The COVID-19 pandemic has college basketball sputtering to more stops and starts than a junkyard jalopy.
Westmont College tinkered with its schedule during a month of postponements before it could finally roll out its team on Friday. Cal State Fullerton can’t even get its engine started. Coronavirus issues have canceled its opener several times, which included Friday’s contest at the University of San Diego.
The Titans aren’t alone. The pandemic kept 40 teams from tipping off their seasons through the first two weeks. Twelve games alone were canceled on Wednesday.
UCSB was able to play its fourth game on Saturday, but coach Joe Pasternack holds his breath every time he receives the team’s COVID tests.
“It’s probably the thing that keeps me up at night, just the concern for your players,” he said. “They’re doing the best they can, 24/7, but you almost have to be perfect for five months right now.
“All you can do is educate them the best way possible, relentlessly. Every day, you see examples of other programs being shut down.”
Powerhouse Duke shut itself down. The Blue Devils canceled the rest of their non-conference schedule before they could even get a positive test.
“I don’t think it feels right to anybody,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “I mean, everyone is concerned.
“In our country today, you have 2,000 deaths a day, 200,000 cases, a million and a half last week. You have people saying the next six weeks are going to be the worst. Well, to me it’s already pretty bad.”
A survey conducted two months ago by Marist University showed that 56% of the sports fans it contacted believe indoor sports shouldn’t be held. And that was before the current surge of cases.
But no stop-sign poll or even Duke’s stalled program will divert the NCAA from its appointed rounds. It will map out a route to March Madness come hell or high water or the Pfizer vaccine.
Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice-president in charge of basketball, vowed recently that, “There’s going to be March Madness in 2021, and there’s going to be a tournament to determine a national champion… It’ll be memorable, and it will be an incredible experience for the student-athletes involved.”
He sounds that firm only because the NCAA’s very survival depends upon it.
March Madness in 2019 generated $933 million in revenue from media rights fees, ticket sales, corporate sponsorships and television advertisements. That constitutes three-quarters of the NCAA’s income, 96% of which it distributes to members like UCSB and the Big West Conference.
The Big West got a cut of the $53.5 million that the NCAA put into its “Equal Conference Fund” after the 2019 Tournament. It also got an extra payout “unit” from the NCAA’s “Performance Fund” which UC Irvine earned by beating Kansas State in the first round.
That win would’ve been worth $282,100 last season. Everybody lost out, however, when a surge of COVID cases forced the NCAA to cancel the tournament. It can’t afford to go penniless again this March.
Gavitt and Co. are taking special precautions, moving the entire 68-team, NCAA Tournament to Indianapolis. Mitch Barnhart, chair of the NCAA Tournament Committee, said they made that decision after monitoring the success of “bubble settings” in such leagues as the NBA.
“We felt that getting to one geographic location gave us the best opportunity to do that for the safety and the health of the participants, the officials, and all the workers that are putting that thing on,” he said.
Krzyzewski would like the committee to make an additional change: delay the basketball season a few months to let the vaccine take hold and the pandemic subside.
The trademark May Madness, however, doesn’t resonate as well with coaches such as Alabama’s Nate Oats. He was quick to note the Blue Devil-of-a-time that Duke was having in the current environment.
“Do you think if Coach K hadn’t lost his two nonconference games at home that he would still be saying that?” he said. “We 100% should be playing basketball.”
One problem with a hiatus is that players might be under less control and more susceptible to the coronavirus. Pasternack had his Gauchos all sign a social contract in which they promised to not put each other at risk.
“It’s so fragile a situation because it takes just one person getting it,” he said. “That’s the scary part of it, because it will shut down your whole program. There are so many variables that you’re dealing with. It’s going to come down to a lot of chemistry.”
Men’s and women’s basketball are the only fall and winter sports that the Big West Conference has yet to cancel. The league needs its cut of NCAA Tournament money, just like everybody else.
UCSB is doing its part to make it work, going to great lengths to safeguard its players, coaches and staff. They are tested three times a week and before every game. They are also kept far from the fans and media. Interviews are conducted by either phone or on camera.
“When the pandemic rears its ugly head, you can only control so much, and it’s scary… Real scary,” Pasternack said. “I think our administration has done a great job of organizing our entire athletic department, and with how efficiently the testing has gone.”
He knows this is the deepest and most experienced team he’s had in his four years at UCSB. It’s the one that could finally get him to the NCAA Tournament.
“Whoever wins championships in this environment must be adaptable, must be flexible, and must be determined,” Barnhart said. “If they can do those three things, they can find a way through the madness to win a championship.”
And for now, at least, the road to Indianapolis is still open.