THE BAHAMAS’ PARADISE ISLAND (AP) — Kimani Lawrence and his Arizona State teammates were eager to take it all in as they arrived for a men’s college basketball tournament that had been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic over the previous 18 months.
Being here is a big deal, both for the eight teams competing in this week’s prestigious Battle 4 Atlantis and for a sport that has made a habit of playing early season games off the coast of the United States.
With the return of numerous events in this Caribbean nation of about 700 islands to the Cancun Challenge in Mexico and the Paradise Jam in the United States Virgin Islands, it’s a significant step.
“A year ago, I didn’t think we’d be able to get back here as quickly as we have,” Lawrence said, whose team had to deal with multiple pauses and cancellations due to the pandemic.
A year ago, players were largely locked down in hotel rooms — even separated from each other during meals — on stateside road trips and during bubbled NCAA Tournaments in Indiana and Texas. Now, players at Atlantis are hitting the water slides, relaxing by the resort’s many pools, and heading to restaurants. “There were a lot of kids who transferred last year because they were isolated and depressed,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “And they were just students, wanting to go to class, want to socialise, want to be able to travel and play in front of fans.”
“So we made it through. And now, hopefully, we’ll be in a much more normal situation this year, and the student-athletes will benefit the most.”
The Battle 4 Atlantis kicks off on Wednesday with Baylor, the reigning national champion, Pearl’s 19th-ranked Tigers, and No. 22 Connecticut. It returns from a 2020 hiatus for its tenth edition, which begins two days after the inaugural women’s Battle 4 Atlantis, which features a 1-vs-2 championship matchup between South Carolina and UConn. Women’s games featuring No. 2 Maryland, No. 4 Indiana, No. 5 North Carolina State, and No. 7 Stanford will be held at the nearby Baha Mar resort in Nassau. In the women’s Paradise Jam, No. 10 Arizona will begin play on Thanksgiving Day.
“It’s an incredible team-bonding experience,” Bears coach Scott Drew told the Associated Press. “There’s something to be said when you leave the United States and go to the Bahamas or wherever… You become closer as you spend more time together. But, obviously, you have experiences that you would not normally have.”
Things aren’t completely back to normal yet. The Maui Invitational in Hawaii serves as a reminder; the tournament is in Las Vegas this week after being held in Asheville, North Carolina, last year due to lingering COVID-19 concerns.
Walker Kessler was a freshman at UNC last year when the Tar Heels’ Maui trip turned into an in-state mountain trip. He’s now in the Bahamas with Auburn as a transfer. “Everything has risk, but the reward far outweighs the risk,” Miller-Tooley said. “We felt and continue to feel very confident about the protocols that are in place and everything that we’ve done to ensure the safety and planning, with the men’s teams coming down this week.”
To some extent, the conclusion of the women’s tournament provided the first glimpses of normalcy.
The team from Oklahoma swam with dolphins. No. 15 Oregon players soaked up some rays at one of the resort’s numerous pools. Teams gathered in the lobby of their hotel towers to walk to Imperial Arena, past masked resort guests on the shop-lined route to the practises and games.
Coach Dawn Staley of the South Carolina Gamecocks, whose top-ranked team won the championship, was out walking her dog Champ around the marina and sheepishly admitted to doing some shopping. Due to his vaccinated status, Huskies coach Geno Auriemma said he would “take advantage of all their hospitality.” And there was a lot of excitement in the arena for the Gamecocks-Huskies championship game. The hope is that this is only the beginning of the journey back from the pandemic.
“There’s no point in coming to the Bahamas if you’re not going to enjoy yourself,” Ducks forward Sedona Prince told the Associated Press. “So we’ve been able to do things and go out and kind of be a team, and take pictures and videos and memories….” They organised the tournament for the benefit of the players, their families, and coaches. So, yeah, that’s what we’ve been doing.”
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