College basketball in peril, Exhibit A: Some schools were left to practice outside

Jeff Eisenberg
·13-min read

More than 250 days have passed since the University of New Mexico last played a men’s basketball game.

The Lobos have held only a handful of full practices since then.

With the state prohibiting gatherings of more than five people in counties with a COVID-19 test positivity rate of more than 5 percent, teams across New Mexico have been unable to convene, let alone compete. Athletes from five New Mexico universities wrote a letter to the governor this month pleading for more flexibility, but so far she has refused to join her counterparts in other states in offering an exemption for college sports.

The standoff forced the University of New Mexico to take its football team on the road to save its season. Last month, administrators relocated the players, coaches, support staff and equipment to a Las Vegas hotel after securing permission to play home games in UNLV’s former stadium.

A similar season-long road trip may be the only salvation for New Mexico’s basketball program, too, with COVID-19 cases surging statewide and the season tipping off in less than two weeks. The Lobos had already fallen hopelessly behind in their preparation even before pausing all team activities last week after two players tested positive for the virus.

“In the summer and the fall, we told our team we had to do more with less,” head coach Paul Weir said. “Other teams were able to practice or do things that we couldn’t do. It was kind of going into a fight with one arm tied behind your back. Then when something like this comes along, it feels like you’ve got two arms tied behind your back. Now you’re just learning how to kick.”

New Mexico’s plight reflects how the pandemic has buffeted and tossed the sport of college basketball like a ship caught in a storm. Eight months after the threat of COVID-19 halted conference tournaments and wiped out last season’s NCAA tournament, a record-shattering nationwide spike in cases is complicating plans for the upcoming season.

As the daily number of new cases in the U.S. soared past 160,000 for the first time last Thursday, the Ivy League canceled all winter sports, citing an unwillingness to jeopardize the health of their athletes and wider communities. On Sunday, Vermont and Alabama State offered a similar explanation for delaying the start of their seasons until mid-December and early January, respectively.

Other programs so far are forging ahead while bracing for an unconventional season rife with contact tracing, quarantining and cancellations. There are at least 20 men’s basketball teams currently in shutdown mode due to recent positive tests, a list that includes Syracuse, UConn, Seton Hall and more than half of the 11-team Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. Jim Boeheim and Tom Izzo are the most high-profile head coaches to test positive.

“The realist in me thinks that we're all going to be affected at some point during the season,” Virginia Tech coach Mike Young conceded.

Hoping to offer athletes the chance to compete and to help athletic departments to recoup some of the money lost during the pandemic, college administrators have vowed not to allow the virus to spoil college basketball’s showcase event for a second straight year. As NCAA vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt told last July, “If there’s basketball being played anywhere safely in 2021, we will have March Madness.”

Monday, the NCAA announced it’s exploring a bubble option, where the entire tournament would be played in a singular geographic area — metropolitan Indianapolis.

The question that is now lingering over college basketball isn’t whether the season will start on time. What many in college basketball circles are wondering is whether the sport will be able to lurch its way through the winter given the surging pandemic and the NCAA’s strict contact tracing guidelines. Or how the NCAA tournament selection committee can fairly and equitably choose a field of 68 if some teams are unaffected by positive tests and others lose a big chunk of their schedule and weeks of practice time.

“Given what’s happening across the country in football and basketball, we don’t anticipate playing a full 27-game schedule,” one high-major head coach told Yahoo Sports. “We are just hoping for the best.”

SPOKANE, WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 12: The Gonzaga Bulldogs scrimmage during the Numerica Kraziness in The Kennel at McCarthy Athletic Center on November 12, 2020 in Spokane, Washington. (Photo by William Mancebo/Getty Images)
Gonzaga's Kraziness in The Kennel is normally when fans get their first look at the Zags. They did this season, only virtually, not in person. (William Mancebo/Getty Images)

Navigating the COVID rules

At the exact moment that the NCAA called off its tournament last March, Gonzaga coach Mark Few was in the midst of a TV interview.

Summing up the feelings of many of his coaching brethren, Few argued that the NCAA should have waited to see if the pandemic dissipated quickly.

