We are just nine days away from the planned start of the college basketball season, but already one thing is very clear, we should not be playing games right now or really in 2020 at all, which really means that non-conference play needs to be scrapped if there is any chance to have a season.
There are so many teams that are in or just coming out of quarantine which means either limited or no practice before its first game, which of course poses a serious injury risk to begin with. Not only that, but it is hard to practice either as a group or with too much contact, so getting the most out of practices becomes extremely difficult.
Already, coaches have had to switch up how they do things which is difficult when you have a certain way of doing things, something Duquesne men’s basketball coach Keith Dambrot conceded to reporters at Duquesne’s Nov. 11 Atlantic 10 Media Day session.
It is easy to say basketball needs to take a pause at this point in time, but with the rising number of cases per day which are becoming even larger in numbers than in March when much of the world both inside and outside of sports came to a stop.
Being at Point Park University Sunday was my first opportunity to see how things would work in terms of attending a basketball game, regardless of role, in a pandemic setting as the women’s basketball team hosted Bryant & Stratton-Rochester.
Upon entering, my temperature was taken and then I was permitted to proceed and take my seat at the gameday table. The elevators had a key to push and restrooms had a place to put your hand that automatically was cleaned. There was clear labeling in terms of how many individuals were allowed in a particular part of the building.
Point Park already issued a press release stating there will not be any fans attending home contests for the 2020-21 men’s and women’s basketball seasons. In recent years, Point Park played its home contests at CCAC-Allegheny which is located in Pittsburgh’s North Side neighborhood, however it plans on hosting games at its on-campus Student Center as much as possible.
Being at that contest certainly got me thinking about the bigger picture and judging the optics having a full season at this moment seems downright impossible. There are just too many factors that have to go right just to have one game let alone a season.
First off, you are putting a lot of trust in your opponent to have the resources and ability to properly test a certain amount of times in order to travel. Then there is a lot of hope that no one on your team, be it a player, coach, administrator or support staff member tests positive.
Then you are bringing in outsiders whether it is the gameday staffers, media or other outside personnel, something which each institution has to consider. Each additional person poses a risk where contact with those on the court has to be extremely limited or eliminated altogether, not to mention there is no knowledge how or if all they have been tested save for a mandatory temperature check.
As of Nov. 11, Pennsylvania had a 17% positivity rate for COVID-19 and recently Ohio has advised against any travel and a self-quarantine after departing.
Though a lot of non-conference schedules have yet to be posted, you have to read between the lines as some are truly not finalized.
As an example, Duquesne men’s basketball coach Keith Dambrot has such a strong connection with Akron, and playing a game there this year becomes all the more difficult if not downright impossible. On the women’s side, Duquesne has played in a series with Toledo in recent years and hosted Kent State a season ago, and often times teams sign game contracts with each other with the expectation of there being a home game for both teams.
Playing Pennsylvania schools seems to be the best way to work around this, though to date there is no City Game or County Game on neither the men’s or women’s respective non-conference slates.
It would be totally understandable if Ohio teams would consider these games a risk to their teams and by extension to its respective universities since there would be travel back to campus.
Meanwhile on the men’s side, Duquesne is scheduled to bubble once in Indianapolis and second time in Kentucky to open its season and that is another self-quarantine state, so provided Duquesne gets back either the night of Dec. 3 the day of its final game against Little Rock or the next day, there would be the potential of a self-quarantine. Though Duquesne does not have it listed on its current schedule, Richmond has a contest on its website against the Dukes scheduled for Dec. 17 meaning there is little if any practice, not to mention Pennsylvania just added Virginia as a self-quarantine state.
News also broke Monday that Loyola-Chicago, one of Duquesne’s opponents in the Indianapolis bubble has paused all team activities due to a positive COVID-19 test. Youngstown State announced Monday afternoon that it will follow suit.
From a media perspective, the USBWA and CoSIDA and Nov. 11 released guidelines for reporters to be able to cover basketball games acknowledging that some would have to work remotely. Prior to that, the NCAA put into effect tier systems which clearly define who falls into what tier. It is also expected that there will be piped-in crowd noise at games, though that may be dictated by decisions on whether bands or cheerleaders would be allowed to attend. Some schools do not have bands playing at the moment whether it is due to virtual learning or other factors.
Personally if Duquesne allowed me to cover games, I would accept the risks and cover, which perhaps makes me part of the problem despite clearly stating all of the risks in this column.
