COVID-19 hampers men’s college basketball’s start, causing scheduling headaches

Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton tells his players to only worry about what they can control. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) (Photo: The Associated Press)

Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton is sharing with his players the same sentiment this November he told them last March before the NCAA tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic: Control what you can control. 

As the 2020-21 men's college basketball season is set to tip off Wednesday – pushed two weeks back from its initial start date – the sport is once again mired by COVID-19 challenges. Preseason No. 1 Baylor, No. 8 Duke, No. 14 Tennessee and No. 20 Oregon are among the latest schools to pull out of non-conference games due to positive tests. Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Baylor's Scott Drew, Tennessee's Rick Barnes and Michigan State's Tom Izzo are among the high-profile coaches sidelined by the virus. 

"What's happening in our sport right now is unpredictability all over the board. It's not like someone is intentionally putting someone in harms way, we are all trying to do what's safest," Hamilton told USA TODAY Sports. "When you look around the country at games being canceled, you can allow your imagination to run too far ahead. With our program, we are trying to stay in the moment and try to trust the decision makers' judgment." 

Those decision-makers, like Dan Gavitt, the NCAA's senior vice president of basketball, decided that starting games around the Thanksgiving holiday would clear out campuses with students on break to make for a safe scenario for student-athletes and staff. The revised start date also provides ample opportunity for Division I schools to build up their schedules with non-conference games (or time to reschedule those games) all as part of the annual buildup the sport's main draw, March Madness.

The NCAA did not respond to several requests for comment.

The season's tip-off starts just as the Centers for Disease Control is advising Americans not to travel because of a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Experts in the public health specter are strongly advising against games in November and December, as more than 40 of the 357 Division I programs are paused in quarantine or have canceled their season altogether. Wichita State is the latest school in men's college basketball to opt out of the first two weeks to quarantine from a COVID-19 outbreak. The UConn women's team is following similar protocol. The Ivy League canceled its sports altogether for the entire school year earlier this month. 

"You couldn't be starting a season at a worse possible time. COVID-19 transmitting is worse than ever with more cases per day than in February," said Dr. Sten Vermund, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Yale's School of Public Health. "Theoretically, basketball is the most problematic of all because this is an indoor contact sports, it's flu season and there's a constant motion in small proximity. I don't think now is the most prudent time for college basketball. It would be best to delay the season until there's a better handle on the virus." 

David Carter, a professor of sports business at the University of Southern California, said college basketball is drifting towards a major perception dilemma if cases continue to rise and games keep getting canceled. 

"This is the terrible holiday gift that could keep on giving for college basketball because it's such a delicate time to try to pull these games off with a national spike (in COVID-19 cases) happening," Carter said. "It doesn't make for very good optics if you've got college athletes flying around the country when students are taking online classes and the CDC is recommending everyone stay put for the (Thanksgiving) holiday. There's an overarching backdrop that is a huge public relations and branding blemish for the sport. Do you risk the bad look of playing or do you risk the money that could be lost with some of these tournaments and TV games being canceled?

"College basketball definitely cannot afford to lose another NCAA tournament because of the long-term effects of lower-revenue sports. People's livelihoods are on the line so there will be hesitance early in the season. It could take a public condemnation to press athletic directors and school officials to pull the plug."

Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery reacts to a call against his team during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Purdue, Tuesday, March 3, 2020, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) (Photo: The Associated Press)

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, whose Hawkeyes team is a preseason No. 6 and Final Four threat, said similar to Hamilton he's trying to tell his players to prepare as if they are playing and not to let the unexpected nature of early-season games deter them. 

"I believe we should play," McCaffery said. "I think we have to educate our guys to be smart, that's what we can control. Making sure these kids are staying together and staying inside, not going to bars or the movies or something. Before when (the NCAA tournament) got canceled, we didn't know what we were dealing with. Well now we have experience dealing with (safety precautions for the virus). I just believe it's better for our players' mental health to keep practicing and playing together to have as much normalcy as you can in such an abnormal year."

Gonzaga coach Mark Few likewise is concerned about the sport and psyche of student-athletes. He was upset with the decision to cancel March Madness last year and said canceling games can have more ripple effects than just the financial components. 

"Since the summer, these kids have really been trying with the hope of just having a season," Few said. "Some of these guys are doing everything they can do abide by the rules with masks and staying in and only going where they're supposed to go. Some of our players aren't even going home for Christmas to follow protocol." 

Other coaches are more against the November and December non-conference games. 

“It’s going to be a nightmare,” Iona coach Rick Pitino told Yahoo Sports. “They’re just trying to rush it to get to March, and it’s not worth risking everyone’s health.”

Mid-major programs like Iona largely wouldn't benefit from non-conference games as much as some of the power conference programs. Also, programs like Gonzaga are in need of marquee non-conference matchups to bolster their profiles for NCAA tournament credentials. Smaller programs typically benefit from a non-conference game against a blue-blood or top-25 team, but many of those games were already removed from top-tier programs' schedules as a result of two weeks being cut from the season. 

Carter said he believes some of the programs out of contention for the NCAA tournament might follow a similar path to the Ivy League in canceling their season altogether. 

"If you think about the size of college basketball, this is one of the biggest sports with (357) teams," Carter said. " (FBS) football might not even finish its season at this point. If you're not an NCAA (tournament) team, what's the reward vs. the risk? You have to also consider the potential legal issues." 

Vermund said the main decision-makers in college basketball from athletic directors, conference officials and NCAA officials should be eyeing more of the risk – potentially dire COVID-related ramifications – over the reward – TV money games and marquee games building up to March Madness. 

"The only way to play basketball safely is the way the NBA did it in a bubble," Vermund said. "Maybe you don't do daily testing and you do twice a week testing, but you're dealing with concerns more than just on the court. The off-the-court dynamics are very risky. I don't see how safely managing (the virus) in a college environment can be feasible."

Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson. 

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