The college basketball calendar may have reached a tipping point, and Arizona Wildcats freshman Aaron Gordon couldn’t be happier about it.
Thanks to a new NCAA rule, the Wildcats began full-length practices Friday — six weeks before their Nov. 8 season opener against Cal Poly and two weeks earlier than teams previously could begin.
“I couldn’t think of doing anything better,” Gordon said. “Playing basketball is what I love to do so I might as well get started early.”
That’s all well and good, but maybe not everyone has the same mind-set as the highly motivated Gordon, who picked up MVP trophies at both the McDonald’s All-American Game and U19 World Championships in the offseason.
But even if everybody does like starting early — and UA coach Sean Miller raved about his team’s chemistry, leadership and newcomers during his preseason media address Wednesday — there’s still always a threat of burnout sometime after the initial rush of conference play fades.
That’s because the college season now is effectively longer than the offseason for those who advance all the way to the Final Four: A full 27 weeks from start to finish.
Even those who only reach the Sweet 16 or play a week into the other postseason tournaments will effectively be playing basketball for half the year, the same amount of time that spans the NBA preseason and regular season.
All this also comes on top of another rule change started last year, in which coaches can work with their players up to two hours a week in the offseason.
In other words, college basketball almost never stops.
“This is almost a new model,” Miller said. “We’re excited to begin and at the same time we’re in this for the long haul, trying to practice, improve and get better — and have a feel for not wearing out our team unnecessarily. I think we’re all as coaches really trying to create that delicate balance.”
There are different strategies everywhere. While Miller said he would start the Wildcats with a “mini-camp” type of approach, beginning with two sets each of four days on and two days off, Washington’s Lorenzo Romar isn’t doing anything with the Huskies until three days after they are allowed to start.
UNLV coach Dave Rice, meanwhile, told the Las Vegas Sun he would mostly focus on drills with conditioning and skill work — as limited September workouts used to be comprised of — before opening his first “real” practice Oct. 7.
Similarly, Creighton’s Greg McDermott told ESPN he will mostly be easing his team in with a lot of skill work and won’t have them practice for three straight days until Oct. 11.
“I’m not convinced the early start is a great idea,” McDermott told ESPN. “It’s already a long season, and we have to make sure we have some legs in February.”
There is one aspect of the rule built in to prevent overuse: Coaches are allowed to hold only 30 total practices over those 42 days before the first game. That’s an average of five practices per week, while coaches are allowed to work their teams on the court six days a week once the season begins.
Miller’s “mini-camp” approach will allow UA to use eight of those 30 practices through Oct. 8. That’s just a few days before UA would have started practices under the old guidelines (the closest Friday to Oct. 15), and the Wildcats will then kick into regular preseason mode just in time for their Oct. 12 Red-Blue Game at McKale Center.
After that, the Wildcats will have another two weeks to practice fully before facing Augustana in an Oct. 28 exhibition game at McKale. There’s also a closed exhibition game to squeeze in before the Nov. 8 season opener.
“I think we won’t go as long because — although our guys are in good condition — they shouldn’t be in great condition right now because it’s very early,” Miller said of his initial practices. “We (want to) teach and implement our system in a comprehensive way, so when we get to the point where the normal (practice) starting period of time is, we feel good about the progress that we’ve made.”