Media coverage is arguably more important than ever right now because of these uncertain times and with the overwhelming majority of fans highly unlikely to attend games, they will be looking for other ways to follow their teams. It is unlikely that road coverage will make much if any sense until the conference tournament, if that is to be held.
At the time of this piece, Duquesne had yet to publicly state whether it would allow for media to attend games.
Duquesne is in a jam of its own as COVID-19 has massively affected construction on the UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse to the point that a date for it to open is not widely known at this time.
Though some suspect the Duquesne-Dayton game, presently scheduled for Feb. 2 on an ESPN telecast would be the perfect date, even so there are likely to be either no or very few fans. Even if that contest were to shift to PPG Paints Arena, the fan totals would be next to none as Atlantic 10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade said last week that the number for Barclays Center was 50. PPG’s seating capacity is very comparable.
As someone who was seated courtside at the Barclays Center when the Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Championship was cancelled, the disappointment was evident across the board, though the decision to cancel was absolutely necessary.
The moment Utah Jazz player Rudy Goebert touched a reporter’s voice recorder and soon after tested positive for COVID-19, it was an absolute game changer as was teammate Donovan Mitchell testing positive shortly before the wave of cancellations came. Is it possible that at least another day or two, or perhaps the entire championship would have been held, had Goebert not tested positive? It is hard to say, but thank goodness no one knows that answer.
Both Stadium’s Jeff Goodman and Iona coach Rick Pitino also feel similarly about scrapping the non-conference schedule.
Goodman opined that bids to the NCAA Tournament would be awarded in set numbers for each conference based on the average berths in a set number of years, and has been more active than anyone is identifying teams with a positive test that have had to stop practice, while tracking it so fans, media and teams alike can all follow along.
Pitino who heads a Gaels team presently affected by COVID-19 asked for the start of the season to be moved back, a conference-only schedule and for there to be a May Madness.
Both of the scenarios would allow for additional time to see how the numbers fall with what seems to be another COVID-19 surge. Though it certainly would be disappointing for everyone, it may be the option if there is any hope for a season. The opportunity to maintain the proper number of contests in a season would be there with teams still potentially playing 18 or more conference games. Whether those games would be travel or pod based would be up to each conference.
Non-conference scheduling can be so wide spread with tournaments, buy games and widespread travel but already plenty of teams have had numerous changes and are trying to play closer to home. With COVID-19 cases increasing daily, it is too difficult to pinpoint a schedule which makes it even more urgent that non-conference gets scrapped.
The Atlantic 10 already has said if a stoppage would affect its conference championship, that the regular-season champion would earn the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.
Already, it is abundantly clear that the NCAA has sent a mixed message to institutions across the country. It has already given student-athletes an additional year of eligibility and in doing so has provided a safety net. Meanwhile there are serious conversations that need to be had and fast, because teams will be traveling soon and already have made both mental and physical preparations to tip off on Nov. 25. Not acting would be a sign of disrespect for everyone and the process in general.
In truth, the NCAA is throwing up smoke and mirrors with this plan and insistence that March Madness will go on as scheduled, when really it is more akin to the great pumpkin that eluded Charlie Brown. It needs to take the current situation a lot more seriously and quickly. Cancelling the non-conference slate allows it to maintain plans and shift the decisions towards the conference to dictate how each wants to proceed, something the Ivy League has already done.
Instead its focus Monday was on the NCAA Tournament and the announcement of having preliminary talks with Indianapolis likely to contest the entire event there instead of at 13 predetermined sites. It is not known if this will move next year’s sites back an additional year or not. PPG Paints Arena is slated to host NCAA Tournament First and Second Round games in 2022.
Really though in the moment, it does not appear to be protecting student-athletes and their respective experiences. Even coaches such as Tom Izzo, and most recently Jim Boeheim, have tested positive which puts their teams at risk with the season fast approaching.
Quite frankly none of these team should be worried about the NCAA Tournament because it is looking less and less that we are getting there. The NCAA is not being proactive enough and already the waiting has affected way too many. When universities are pausing or cancelling winter sports before the NCAA can make that decision, that tells you everything there is to know.
Right now there are too many questions and not enough answers. When multiple unnamed coaches are questioning why we are even trying to fight through having a season start now, that is all you need to know. It is tough to play when mentally the facts are just too hard to ignore.