The cancellations, postponements and team pauses that have permeated college basketball in recent weeks have yielded to a new round of questions for the sport. One year after the coronavirus pandemic produced the most unusual season (and postseason) in the modern era, the rise of the COVID-19 omicron variant has caused the game’s stakeholders to revisit many of those same 2020-21 questions.
Will teams and leagues be able to play something resembling full schedules? Will conference tournaments be played? What are the implications if those answers are “no,” and what will the consequences be for an NCAA tournament that was expected to proceed as normal in 2022? Which leagues have had the most issues, and is there a consensus within the game on how best to move forward?
As those questions continue to be raised, we looked at the biggest issues for college basketball, and the most significant questions being asked as the game attempts to resume in the coming days and weeks.
Which leagues and teams are currently in a holding pattern as a result of COVID-19 issues?
One look at the daily college basketball schedule gives a pretty good idea of which teams are currently out of action. People who track that sort of thing have said more than 70 programs have been forced to pause because of COVID-19 so far this season. That number is only rising, too. No. 2 Duke had two games postponed last week; No. 4 Gonzaga is currently on a pause; No. 5 UCLA hasn’t played since Dec. 11, while crosstown rival No. 7 USC hasn’t hit the court since Dec. 19. Even No. 6 Kansas had games postponed last week due to opponents having COVID-19 issues, but the Jayhawks quickly pivoted and scheduled replacement games.
Every conference in the country is attempting to push through and get as many games in as possible, despite circumstances seemingly making that more challenging with every week. When San Francisco’s game at Saint Mary’s was postponed over the weekend due to COVID-19 concerns within the Gaels’ program, it marked a first: Every single men’s and women’s basketball game in the West Coast Conference scheduled for last weekend was postponed because of COVID-19. The WCC isn’t alone, of course. The Atlantic 10, too, has been hit hard by the virus; the league had four games on Wednesday postponed, after having four called off last weekend and five in one day last week. At one point last week, there were only four teams in the MAAC not on a COVID-19 pause.
There are no signs of any league fully pausing or taking a break amid the rising case numbers, however. Even the Ivy League, which was the first to cancel competition a few times during the pandemic, was not discussing a temporary pause as recently as late December.
What do we know about the rescheduling of games? Are leagues going to be able to play full conference schedules?
At this rate, it’s hard to see every conference playing its full allotment of league games. Some teams in the Big East have already played three games, some teams have played zero. The Pac-12 has teams that have played four games and teams with one game. Entering Wednesday, the Atlantic 10 had nine teams that hadn’t played a single conference game. Most leagues will not want teams playing three or four games in a single week, although the proliferation of back-to-backs last season makes it a bit more palatable if necessary in the coming months.
There was more pressure last season to get a certain number of games in, however. The NCAA set the minimum number of games to be eligible for the tournament at 13, which was difficult in a season that didn’t start until Nov. 25 and included lengthy pauses when outbreaks hit teams. With the quarantine time being cut in half this season, teams aren’t necessarily forced to sit out for weeks on end now.
In an article for NCAA.com last week, Andy Katz wrote that the selection committees will discuss game minimums later in January. He also pointed out that Division I teams have played an average of 12 games this season.
How have leagues adjusted their forfeiture rules? What are the implications? What about conference tournaments?
Each of the seven major conferences (Power 5 + Big East and AAC) adjusted their forfeiture rules in late December, making forfeits the last possible resort. Six of the seven conferences made their minimum threshold seven players and one coach, while the Big 12 made its threshold six players and one coach. Only a very select few leagues have kept forfeits as an option. The Missouri Valley had opted to maintain its forfeiture policy prior to Christmas, but it reversed course a week later and went in the same direction as most of the rest of the sport.
The Big East and Pac-12 had already run into forfeiture issues in the first few weeks of the season. Washington was the first to suffer a forfeit loss in conference play, when the Huskies couldn’t find a new date for their game against UCLA. It raised eyebrows, however, when Washington’s postponed game against Arizona was simply rescheduled for later in the season. The Big East standings had become borderline farcical due to a slew of forfeits; for example, DePaul was 9-1 overall with an 0-2 league record at one point.
While the NCAA doesn’t recognize forfeits as part of overall records or NCAA tournament résumés, removing them simply offers more flexibility from a scheduling perspective. It provides more options in terms of filling out a league schedule and could be important when it comes to giving bubble teams more opportunities for key wins. Just to use the Big East as another example: A team that badly needs marquee wins in conference play is St. John’s. Had the Red Storm kept their forfeit win over Seton Hall, they would have eliminated a chance to actually boost their résumé in league play. For potential one-bid leagues like the Missouri Valley, it likely prevents heavy favorite Loyola Chicago from racking up two or three forfeit losses and putting them in a worse position for the conference tournament.
