Under NCAA rules expanded in 2020, Division I basketball has become, for all intents and purposes, a year-round sport, and it appears that perhaps the athletes’ bodies are not on board with the new plan.
In a little more than a month, four players with Minnesota ties lost their 2022-23 seasons to season-ending knee injuries suffered during NCAA-approved summer practices. That includes Ben Johnson’s two biggest, and most experienced, forwards and one of the four big-time freshman recruits lassoed by Lindsay Whalen.
It also includes one of college basketball’s best players, Connecticut point guard Paige Bueckers, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee last Monday and had season-ending surgery on Wednesday. On Friday, Iowa announced that junior guard Kylie Feuerbach tore the ACL in her right knee and won’t play this year.
Coaches are always lobbying for more time to work with student-athletes, whether it’s trying to recruit more or prepare the current ones for the season. After the past month, one wonders how productive it is to have them practicing all summer.
When Gophers women’s basketball began summer workouts on June 13, Whalen remarked that when she played at Minnesota from 2000-04, she spent her summers working with her father at the 3M plant in Hutchinson and playing pickup games — the point being it’s a lot different for DI student-athletes these days, and presumably better.
But it was just a month later that Whalen announced via news release that Niamya Holloway, a forward from Eden Prairie and one-fourth of a nationally ranked recruiting class, will miss this season after injuring her knee during practice. Last Monday, Johnson announced that Isaiah Ihnen will miss this season because of a season-ending knee injury suffered in July, a few weeks after Parker Fox was lost to a knee injury during practice.
Fox and Ihnen each missed all of the 2021-22 season after blowing out their knees last summer, Ihnen during summer practices in June, Fox while working out about a month after committing to Minnesota after two years at D2 Northern State in Sioux Falls, S.D. Fox and Ihnen are massive losses for Johnson’s Gophers, undersized last season because Fox and Ihnen were hurt.
The rest of Minnesota’s cagers are probably becoming better basketball players this summer, adding muscle, stamina and skills for big-time college basketball. But one wonders how helpful it really is when some of their teammates are being lost in June and July for a schedule that starts in, uh, let me check the calendar here … November.
Two summers ago, the NCAA expanded the summer window for Division I basketball players to practice and/or work out with program staff to eight weeks of required activities starting July 20 and running through at least Sept. 15. That staff-run access is capped at eight hours a week, but it’s still four two-hour practices a week — and follows a window for voluntary workouts that begins June 1. And in this context, it’s hard to think of voluntary as anything but a misnomer.
Now that NCAA student-athletes are paid a stipend and finally allowed to share the profits of the billion dollar industry they drive, it’s easier to accept the fact that being a big-time college athlete is a full time job. And maybe the students like playing basketball virtually all year round. I probably would, especially if there were a 24-hour kitchen available for refueling. And maybe the consistent time with coaches and staff really does make them better players, a desirable situation for athletes who aspire to spending at least some time making real money for playing basketball.
Maybe this is counter-productive. Perhaps a breather is in order.
There is something to be said for an offseason, too, and not just a year off because you’re recovering from surgery.