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Florida’s cancellation of North Florida game should be first of several

At the end of a year of forging forward in baffling fashion, it’s okay to get off the track.

NCAA Basketball: Stetson at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After reporting to the same effect on Monday night, the Florida Gators announced on Tuesday morning that their scheduled men’s basketball contest against North Florida for Wednesday night will be postponed and not played as scheduled.

With the team’s star and leader Keyontae Johnson still in a Gainesville hospital and only “following simple commands” after his terrifying collapse last Saturday against Florida State, that’s a first step toward the right call for this program: The cancellation of all non-conference games prior to SEC play.

Prior to this postponement — Florida’s statement says the decision was made given Johnson’s circumstances, and includes the quote “Florida basketball and the UAA wish to thank UNF’s coaching staff, administration and team for their flexibility and willingness to make this schedule change” and a proviso that “A makeup date will be determined at a later time” — the Gators had three games scheduled between now and Christmas: North Florida on Wednesday, Florida Atlantic on Saturday, and James Madison on Tuesday, December 22.

Not one of those games is compelling enough that it ought to be played in light of a player’s very serious medical condition and the traumatic effects of seeing that player collapse. To discuss the basketball ramifications of playing them seems a bit crude, but wins over three teams unlikely to compete for NCAA Tournament spots are not likely to help Florida’s own NCAA Tournament resume substantially, while measuring whatever benefit Florida will derive from practicing and playing games in Johnson’s absence must come with assessing whether there will be pain derived from pushing forward without him.

There could be significant utility in playing without Johnson and figuring out how to win without him — or win for him.

There could also be significant value in sparing players the cognitive dissonance involved in playing on when their leader cannot, and in giving players who may very well have feared that they saw their friend and teammate’s last moments of life as long a break from basketball as possible. If Florida were to cancel its non-con games today, players could take two full weeks to visit family and have as “normal” a Christmas or holiday season as is possible against the backdrop of a pandemic and still arrive back in town with more than 24 hours to prep for Vanderbilt on Wednesday, December 30.

And if Florida were to cancel its remaining non-conference games — something that no less of a program than Duke has done — and cite the mental health of its players as the reasoning, that decision would be not just accepted but celebrated by many. (It would also give other programs more of a foundation to work from when deciding whether to push players through the holiday season.)

If Florida decides it needs more time after that absence? It should claim that, too.

While Florida’s players played through last Saturday’s game — despite, apparently, multiple chances to step away from it — that entire contest had an eerie feeling, and one of the things visibly lacking against the Seminoles was the blazing-eye desire one might expect from a team in a heated rivalry game. Lacking that would, of course, be totally understandable, given what they had just experienced.

A distance of days is scarcely going to be time for that memory to fade. And even if Florida’s players want to play on in the near future, people above them should make the right call: Giving the Gators as much time off as they need to grasp and grieve the tragedy they all have lived and are living through.

This human crisis is something much bigger than basketball. And basketball can wait.