“I think all of us felt we could postpone and even postpone into May,” Few said at the time. “Then if we needed to cancel, we could cancel then.”

In mid-March, Few’s stance was very reasonable. Now, it’s a reminder of how naive the nation was about COVID-19 a mere eight months ago. The virus that Few hoped would vanish by May instead wreaked havoc on college basketball’s summer and fall routines.

There was no evaluation period to recruit in person this year. That forced coaches to scout off highlight videos and live streams of AAU events and to build relationships with prospects and their families via Zoom calls.

Opportunities for player development or camaraderie building were scarce as well. Players often went home in March after the cancellation of college basketball’s postseason and didn’t return to campus until the start of the fall semester.

In areas with especially strict COVID-19 regulations, players reconvening in the fall did not ensure a return to normalcy. For instance, two California teams could not gather indoors until mid-October as a result of Santa Clara County restrictions.

Stanford coach Jerod Haase adjusted by getting creative. The Cardinal conducted practices and workouts on campus blacktops, in the concourse of the football stadium and even on the school tennis courts. It remains to be seen how good Haase’s team is at basketball this year, but the fifth-year coach recently deadpanned, “Our serve and volley game is awfully good.”

Faced with the same problem as Stanford, San Jose State took advantage of an unused strip of concrete next to the school’s tennis facility. A donor helped the Spartans build a regulation-sized outdoor court with glass backboards and proper lines and markings.

“I grew up at the park back home playing basketball outdoors, so it just brought back memories of when I was younger,” San Jose State guard Seneca Knight said. “It was a fun experience. I really enjoyed it.”

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Not all coronavirus-related adjustments were nearly as fun. Just ask the assistant coaches and directors of basketball operations who were part of the mad scramble to rebuild non-conference schedules while adjusting to ever-changing travel restrictions and scuttled multi-team events.

One mid-major program with NCAA tournament aspirations can only schedule opponents from a four-state area without being required to quarantine for two weeks upon reentering its home state. Other programs typically play a handful of buy games each season to raise money for their cash-strapped athletic departments but are finding bigger programs unusually stingy this year.

The scheduling strategy that Notre Dame coach Mike Brey adopted was to give his players the experience of facing as many marquee opponents as possible. Eight of the first nine games the Irish will play this season are against Michigan State, Tennessee, Ohio State, Kentucky, Duke, Purdue, Syracuse and Virginia.

“My feeling was to really go for it and schedule big, exciting games for our kids because I don’t know what’s going to happen the rest of the winter,” Brey told reporters last week. “What are we like in February? Is there a March Madness?

“Your scheduling strategy for your résumé, that’s all out the window.”

One positive can halt a season

It’s easy to see why Brey would YOLO his schedule this season when you examine the NCAA’s COVID-19 guidelines for college basketball.

The NCAA has recommended that teams suspend activities and immediately quarantine if even one player, coach or support staffer tests positive. Anyone deemed to have had high-risk exposure to the infected individual is supposed to remain isolated for 14 days, even if they test negative during that span.

That timetable is a concern for coaches who would prefer not to go two weeks without practicing or playing as a result of a single in-season positive test. Many coaches have pointed out that such a long hiatus would eliminate four or more games and leave their players out of shape, effectively torpedoing their season if the positive test occurred in late-February or March.

Two Fresno State players tested positive for COVID-19 weeks apart from one another this fall, so the Bulldogs have endured a pair of team-wide 14-day quarantines. Fresno State coach Justin Hutson lamented last Thursday that a team with 10 newcomers hasn’t practiced together more, noting, “We’ve had more COVID tests since March than we’ve had days together in the gym.”

Wary of the potential ramifications of even a single positive test, coaches have spent more time emphasizing the importance of wearing a mask and social distancing this fall than they have installing set plays or defensive wrinkles. Some create a seating chart for bus trips or charter flights in an effort to minimize potential high-risk exposure. Others plead with players not to go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas or to avoid parties and crowded restaurants.

In many instances, the players recognize what’s at stake and police themselves. UCLA forward Chris Smith says he hardly goes anywhere these days besides the school’s practice facility, the apartment he shares with his brother and the apartments where his teammates live.

