundation — Boston College’s Jim Christian and his seven local counterparts detailed how they’ve managed in a COVID climate.

“You obviously try and be as careful and safe as you can," said Christian, "but at the end of the day, these kids have mentally gone through so much. The fact they can just have fun every day, for me, is priority one.

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“We didn’t have anybody here in the summer, so in reality, when we first got back here to watch them play basketball after six months, to see how happy they were just to do something that resembled any form of normalcy, was worth it, for us.”

Harvard coach Tommy Amaker and the Crimson are in a holding pattern, as there is uncertainty how the school — and the Ivy League — will handle the season.

“We don’t know," said Amaker. "There has been no direction as of yet. We’ve had very limited kids even on campus. All of the classes at Harvard have been virtual. We’ve only actually had three basketball players actually on campus the first semester.

“The thing we’ve tried to do with our team is we’ve met with them virtually through Zoom. We’re just trying to be grateful and staying positive, but also trying to stay healthy. And trying to find small wins, wherever they may be.”

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The discussion, moderated by college basketball analyst Jeff Goodman, focused on a variety of topics, and each coach had a chance to talk about his program.

Sports journalist Jeff Goodman hosted all eight of the Division 1 men's basketball coaches in Massachusetts for a Coaches vs. Cancer fund-raiser.
Sports journalist Jeff Goodman hosted all eight of the Division 1 men's basketball coaches in Massachusetts for a Coaches vs. Cancer fund-raiser.Screenshot

Boston College

Last season: 13-19 overall, 7-13 league

BC lost three of its top four scorers from last season, but the Eagles do welcome back Jay Heath, who led the team in scoring as a freshman, as well as leading rebounder Steffon Mitchell.

Christian has an intriguing collection of mid-major transfers, including Frederick Scott, a 6-foot-8-inch forward who averaged 12.6 points for Rider last season.

Christian, who called this the deepest teams he’s had at The Heights, is particularly impressed with the progress of guard Wynston Tabbs, who missed all of 2019-20 with knee issues but appears to be on track to play this season.

“To see what he’s done, rehabilitation-wise, through the pandemic, it’s unbelievable," said Christian. "It’s really inspired everybody. The prediction earlier was that he was supposed to be jogging, and he’s full-out playing the last three weeks. It’s amazing.”

Boston University

Last season: 21-13 overall, 12-6 league

Joe Jones and the Terriers are defending Patriot League champions, and Jones said Tuesday he and his team view practice in a slightly different light than they used to. There’s still work to be done, but now there’s even more emphasis on fun.

“The big thing is, for me, like Tommy [Amaker], like Jim [Christian], I just want our guys to have a great experience when they do get a chance to get to practice because they’re going through so much,” Jones said.

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“And so much is different for them and there are so many things that are unknown. We’re really trying to make the experience fun for them and enjoyable.

"A lot of these guys are coming off being in their room all day, and so any time they can get into the gym, it’s like, it’s great. And it’s great for us to get together.”

Harvard

Last season: 21-8 overall, 10-4 league

If there is basketball at Harvard this season, the Crimson appear to have as good a shot as anyone to win the Ivy League crown. Noah Kirkwood, the second-leading scorer on the team last year with 12.1 points per game, figures to have an expanded role.

Amaker said the prospect of players opting out because of the uncertainty has not been a topic of constant conversation.

“It really hasn’t,” said Amaker, who saw last year’s leading scorer, Bryce Aiken, leave for Seton Hall.

“The tone we wanted to set with our team and with all the players is I wanted them to have all the options available and do what was in their best interest. Whatever that would be, we were going to stand behind them and have their back and full support.

"I didn’t want them to have any thoughts about what this means for the team or the program.”

Holy Cross

Lats season: 3-29 overall, 2-16 league

Brett Nelson is heading into his second season in charge of a young team; there are six freshmen on the roster, including Worcester Academy graduates Michael Rabinovich and Judson Martindale.

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Nelson, a national champion with the 2000 University of Florida team, is hoping some of his own experience will rub off on his young squad.

“I’m excited about our group,” he said. "I didn’t know what to expect when we got them on campus in early September. But they were in a lot better shape than I expected.

“These young kids, they’ve really shown me that, No. 1, they will work. They want to work. And they’re [serious] about the work.

"I think we have an innately competitive group. The last thing we had to focus on was that we had to get more athletic. Our athleticism will be a lot different than it was last year.”

Merrimack

Last season: 20-11 overall, 14-4 league

Joe Gallo and his team surprised many locally, as they moved up to Division 1 and won the Northeast Conference in their initial season. But Gallo, going into his fifth season at the controls of the Warriors, says last year is in the rearview mirror.

“We don’t really talk about last year a whole lot,” Gallo said. “That has come and gone.”

Northeastern

Last season: 17-16 overall, 9-9 league

The loss of Jordan Roland — who averaged 21.9 points per game last season — is a big challenge for Bill Coen and his staff, but sophomore guard Tyson Walker could be in for more opportunities as a result. The 6-footer, who finished third in scoring last season for the Huskies with 10.4 points and led the team with 104 assists, figures to see a ton of action.

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“Obviously, our most accomplished player coming back is Tyson Walker,” said Coen. "He had a good freshman year for us.

“I always feel like the biggest step for college players is between their freshman and sophomore years. Their freshman year, they don’t know what they don’t know and they go out there and sometimes they play loose and everything kind of breaks their way and are having fun.

"And that next year, they have to kind of get into a more of a leadership role, because teams will game-plan against them. But he had an offseason surgery; he battled through it and did a great job. He’s going to be our most accomplished player going into the season.”

UMass Amherst

Last season: 14-17 overall, 8-10 league

Matt McCall is going into his fourth season at the helm of the Minutemen, and his team will be led by sophomore Tre Mitchell, who was selected to the Atlantic 10′s preseason all-conference team. The 6-9, 240-pounder averaged 17.7 points and 7.2 rebounds last season.

“The biggest thing with Tre is his character,” McCall said. "I sound like a broken record talking about it, but as good a player as he is, he’s an even better person. He’s motivated and driven, both on and off the floor.

"He’s one of those guys who you never have to worry about in terms of what he’s doing academically. He knows what he wants to get his degree in, and he’s driven by that.

“Obviously, he has some expectations. But his character speaks for itself, and he’s ready for Year 2.”

UMass Lowell

Last season: 13-19 overall, 7-9 league

Pat Duquette, starting his eighth season as coach of the River Hawks, is excited about senior guard Obadiah Noel, who was the second-leading scorer on last year’s team with 18.2 points per game. He’ll likely be asked to do even more this season with the departure of the hot-shooting Christian Lutete, who led the River Hawks with 19.3 points per game last season.


Christopher Price can be reached at christopher.price@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at cpriceglobe.