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COVID concerns not keeping Arizona men’s basketball players from heading home for holidays

arizona-wildcats-mens-basketball-associated-press-rankings-ncaa-top-25-pac12-washington-huskies-2022 Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona flew to Knoxville as a team on Tuesday, but after losing at Tennessee the Wildcats scattered in all directions for the holiday break, taking advantage of an NCAA loophole related to pre-Christmas travel.

The NCAA allows schools to pay for student-athletes to fly home for a minimum 3-day vacation period as long as it’s from the site of a non-home game. The UA last did so in 2019 when its final game before Christmas was against St. John’s in San Francisco.

That means guard Justin Kier, who is from Virginia, has a much shorter flight (and one he or his family doesn’t have to foot the bill for) while Christian Koloko will be spending Christmas in Los Angeles with his sister and Azuolas Tubelis said he and brother Tautvilas Tubelis will be in Phoenix at Tautvilas’ girlfriend’s home.

Others will be staying in Tucson, like Bennedict Mathurin, who said travel restrictions would have made it hard for him to get to Montreal and back in time for Arizona’s post-Christmas resumption of activities.

“I wish C-Lo would have invited me, I guess we’re not close enough,” he joked last week.

With COVID-19 cases rising all over the country, any travel right now could be considered risky, especially when the UA can’t control conditions like with charter flight and team meals. But Coach Tommy Lloyd said those concerns are outweighed by the importance of his players being able to see their family after being away from them for so long.

“I’m a fan of anytime our guys get to see their families, I’m a fan of that,” he said. “It’s really important. These guys have been working hard, as we all do. But these are young adults that are working hard, away from their families. They don’t get to go home for any of the holidays. Think about that. They don’t get Thanksgiving, they don’t get Christmas. So anytime you can get them home for a few days, I mean, I think you got to take advantage of it, even if there is a risk of a COVID situation.

“I mean, obviously COVID’s gone crazy. And we’re seeing it, and we’re doing the best job we can be mindful of that within our group, and trying to really kind of become our own little cohort a little bit. But I think, to my knowledge, I think everybody’s been double vaxxed, a lot of guys have been boosted. And just a little bit of common sense and hopefully it will be okay, but as you guys are seeing in all of society, it’s not avoidable. I mean, it’s happening, so we’re gonna do the best job we can.”

Mathurin said he and his teammates are well aware of how much COVID is impacting college basketball and how they don’t want it to affect their goals.

“The main thing is just being careful,” he said. “We just talked about it in the locker room. We have a big season and we have plans. Our plan is to win the national championship, so if you see a guy go on the wrong road we just need to bring them back.”

For Lloyd, being home on Christmas is one of the few luxuries he’s always managed to afford during his coaching career.

“Christmas is nice because I’ve never traveled on Christmas,” he said. “I always stay home. My family will be there and we’ll just hang out. I think we have family leading up to Christmas, extended family in town, and after Christmas. But I think those Christmas days is just going to be us, and if we have any (players) in town we’ll hang out with them, but it’s pretty laid back. I got three teenagers, so there’s a lot of sleeping in. My family will have a great time, and they’ll be coming down a ton (in) January, February.”