Based on last year’s precedent, it would be a surprise if the plug was completely pulled on any conference tournaments. Every Division I conference but the Ivy League (which didn’t have a season at all) held a tournament in 2021. High-profile teams including Duke and Kansas were forced to pull out due to COVID-19 issues during those tourneys, but 31 leagues were ultimately able to crown champions, and at a time before widespread vaccine availability. Leagues are nearly certain to do everything possible to make sure their events go forward in 2022.
How is the NCAA preparing to adjust the 2022 NCAA tournament, if at all?
Late last Wednesday, the NCAA released quotes from Dan Gavitt, senior vice president of basketball, indicating that there had been no discussions about playing in a bubble like last year.
“At this point, we are continuing the planning for the NCAA basketball championships with the normal format, schedule and multiple host sites,” Gavitt said. “Despite the current challenges we’re experiencing in college basketball, the solutions to these problems during this phase of the pandemic are likely quite different than the dramatic championship format changes we had to adopt last year.”
Last year, the NCAA held the entire men’s NCAA tournament in Indianapolis, with 66 games played at one of several arenas in and around the city. The women’s tournament was similarly held in San Antonio and its surrounding areas. The NCAA began its discussions with Indianapolis in November 2020 and officially announced its plans in early January 2021. We’re already past those dates on this year’s calendar, but the women’s tournament location wasn’t announced until early February 2021, so there would theoretically be time to move into action if necessary.
It’s unclear whether last season’s rules about replacement teams and forfeitures would still be observed. In 2021, the NCAA had the first teams left out of the NCAA tournament on standby in case one of the original 68 teams was unable to get cleared and reach the bubble. Louisville was the first team in the First Four Out, and therefore the first standby team.
VCU’s first-round game against Oregon was the lone game in the 2021 NCAA tournament to be declared a no-contest after the Rams had multiple positive COVID-19 tests. However, because it happened hours before tipoff, Oregon simply advanced as there was no time to mobilize a replacement team.
The NCAA provided the following statement to ESPN regarding the NCAA’s potential logistic discussions in the coming weeks: “Dan Gavitt has calls with our committee chair and vice-chair (Tom Burnett of the Southland Conference and Chris Reynolds of Bradley) at least once a week. The full committee will meet in person in two weeks (at the NCAA Convention in Indy) and again in Indy in mid-February. We also have other calls with the full committee, as well as joint calls with the women’s basketball committee scheduled periodically over the next several weeks. We could discuss postseason logistics, if deemed necessary, during those meetings.”
What are coaches saying about the latest COVID-19 issues in college basketball?
Much of the discussion among coaches and decision-makers in the middle of December centered around testing protocols and quarantine periods. As the NFL and NBA were taking steps to limit their testing of vaccinated, asymptomatic players and cutting quarantine periods, some wondered if college basketball would be next. But there’s obviously a huge difference between college hoops and pro leagues: There’s not one person or group making medical decisions for all 358 schools.
Schools and local health officials have the final say on testing mandates. Some schools were testing every player, vaccinated or unvaccinated; some schools tested only players with symptoms. Some schools tested every player coming back from Christmas break; others, only the unvaccinated or players with symptoms.
The lack of consensus about how to proceed was apparent.
Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski said in mid-December: “I don’t like the fact that the two teams are not tested the day before, the night before, like we did last year.”
That same week, South Carolina’s Frank Martin made his stance clear, an opinion shared by most in the sport: “If you’re vaccinated and you’re asymptomatic, you should not get tested. If you’re asymptomatic, why are we testing? … I don’t know how we’re going to play a season, with policies that were in place pre-vaccination.”
The CDC’s decision on Dec. 27 to cut isolation time for positive tests and quarantine time for close contacts from 10 days to five has been viewed as a game-changer, though. The ACC quickly followed with a shorter isolation option for vaccinated individuals, going from a mandatory 10 days to two negative tests at least 24 hours apart, or improving symptoms and one negative test at least seven days from the first positive test. The Pac-12 and other leagues followed with similar recommendations.
What this does is potentially allow for shorter pauses, fewer postponements and less disruption to the conference season. Getting entire teams boosted to protect against the omicron variant — as Kentucky and Purdue did and then publicly announced — is another step in the right direction.
If you’re looking for a sign of optimism, here’s a potential trend: Last Tuesday, Dec. 28, 16 of 29 scheduled games were postponed or canceled. This past Tuesday, Jan. 4, only nine of 38 were postponed or canceled.