- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 9, 2020

They sat around a table in Mark Turgeon’s office, scrambling yet again.

The Maryland basketball coach’s assistants were all on the phone, calling coaches they knew at other programs, seeing if another last-minute schedule alteration could be pulled off.

Earlier on Nov. 30, the Terrapins’ Dec. 1 matchup with Towson had been canceled due to a positive coronavirus case within the Tigers’ program. So over the course of three hours, Turgeon and his staff scoured the area for openings, looking at which teams had games canceled and needed a new opponent, fast-tracking a scheduling process that normally takes months rather than hours.

Maryland found an answer, traveling to play James Madison on Dec. 5.

“We got lucky,” Turgeon said.

But that contest never happened, either. A positive case on the Dukes made that game the fourth scratch for the Terrapins this season, joining earlier cancellations against Monmouth, Towson and George Mason. Maryland has evaded the coronavirus so far this season inside its own program, but the pandemic has rendered the schedule into a hopeful outline rather than a solid slate just two weeks into the campaign.

The Terrapins aren’t alone. Across the country, college basketball programs are weathering the uncertainty involved with playing during a pandemic. There are protocols to follow, the almost-inevitable positive cases and the subsequent postponements and cancellations.

And yet, for some within the sport, those disruptions are becoming part of the landscape this season.

“It’s chaotic, for sure,” LaPhonso Ellis, a former NBA player and current ESPN analyst, told the Washington Times. “But sometimes in chaos we have to continue to move forward.”

That’s the approach Maryland and other programs are taking. Turgeon said his staff has a list of schools they can approach if there’s a sudden cancellation, and they called 15 or 20 teams before locking down a matchup with James Madison.

When George Mason canceled a Dec. 4 game at Maryland because of a positive case, that list — and the work done not long before — enabled director of basketball operations Mark Bialkoski to secure St. Peter’s for the same date within 30 minutes.

It takes flexibility, although Turgeon said the abrupt changes are felt hardest by members of the scouting department. All the preparation for one opponent becomes obsolete, and a rush to study the new one begins.

“Coaches did a great job, I thought, early on preparing their young people for what potentially could take place and just laying that out on the table,” Ellis said. “Mentally, at least you’re prepared for it, even though you’re dealing with the disappointment of going, ‘My gosh, we spent so many hours getting ready for this team, and now it’s not going to happen.’”

About 90 minutes before No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Baylor were scheduled to tip off last weekend, positive coronavirus tests within the Bulldogs’ program postponed the game. Gonzaga has since canceled its next four games as a precautionary step.

That’s the most high-profile schedule alteration so far this season, but there have been many. No. 13 Wisconsin’s game against No. 25 Louisville on Wednesday was postponed, and the Badgers soon found a replacement in Rhode Island. No. 4 Michigan State’s game against No. 18 Virginia on Wednesday was also postponed.

“We knew it was going to be rocky, we knew the takeoff was going to be rocky, we knew we were going to have turbulence in the air,” Ellis said. “And we want to land safely, of course.”

The uncertainty — and the rising case load across the country — have prompted some coaches to question the continuation of the season. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski voiced his safety concerns on Tuesday. Pittsburgh coach Jeff Capel also discussed his unease regarding the situation on Monday.

“Something just doesn’t feel right about it right now,” Capel told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “The numbers were what they were back in March. I look at it every day, man. It seems like every day it’s getting worse. I don’t know why you cancel it in March, but you say it’s OK to do it right now. But what do I know?”

The NBA, WNBA, NHL and NWSL completed their seasons this summer using a bubble. The strategy worked, limiting exposure to the virus for players and staff. But that’s a more difficult route for college basketball to take.

The NCAA appears to be in favor of hosting the tournament in Indianapolis, creating a bubble of sorts for the 68 teams involved. During the regular season, though, that won’t be an option — not with over 300 teams and each individual conference having their own protocols.

There’s variability between schools, too. Some test daily and fly on chartered flights. Others test a few times a week and might fly in coach.

“There are just not as many resources to manage the risks,” said Dr. Laura Albert, a professor in Wisconsin’s Industrial and Systems Engineering department whose research focuses on modeling and solving real-world discrete optimization problems. “And the college sports versus the professional sports, you can’t really put the players in a bubble.”

While the frequent testing doesn’t prevent a player or staff member from becoming infected, Dr. Ajay Sethi, the faculty director for the Master of Public Health program at the University of Wisconsin, said it helps to stop the spread.

The earlier an infected person is identified and isolated, the less likely transmission of the virus becomes.

“The fact they’re canceling games … is a good sign, that it’s not a play-on type attitude, which is sometimes associated with sports,” Dr. Sethi said. “The fact that they’re actually following protocols and they have in mind what’s important, I think that’s good.”

The cancellations and postponements have already made themselves felt early in the 2020-21 season. But with the NCAA committed to playing during a pandemic, those adjustments aren’t shocking. Instead, the changes that could come at any time make the games that go ahead as scheduled all the more special.

“Every time we get a chance to play, we’re excited,” Turgeon said. “It is one day at a time.”


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