The question was about the family’s Thanksgiving traditions, but Caleb Daniels wanted to say something. He’s a proud New Orleans native, and the city, he said, is home to the best food in the country — especially when it comes to serving up Thanksgiving dinner.
“Not to brag about,” the Villanova student and men’s basketball keeper said with a smile, “but there’s no arguing about that. There is no debate about that.”
During the first two years of his collegiate basketball career, while he attended school and played basketball in Tulane, a 15-minute drive across town from the high school where he was a senior, Daniels was able to enjoy vacations as much as ever had child. The day started with church. (“Receive the word before you get the food that fills your stomach…”) He then went to a cousin’s house for a “mean” Thanksgiving meal.
But Thanksgiving week in college basketball — especially over the past decade — is packed with tournaments and plenty of matchups between ranked teams. Sure, Thanksgiving Day has its regular NFL triple header. However, college basketball does have a “festival week,” a creation of ESPN, and it’s marked by two marquee events over Thanksgiving weekend. There’s the Phil Knight Invitational, which Villanova will be attending this week, and the Battle 4 Atlantis, which Villanova has attended before.
So there will be no “mean” Thanksgiving dinner for Daniels in New Orleans. Villanova plays Iowa State on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. in Portland, Oregon. Same fate for fellow student Brandon Slater, a Virginia native who will miss his mother’s collards, turkey, ham, macaroni and cheese. However, he has gotten used to this setup. The Wildcats played Orlando, Fla. over Thanksgiving in 2018 when Slater was a freshman, and other holiday family meals have been impacted by COVID-19 bubbles.
There will be a Thanksgiving dinner, however. Villanova is traveling with a group of about 70 people, said the team’s operations director, Joey Flannery. This group consists of the team, coaches, some family members, staff and the school administration.
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The team is staying at a hotel in Portland, and Flannery said Thanksgiving dinner will be served there in a ballroom, nearly 3,000 miles from Villanova’s pavilion, around 4 p.m. Pacific time. Catering is provided by the hotel after consultation with Villanova. Flannery said Arleshia Davidson, Villanova’s director of program administration, takes the lead in planning bigger events like this one, and the Wildcats have become regular planners of this type of thing, having had some deep NCAA tournament runs lately.
The team’s strength and conditioning coach, John Shackleton, ensures that nutrition and recovery come first. Players have abandoned their food preferences.
“Whatever Shack says,” said redshirt junior forward Eric Dixon when asked what he wanted to see on the table. “Whatever Shack feels.”
Flannery said the players would be brought back for another meal later Thursday night. They play again on Friday at 12pm PST if they lose and 2pm PST if they win.
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As for rejecting family traditions and being on the move, players said they’re looking forward to it.
“You play basketball and it’s a business trip, but at the same time this is your family,” Slater said. “This is your new family. I love my parents, but I’m not with them every day. It’s a cool trip. It’s cool to get away from it all and just focus on ourselves, our teammates and our coaches.”
Every Thanksgiving dinner needs a wacky relative. Slater said Daniels was the crazy uncle at the table.
“Never,” Daniels said. “It’s definitely Slate.”
There will be lots of fun and jokes, the players said, but the Wildcats are down 2-2 this season and have a lot of work to do.
“It’s going to be cool to see everyone get together that day,” Slater said. “Then we’ll be over that in 20 minutes and get ready again for the team that’s in front of us.”
If Villanova beats Iowa State on Thursday, the next team ahead of them will likely be No. 1 North Carolina, who begin Thursday’s tournament against the University of Portland.
“What’s Thanksgiving without food and exercise?” Daniels asked.
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