It’s already a mess

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It wasn’t that long ago — eight months — that college basketball’s most important time of the year came to a screeching halt.

I remember driving to T-Mobile Arena the morning of March 12 to cover the Pac-12 Tournament when I got an email from the conference saying the tournament had been canceled. The other tourneys had followed suit and the NCAA decided it was not playing its tournament.

March Sadness indeed.

So here we are, in mid-November, dealing with a pandemic that refuses to quit, and college basketball is going to attempt to start its 2020-21 season in a week. Given what we’ve seen in football, I don’t like the odds of basketball getting through the season unscathed.

Yes, I’m with Mike Krzyzewski, the Hall of Fame coach from Duke who insists we must have an NCAA Tournament this year. And perhaps we will. But in order for that to become reality, a lot of things are going to have to change.

For starters, there’s the coronavirus itself. The dire prognostications of the medical experts and scientists warning the fall and winter would be worse than the spring and summer are unfortunately coming true. States are finding their medical systems ­being overrun with COVID-19 cases. Governors are ordering businesses to reduce their hours of operation and are strongly recommending voluntary stay-at-home edicts, as is the case here in Nevada. Each day, the numbers go in the wrong direction.

Yes, there’s encouraging news regarding a vaccine. But nationwide readily available doses are still months away. I’m not sure college basketball players and coaches are going to be considered essential workers and jump to the front of the line if and when the vaccine is first made available.

There’s also a political side to all of this. A new administration is going to be taking over on Jan. 20 and with it will come new policies in combating the coronavirus. Things could get more draconian and how will that impact travel and playing in arenas?

I don’t envy the conference commissioners and the NCAA basketball committee. They’re flying blind to a degree and things change daily. It’s the same challenge the NBA and the NHL are facing as they attempt to return to play for 2020-21. What makes sense today may not tomorrow.

The NCAA announced Monday the tournament’s regional sites are being moved to a single site with Indianapolis as the first option to create a bubble environment for the 68 qualifying teams. So you know they’re taking this seriously.

But preparing for the regular season hasn’t been easy. Something as simple as scheduling has become a nightmarish exercise for coaches and athletic directors. For many, the focus is on conference play and having just a handful of non-league games. The Mountain West last week came up with a plan to play 20 conference games and pairing up travel. Teams will make five road trips and play 10 games, then host 10 games on their home court. The idea is to limit the amount of travel time and minimize the risk of someone contracting the coronavirus.

As far as missing classes, just about every school is doing virtual courses so as long as the wifi doesn’t conk out, the players can get their studies done. There will be inequities, such as which teams get to play at home, who has to compete at altitude, which schools can have fans and which can’t. But no plan is perfect.

The Ivy League decided last week to not even come up with a plan. It canceled its basketball season. Bethune-Cookman, which plays in the MEAC, did likewise and called off its plans to compete this year. Iona, Seton Hall, Stetson and Monmouth had shut down operations for a while the past few days following positive test results within their programs.

New Mexico and New Mexico State have yet to conduct a full practice and may have to leave the state in order to compete this year. The Aggies are talking about moving their operation to El Paso, Texas. The Lobos, whose football team is camped out in Henderson and is playing their ”home” games at UNLV’s Sam Boyd Stadium, may have to do something similar for hoops. There’s no lack of basketball courts in Las Vegas.

Teams are pulling out of tournaments. Others are scrambling to fill holes in its schedules. As of Monday, 27 programs had shut down their operations. It’s testing everyone’s patience — players, coaches, administrators and fans.

I don’t know if any of it will work and whether there will be a season. But I do know the idea of putting 357 Division I basketball programs in a bubble is impractical at best and ludicrous at worst. However, 68 for the NCAA tourney may be manageable over a three-week span.

The common quote you hear from coaches across the country is: “We’ll just have to make the best of it because it’s not a normal year.” And while that sounds vanilla, it’s also accurate. It’s hard to wax poetic or philosophize over a situation such as this and come across as brilliant, or even glib.

For those of you who bet on college basketball, take a lesson learned from trying to handicap and wager on college football this fall. Be ready to be surprised by players and coaches testing positive for COVID-19, for games to be postponed or canceled, for game times to be switched and for spectator-less gyms and arenas in most jurisdictions. That home-court advantage like Cameron Indoor Stadium’s may not be so advantageous for Duke this year.

My hope is that somehow, we have a postseason in March and I can cover the Pac-12 tournament at T-Mobile Arena. But if I get a text telling me not to bother coming over, that the tourney is off, I won’t be shocked either. I’m fully prepared for Groundhog Day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Steve Carp

Steve Carp is a six-time Nevada Sportswriter of the Year. A 30-year veteran of the Las Vegas sports journalism scene, he covered the Vegas Golden Knights for the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 2015-2018.

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