The Big East men’s basketball media day started on Wednesday with the usual roll out of the preseason conference poll and individual awards. The league’s 11 coaches discussed their players, who’s looking good in practice, who’s still coming back from injuries. Many expressed excitement over UConn’s return to the Big East after a seven-year absence.
But for all the information coaches and players provided, two major questions were left relatively unanswered. How is the conference, and the NCAA as a whole, going to pull off the 2020-21 college basketball season amid the COVID-19 pandemic and do so safely? And could it be only a matter of time before the whole season is called off?
Time is quickly running out. With less than a month until games are set to begin, there’s a laundry list of health and safety protocols, from testing to venue preparation, to be finalized and logistical decisions, such as those around scheduling, to be made.
The Big East, which intends to play a full conference schedule of 20 games, announced Wednesday the 23 league games on the men’s side that will be held in December, running from Dec. 11 through Dec. 23. By moving up conference play, the league is hoping to get through a good chunk of games while campuses are empty. Students will finish the fall semester remotely after departing for Thanksgiving.
Big East commissioner Val Ackerman also announced that the 2020 Gavitt Tipoff Games between the Big East and Big Ten have been canceled, whereas the Big 12/Big East Challenge will proceed.
Those 23 Big East games are the only ones announced so far, as the schedule and format for the remainder of conference play will be finalized later depending on the spread of the virus and how the December games go. But with COVID-19 cases rising nationally and some Big East states experiencing active outbreaks or at risk for one, the prospect of games being moved, or possibly called off, seems to be a matter of when, not if.
The league is building in flexibility within its schedule to make up games if needed, though there is only so much it can account for with the NCAA aiming to end the season on time. Ackerman admitted that the goal is to get between 13 and 25 games in, 13 being the NCAA minimum to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
“I would be lying if I said that I didn’t expect that we could have disruptions,” Ackerman said, “and that’s just something we’re going to have to deal with whenever that time comes.”
Finalizing testing and other protocols
While the NCAA has released a series of guidelines and recommendations for member institutions to follow as they return to the court, they’re just that: guidelines and recommendations. Conferences are now working to develop their own protocols. The Big East is doing so with input from its intra-conference COVID-19 task force, which comprises team physicians and national experts in infectious diseases.
But with 11 member schools there are 11 different jurisdictions, each with their own public health approach that the league must take into account. For example, some jurisdictions may allow for fans to attend games, while others won’t.
As far as testing, Ackerman said NCAA guidelines — which recommend Tier 1 individuals (student-athletes, coaches, trainers and officials) are tested three times a week on nonconsecutive days during the season, starting one week before their first game — will be the “starting point.”
The Big East will also standardize the type of testing its institutions use, likely a mix of PCR and antigen testing, per Ackerman. She also added that test availability and cost won’t likely be an issue for the conference, and that recent improvements in the testing space may help schools pull the season off.
“I think we’re in a better position in some respects than we were in the summer," Ackerman said. “Testing availability is better, the turnaround time is quicker, the ability to intervene and remove infected individuals from situations where they can infect others, I think, has much advanced since the summer. We and our doctors are confident that we’re going to have the measures in place to mitigate the risk. There will be risk, though.”
Current NCAA guidelines say that if a Tier 1 individual tests positive, all other Tier 1 individuals (i.e. an entire team) must quarantine for 14 days. Contact tracing proceeds from there to determine if all those people should remain in quarantine and whether any others experienced high-risk exposure. This recommendation is in line with CDC guidelines.
Coaches were quick to point out Wednesday that if that recommendation holds, it’ll be difficult if not “almost impossible," as Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said, for the season to be held.
Notably, given the 14-day quarantine period is not a NCAA mandate, some Power 5 conferences in college football have instituted different, and shorter, standards.
“The one positive test and 14-day quarantine is a challenge. There’s no question about that," said Marquette’s Steve Wojciechowski, whose school recently paused basketball activities after it had one positive case in the men’s program and one in the women’s. "There’s going to be outbreaks across the country. There’s going to be outbreaks across our league. And the 14-day quarantine creates a lot of problems, not only for the school that is going through it, but also when we’re in season, the schools that are supposed to play that school.”
There is also the possibility that the timeline for teams to actually resume game play would take longer than 14 days. Players need some time to undergo cardiac screening and get back in shape.
Villanova’s Jay Wright said it took an extra week to get his players back on the practice floor after a few members of his program tested positive last month, and that four players suffered injuries upon their return.
Coaches don’t want to jeopardize the health of their players and others in their program but are instead suggesting that the conference consider adopting a shorter timeframe for the quarantine period. Willard said that could be feasible given Tier 1 individuals will have a “backlog of tests” and thus multiple data points since they’re being tested so frequently.
To bubble or not to bubble?
The Big East could also go another route and hold games in a bubble, a possibility that Ackerman said is still on the table and one that many coaches on Wednesday advocated for.
“We are looking at a variety of game formats that would be an alternative to what we’re calling the travel model," Ackerman said. “Right now we’ve been advised by our doctors that the travel model can be made to work, given the way that we travel and our in-venue preparations. The NCAA guidance does not discourage that and have offered some perimeters on how to do that safely ... that’s Plan A for us.”
Wright was among the most fervent supporters of the bubble model.
"There’s no doubt, the bubble is the answer,” he said. “If you want to ensure that you’re going to get all your games in, the bubble’s the answer. All the medical experts will agree to that.”
Bubbles worked in the NHL, NBA and WNBA, but college basketball can’t replicate those efforts, as Wright pointed out. For one, the NCAA’s amateurism model for college athletes makes it difficult for schools to congregate players in a bubble away from their campuses. There’s also the cost and institutions would need to finance somewhat long-term lodging arrangements for both their men’s and women’s basketball programs. Those factors may make it most likely conferences and/or the NCAA don’t push for a bubble setup until later in the regular season, once students return to college campuses, or for just the conference and NCAA tournaments.
“We’re going to be in a position to pivot, and that could include to a single-venue format for all of our schools, for some portion of our schools... It may be that we decide on some format that’s regionally focused," Ackerman said. “We’re going to do our best to pick the [model] that most suits our needs and provides the safest environment for our athletes at whatever time we have to make that decision.”
Alexa Philippou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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