Right before the words left Patrick Ewing’s mouth, he seemed to think better of what he was about to say. The Georgetown coach paused, then knocked on the wooden table under his laptop, just to be sure he wasn’t about to jinx his squad.
“We haven’t had anyone who has tested positive,” Ewing said Tuesday. “So I’m hoping that number will continue.”
Welcome to college basketball in 2020, with a season set to get under way surrounded by so many more unknowns than usual. It’s not just about which newcomers might step into the lineup immediately or whether a returning starter can pick up where they left off.
There are complicated protocols involved as the coronavirus pandemic swirls around the country, with cases rising locally and nationally. Games, even now, are being postponed or canceled. So Ewing wasn’t out of place to knock on wood. Perhaps a bit of superstition is required given the nature of a season still in its infancy yet already hardened by uncertainty.
“College sports as a whole has to do the best job they can do to keeping their guys safe, talking about socially distancing outside of the gym, even socially distancing from their girlfriends and friends that they know, and even their families,” Ewing said. “It’s a price that they have to pay if there’s going to be some type of a basketball season.”
The college basketball season is set to begin Wednesday, and Georgetown and Maryland will tip off their campaigns against UMBC and Old Dominion, respectively. But for other teams across the country, the season has come to a halt before it ever began.
The Ivy League canceled all winter sports, including basketball, earlier this month. Duke, Arizona and George Mason have each cancelled or postponed their season openers after positive cases cropped up within their opponents’ programs. The Connecticut women’s team entered a two-week quarantine after a member of the program tested positive for the coronavirus, pushing back the start of its campaign.
Tennessee paused team activities once coach Rick Barnes and “multiple” other Tier 1 personnel — consisting of players, coaches, team managers and support staff — tested positive. And Baylor coach Scott Drew also tested positive, prompting his team to withdraw from a nonconference tournament.
The list of rescheduled matchups could go on and on, even at this early stage. Yet other teams will take the floor Wednesday, including coach Mark Turgeon’s Terrapins.
“We’re not going to be able to stop the spread of it. It is what it is. We’re going to do everything we can to keep our players and coaches safe,” Turgeon said last week. “… Is it going to go perfect? No. It’s not going to go perfect. We’re going to have positives in the season throughout most teams in the country, probably.
“The bottom line is we do everything we can to make sure our guys are safe and healthy. And kids want to play, coaches want to coach, and then fans want to watch their teams play. So we’ll be careful, but we definitely want to start the season next Wednesday. We’ll be ready for it.”
Maryland has already experienced an outbreak of the coronavirus on its roster. Turgeon said “a few members” of the team were infected between late August and early September. Ewing spent five days in the hospital over the summer with the coronavirus, too.
So both teams are well-aware of the risk involved with playing during a pandemic, and understand the precautions they need to take to reduce their risk of infection.
“A lot of sacrifices this year,” Hoyas guard Jahvon Blair said. “Coach Pat and the staff definitely tells us, gives us updates every single practice. So we’re aware, trust me. We just gotta go to practice, go to school, do our classwork, and that’s really it, honestly. This is a different year.”
College basketball is going forward without a bubble for the regular season, unlike what the NBA and WNBA used to complete their seasons this summer. The NCAA announced earlier this month, though, that the NCAA tournament would adopt a bubble approach, abandoning plans to hold early round matchups in 13 different host locations.
Georgetown forward Jamorko Pickett felt using a bubble would improve the chances of completing the season.
“I think the NBA set a great example with the bubble,” Pickett said. “And I think college should implement the same type of format, to keep the players, staff and everyone else involved as safe as possible.”
Instead, he and his teammates will create their own pseudo-bubble, watching where they go and who they approach. Pickett grew up 15 minutes from the Georgetown campus, but he’s not able to go home to visit his family.
That’s the hardest part of all this, he said. But Pickett knows it’s just another one of the sacrifices players around the country are having to make to ensure — or at least hope — this basketball season can work.