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College basketball plans up in air

By John Marshall

AP Basketball Writer

The NCAA’s announcement of a college basketball start date led to huge scramble as schools tried to fill out schedules altered by the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead of getting easier with time, the task of building schedules has become more difficult as the season’s start date nears.

Travel is an issue. So is finding common testing protocols. Restrictions in every state are all different and constantly changing with virus cases on the rise. The cancellation of several multiteam events left huge holes. Even sorting out officiating has presented challenges.

It’s been like trying to simultaneously build 353 separate puzzles with overlapping and sometimes-missing pieces — and time is running out.

“We don’t know a lot of things,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski. “But we know we’re going to have March Madness. We know we’re going to have a regular season. We just don’t know much about both — and it’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.”

The coronavirus ran college basketball, like every other sport and aspect of life, off the rails in March. The NCAA Tournament was wiped out and so was part of the payout to member schools, a whopping $375 million shortfall.

Following the lead of sports like the NFL and Major League Baseball, the NCAA opted to start college basketball’s regular season on Nov. 25. The NCAA reduced the maximum number of games from 31 to 27 for teams playing in multiteam events, 25 for those that don’t.

The plan is to play the NCAA Tournament in March, possibly in a “bubble” environment like the NBA and NHL did.

The key is finding a way to get there.

Even with meticulous planning before the NCAA’s announcement, teams had a tough time finding opponents.

The season was pushed back, so games set for early November had to be postponed or dropped from the schedule. Lost games had to be replaced with new opponents, with a premium placed on regional schools since most teams don’t want to fly during a pandemic.

Virus testing protocols had to be worked out and finding officials, many of whom work multiple games a week in different states and conferences, was a complex, unexpected issue.

In addition to all that, scheduling turned into a shifting platform filled with unexpected trap doors at nearly every turn.

Several multiteam events moved locations — the Maui Invitational from Hawaii to North Carolina, the Cancun Challenge from Mexico to Florida — leading to teams dropping out. Other multiteam events were canceled, leaving scheduling holes.

ESPN last week announced the cancellation of a planned NBA-like bubble in Orlando due to schools’ concerns about health and safety protocols. The elimination of those eight events left two dozen teams scrambling to find replacement games.

“There’s been nothing like it,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “It’s truly COVID 2020, unprecedented as so many things are. We don’t have a lot of answers. We have a ton of questions that all have to be answered.”

Underwood described Illinois’ schedule as a blank sheet of paper last month, and the Illini have since added a Dec. 8 game against Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Krzyzewski believes the Blue Devils have a 27-game schedule in place, but that’s obviously subject to change. Duke will host a multiteam event at Cameron Indoor Stadium with Bellarmine, Howard and Elon in early December, but it has announced no other games outside of playing Illinois.

Gonzaga, projected to be a top-5 team, has games against Baylor and Iowa scheduled for December and a full home-and-away slate of West Coast Conference games. The WCC reportedly is looking into playing in a Las Vegas bubble for conference games, so that could change.

Villanova released its early nonconference schedule, including the 2K Empire Classic with Baylor, Boston College and Arizona State — a replacement after Michigan pulled out — in Connecticut. The Wildcats, like the rest of the Big East, is awaiting word on plans for the conference schedule.

The Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC have announced conference schedules, but the ACC and Big Ten have not.

“We thought we had it down a couple times, but it’s changed,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I think now we’re still going to wait. We want to get it done. Every day something seems to pop up where it makes us have to adjust.”

While adjustments continue, the clock is ticking: The season starts three weeks from today.



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