It happens so frequently now, almost going unnoticed by the sporting public.
Each day, it’s clear, more college basketball programs are temporarily shutting down after team members test positive for COVID-19.
The Gophers men’s team paused all activities for five days and returned to practice with about a week to prepare for Wednesday’s opener against Wisconsin-Green Bay.
“To think there is not going to be disruption is crazy,” Gophers coach Richard Pitino said. “We’re trying to play sports in a pandemic. We’re not in a bubble. We’re on a college campus.”
With Thanksgiving approaching, college campuses will be mostly empty. It’s an opportune time for college basketball to begin with less risk of exposure from the general student body. It’s been called the “Golden Window” by college leaders hoping to save the sport from too much disruption.
But college football has had massive hiccups, with several cancellations. High school and youth sports have been postponed in many states, including Minnesota.
So, what makes college basketball think it can start this week and get very far without major issues?
“The challenge for NCAA basketball will be the same,” said Dr. Bill Morice, president of Mayo Clinic Laboratories. “Testing will help. Weekly testing. Regular testing. But the reality is especially right now, when the disease is so prevalent and surging in so many communities, there is a very good chance student-athletes can get exposed.”
Test, test, test
Big Ten football rules call for a 21-day quarantine if a player tests positive, but for basketball, the NCAA merely recommends that players who tests positive sit out for two weeks — the same as the general public.
Quarantining an entire hoops team is something the NCAA says schools “should consider” after positive cases, but that decision is in the hands of applicable public health officials.
The NCAA also encourages college basketball teams to test three times a week on nonconsecutive days during the season. The Big Ten’s standard is even higher while paying for daily antigen testing, which helped the football season restart this fall.
“Getting adjusted to that is still something new,” Gophers point guard Marcus Carr said. “We’re going through the protocols every day and trying to make it routine.”
College basketball considered using the bubble concept that helped the NBA and NHL finish their seasons, but “I don’t think you’re going to see it during the season,” Pitino said.
But the NCAA is moving its entire 68-team men’s basketball tournament to Indianapolis, instead of using separate sites for 13 preliminary rounds. That cost Minneapolis the Midwest Regional at Target Center, which was slated for March 25-27.
College leadership realized there’s too much at stake not having an NCAA tournament for a second straight year, with schools missing out on sharing $375 million last season. Teams can play a maximum of 27 regular-season games, but this season, teams can qualify for an NCAA bid once they play 13 games.
“It’s a smart move,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “The NCAA has to have a tournament this year. … You have to have the tournament this year for the health of the sport. This is a big business.”
Coronavirus shutdowns and travel uncertainty created chaos for teams scheduling nonleague games.
The Gophers backed out of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off in Connecticut. Mississippi State decided not to come to Minnesota. Pitino’s father, Rick, won’t open the season until December with Iona, with his Gaels team on pause because of positive cases.
The Sanford Pentagon’s Crossover Classic in Sioux Falls, S.D., had five schools withdraw since the original field was announced.
Green Bay was relieved to have three days of testing come back negative this week going into its opener at the Barn, coach Will Ryan said.
Eastern Washington decided not to play in the Gophers’ multiteam event (MTE) with Loyola Marymount. North Dakota State was the replacement.
“What I’ve told players is we have to try to win the COVID game,” Loyola Marymount coach Stan Johnson said. “That means social distancing, not going out, going from practice to your dorm. We got a lot of guys from L.A. here who are not even seeing their families. And that’s hard. But for this year that is the price we have to pay to have a season.”
‘We want to play’
College basketball’s two biggest challenges compared to football remain: They have fewer players on rosters to withstand outbreaks, and they can’t play outside where medical experts believe the chance of infection is reduced.
“It’s not going to take much of an exposure to shut down a whole team,” said Morice, from the Mayo Clinic. “To me, to be sustainable, they probably should look at extending the season. I know that’s been potentially talked about, but in basketball the risks are the behavior of the players and how active is the virus in your community.”
So far, the conference schedules released are staying on course, and NCAA tournament is slated for the same time.
The Big Ten released 20-game men’s basketball schedules last week with far more flexibility than the conference’s football schedules, which have no room for makeup dates. The basketball schedules include “collapsible byes” during the weeks of Jan. 18-21 and Jan. 25-28, and the weeks of Feb. 22-25 and March 1-5. Selection Sunday is March 14.
This offseason and preseason were totally different. Summer practice was optional. Official fall practice was delayed. No scrimmages. No exhibitions. No early November games. But it was to protect the athletes and make sure the college hoops season could begin close to the normal date safely.
“You take it day to day,” Richard Pitino said. “Everybody is dealing with this in every profession anywhere you go. I know these guys want to play. We all want to play. We just have to make sure we’re doing this in the safest possible way.”