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Keeping Tabs On COVID-19 Scheduling

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-NCAA President Dr. Mark Emmert-Press Conference Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

By now, we’re all familiar with COVID-19 and how its ravaged the world and sports. It got last year’s NCAA Tournament cancelled, has forced millions to avoid social contact and stay hunkered down at home, and has turned the economy upside down. And that doesn’t even begin to mention all the suffering of those who have actually been infected by this horrid virus, which has certainly been an undeniable tragedy for the world.

And while there are a million more serious things going on with this pandemic right now, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on where things sit with relation to the sports calendar. A number of recent announcements have come out recently, including cancellations for mid-majors and Power Five conferences for fall sports.

So, what are the top things fans should know right now?

1. Keep your eyes on the fall sports.

If you’re a Big Ten fan, by now, you probably already know that the conference has made some bold changes for this fall. The Big Ten has cancelled all non-conference games for fall sports, including football. It wasn’t surprising given the current climate in the United States, but it was a huge move. Football is easily the biggest revenue earner in college sports. To throw a quarter of the season out the window is significant and is going to cost the conference and its members millions of dollars.

But while that announcement would be significant by itself, it’s not the end of the discussion. We still have a few weeks before fall camp starts and more than a month until football games actually kick-off and nobody knows what might happen with this virus. As such, the natural followup to the Big Ten’s recent announcement is what might happen with the remainder of fall sports. Will those games actually happen or do we see more cancellations?

Personally, I’m skeptical we see any fall sports this year. The numbers don’t seem to be trending in the right direction and we still really haven’t seen an answer to the most basic questions. For example, what happens if a player tests positive before and/or after a game? Does an entire team have to quarantine? Can games be moved if it involves if a key player or players? What happens if a coach gets it? These are just some in a long line of questions that have yet to be addressed by the NCAA. And until they do so, we probably need to be skeptical about fall sports happening as planned.

And that’s important to hoops for a few reasons. To start, the fall sports calendar overlaps with basketball season. Basketball is set to tip-off in November, which is the height of the college football season. And it’s hard to imagine a world where college football is deemed unsafe, but college basketball is allowed. At minimum, that would mean a delayed start to the college basketball season.

Moreover, we’re also going to get a lot of data on whether some of these safety protocols actually work. The Big Ten and other conferences are certainly going to invest heavily in things like testing, personal protective equipment, and facility precautions. One would think these should make a significant impact in controlling the virus among student athletes and coaches, but nobody can be sure. This should give us a preview on whether these things can work for college basketball as well.

2. And the mid-majors, too.

It probably goes without saying at this point, playing this season is going to be beyond difficult enough for the Power Five conferences. You’re going to need to figure out testing for players and coaches, safety precautions, travel, and a variety of other issues. This is a year where the athletic directors and conference commissioners will earn their salaries.

But as tough as it will be for the Power Five, it’s going to be even tougher for the mid-majors. They don’t have the resources to invest in unlimited testing and other safety protocols like the bigger schools. And with less revenue on the line, it wouldn’t be shocking to see some major cancellations for the lower leagues of college sports in the near future. The Ivy League announced as much earlier this month and it seems unlikely that will be the end of these announcements as well.

Mid-major cancellations could mean big changes for the Power Five schedules and perhaps be a sign of things to come. So, keep an eye on these as well.

3. Best guesses for the season.

As noted above, I’m pretty skeptical about fall sports this year. The COVID-19 numbers are trending in the wrong direction and we’re quickly running out of time to get things figured out. Football camps are supposed to start in just a few weeks and we seem no closer to a solution than we were when the NCAA Tournament was cancelled in March. It seems unlikely the problem will be fixed enough to get things off the ground that soon.

However, I don’t feel the same way about college basketball, at least as we sit here today. To start, they have significantly more time to get things figured out. Games don’t start until November and camp won’t even begin until October. That’s at least two extra months to try and get things sorted out nationally and for college sports.

Basketball is also inherently less risky than football. There are far fewer players, coaching staffs are smaller, and the sport is more flexible. Unlike football, basketball teams can play multiple games a week if needed, allowing for easier cancellations and rescheduling. If a team has multiple players with positive tests, the game can simply be postponed. That doesn’t seem like a realistic option for football. And with smaller rosters and staff, the risk to the community is substantially lessened.

So, where does that leave us?

Are we getting college basketball or not?

Obviously, none of us know for sure, but those are reasons to be optimistic. And if I’m guessing right now, I think it’s reasonable to think the college basketball season will unfold, but with limited fan attendance and a delayed start. Don’t be surprised if the first college basketball games don’t start until after New Year’s Day and we see some reduction in the overall schedule. Perhaps each team only plays a non-conference game or two.

We’ll have to wait and see what happens in the weeks and months to come. Either way, we continue to be amid an unprecedented time in college sports.