“We’ve all got our priorities straight,” Smith said. “Nobody on the team wants to be that guy to put it that simple. Nobody wants to be the guy to get the positive and now we know he was not taking it seriously.”

Of course, with a virus this contagious, a population of 18-22-year-olds and the NCAA’s contact tracing guidelines, all it takes is one slip-up to derail a promising season. That’s likely to happen a lot if college football is any indication.

Fifteen college football games were either delayed or canceled this past weekend, including the annual must-see clash between Alabama and LSU. That marks the second consecutive week that double-digit games have disappeared from the schedule.

Whereas college football only needs to find four worthy teams to fill its playoff bracket, the NCAA tournament selection committee must pick and seed a field of 68. The process of comparing résumés becomes much, much tougher with the potential for abbreviated non-league schedules and uneven and unbalanced conference records.

For months, many smart minds across college basketball have examined that looming problem. The most clever potential solution requires borrowing from European soccer.

How to select a fair tournament field

Matt Dover and Colton Houston are the co-owners of an analytics company that helps college basketball clients optimize their non-conference schedules. Their goal is to use a data-driven approach to advise coaches on how to game the system and create a schedule that maximizes their team’s chances of making the NCAA tournament.

While their business depends on college basketball teams playing full non-conference schedules, Dover recognized early the possibility that might not happen this year. There was talk over the summer that teams might play conference-only schedules, which would render worthless the typical comparative metrics and methods used to select and seed the NCAA tournament.

The problem reminded Dover of what UEFA annually faces when it awards Champions League bids to top teams from various European soccer leagues. There aren’t any cross-league regular season games played to help determine league strength, so UEFA pre-assigns each league a certain number of bids based on prior-season performance.

“That’s where my idea came from,” Dover said. “I thought, if that worked for the Champions League, why couldn’t that work for college basketball?”

The proposal that Dover and Houston drafted in July recommends using data from the previous five seasons to assign a certain number of NCAA tournament bids to each league. The ACC and Big Ten would get seven. The Big 12, Big East and SEC would receive six apiece. The remaining at-large NCAA bids would go to the Pac-12, American, Atlantic 10, Mountain West and WCC.

In a revised proposal in September, Dover and Houston suggested only predetermining 62 bids and allowing the selection committee to pick six wild cards. That would restore drama to Selection Sunday and offer flexibility in case, for example, there were only five deserving teams from the SEC but an extra WCC team separated itself.

Coaches and administrators appreciated that the format solved some potential issues and made for exciting regular season races, but there was one common, eye-roll-inducing complaint. The majority of the people that Dover and Houston talked to insisted that their league did not receive enough bids in the formula.

“The Big 12 [which has 10 teams] would take 11 bids if you’d give it to them,” Dover joked.

Just as the proposal from Dover and Houston has so far failed to gain any significant traction with the NCAA, so too has an idea ACC coaches presented en masse a couple months ago. They pushed for an expanded 2021 NCAA tournament that would include all 350 Division I teams, an idea that would further render the regular season irrelevant but would also give every program a fair shot at competing for a championship.

“The people who run the NCAA tournament did not ask how that would work or what that would entail,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “They basically closed their ears to the suggestion. They’re continuing to believe that we can have a functional season and that the selection committee will be able to make good decisions and put together a good field.”

As the season approaches and the pandemic intensifies, some coaches remain concerned that a fair and equitable NCAA tournament won’t be possible without some major tweaks. Rick Pitino, back in the college game at Iona, led the push with a series of tweets lambasting the NCAA’s 14-day quarantine guidelines and calling for conference-only schedules.

“Save the Season. Move the start back,” Pitino wrote. “Play league schedule and have May Madness. Spiking and protocols make it impossible to play right now.”

Other coaches don’t have the luxury of worrying about how to salvage the season at the moment. Weir is just hoping University of New Mexico administrators find enough money to relocate his team somewhere that the Lobos can resume practice.

“Not playing basketball in the state of New Mexico is Un-New Mexican just like not playing in the Pit would feel the same way,” Weir said. “But this virus and our society and communities have a lot of things to think about. We’re all kind of at that mercy.”

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