It’s mid-October and UMBC basketball coach Ryan Odom is looking at a 2020-21 Retrievers’ schedule still “in pencil.”
NCAA college basketball is set to tip off Nov. 25. Well, it is as you read this. Anyone following COVID-19 and sports these days knows things change quicker than a long rebound into a fast-break layup. Odom’s Retrievers aren’t the only ones scratching their heads and wondering just how it’s all going to work.
“I guess the only positive thing is that everyone is in the same boat,” he said. “We’re all just trying to figure it out.”
On Sept. 16, the NCAA Division I Council announced college basketball teams — men’s and women’s — can play 25 games this season and up to 27 games if they participate in multi-team events (MTEs), the early-season tournaments that filled up the November and December TV schedules. Teams must play a minimum of 13 games to be eligible for the NCAA Tournament, which hasn’t — at this point — changed its format or dates for March.
The Division I Council also announced the start date for the season would be pushed back two weeks to Nov. 25, a date coinciding with Thanksgiving break and the majority of on-campus college students returning home. Less populated campuses create an “optimal,” more controlled environment to let the games begin.
“We’re different from the NFL and college football,” Odom said. “We’re indoors, no masks and close quarters. If one tests positive everybody is out for a while, and if you play one of those teams you’re out, too, so it is high risk.”
That risk has also resulted in stringent guidelines regarding COVID-19 testing for Division I basketball, emphasizing testing three times per week on non-consecutive days throughout the season as well as distancing student-athletes from other essential game personnel and fans during contests.
Teams “Being Tested” Has New Meaning
The testing is a scheduling issue throughout the sport, as larger conferences and programs have more financial resources to test more frequently and are likely to be reticent about playing schools not monitoring at the same level or from areas where positive tests are peaking.
“Our testing’s going to be pretty good at this level and we can afford it,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said recently on the “On the Road with Buck and Phil Podcast.” “Obviously times are pretty tight because of COVID, but there [has] been a commitment by the Big Ten to do daily testing.”
Maryland may still take the lead in hosting some sort of MTE before conference play begins to help the Terrapins fill out their schedule. Originally, the Terps had hoped to host three games in the “Maryland Showcase” in November in a multi-team event that was to also feature San Jose State, Duquesne and California Baptist.
Now, the event might still survive but with local teams. That’s what schedule-makers all around college basketball are dealing with in these uncertain days, and that’s why no school has released any full schedule yet.
“You can’t be aircraft carriers,” said Dr. Dennis Thomas, in his 19th year as commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. “You can’t take all day to turn around. You have to be like a speedboat where you can pivot and turn given the circumstances.”
That’s just what the MEAC, home to Coppin State and Morgan State, has done, empowering a health and medical group comprised of physicians and athletic trainers from each member campus that helped Thomas’ “Forecasting Committee” come up with plans to deal with the pandemic. That committee, formed last April, first addressed “the physical and mental well-being of student-athletes” and athletic departments. Then in a second mission, the committee looked at containing costs at a time when there’s not much revenue coming into college athletic programs, particularly outside major college football.
For basketball, that has meant the 11-team MEAC branching into two divisions, something that will translate into a 16-game conference schedule for each member and potentially save money in travel. Coppin State and Morgan State will compete in a six-team northern division with Maryland Eastern-Shore, Howard, Delaware State and Norfolk State.
“We want teams to play conference games in their geographic region,” Thomas said. “And then the top four teams in each division, men and women, will go to the tournament in Norfolk. This is just for this athletic year. We’re in the process of determining [specifics of] the basketball tournament and we won’t know that until the beginning of the year.”
Play For Pay
The MEAC, America East (home to UMBC), Northeast Conference (Mount St. Mary’s) and Patriot League (Loyola and Navy) thrive thanks to revenue from the NCAA basketball tournament television package and from “guarantee games” at larger schools. That’s the case for all non-Power Five and Group of Five conferences (American Athletic, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt).
Historically, smaller colleges collect big paydays that can help fund an entire athletic program. There was no NCAA Tournament revenue this past year and those paid games against bigger opponents are fewer and less lucrative in the current circumstance.
“Schools like Mount St. Mary’s, we need to bring in money every year,” said head coach Dan Engelstad, entering his third year at The Mount. “Trying to figure out what the market is in those money games is a challenge. There’s a wide range of what teams are willing to pay knowing that most likely there won’t be fans. We had to figure out what the market is. Who’s paying? Who still wants to play because there are less games now.”
In the past, big schools would often pay $150,000 or more to bring in opponents from smaller conferences. The market now is much less than half of that estimated figure.
Other moving parts are also impacting scheduling. The Patriot League, though not having made any formal announcement, reportedly hasn’t been actively scheduling non-conference games, something that affects other teams in the region. It looks like a Mount St. Mary’s game with Navy, which as a service academy has more leeway to schedule than other PL programs, might now be part of that proposed MTE at Maryland. The Mountaineers also retained but moved a date with Howard as the landscape keeps shifting.
“We had American, Loyola, Navy and Lehigh on our [original] schedule as part of our non-conference,” Engelstad said. “Now three of those teams aren’t playing [us]. Trying to fill those games and then making sure we bring in a few money games where now the money isn’t the same, it’s tough.”
It’s the same in the MEAC for Coppin State and Morgan State, among others.
“We knew that the guarantee games were going to go away unless they were within a bus ride,” said Thomas, who has also announced limitations on airline flights by MEAC members to reduce travel costs.
In the America East, members are planning on an 18-game conference schedule with the addition of NJIT (New Jersey Institute of Technology), but Odom said there have been discussions to possibly pump up the league schedule to 22 games to alleviate some of the non-conference scheduling headaches.
“It’s up in the air right now,” he said. “If you can get two or three games at an MTE, and then fill in the rest of your schedule with home and homes [games with a team at home one year and then on the road the next or vice versa] … but now we’re looking to stay as local as we can to limit travel and exposure [to COVID-19].”
Back To The Drawing Board
Odom likes playing local teams, but like everyone else, the pandemic has posed problems with UMBC’s standard operating procedures in scheduling.
“What we like to do is challenge our team every year to get ourselves ready for the conference,” he said. “The goal is not to go undefeated in non-conference play. If you win all your games that’s great but maybe you think you’re good at something and the non-conference maybe tells you that you’re not.”
Odom says playing a few “high major” teams is important “in case we’re lucky enough to make the NCAA Tournament then that’s not the first time we’ve seen that level of athlete and player across the board. Because it is different … you want to make sure you’ve experienced that.”
With variables like testing compatibility and decreased desire to travel too much, a complicated process like scheduling is suddenly more so. And, as has been witnessed in other sports’ restarts, there are likely to be interruptions. Echoing Thomas’s thoughts, Odom said, “we’re all going to have to be nimble and flexible.”
UMBC already lost a piece of the 2020 preseason schedule, forced to scuttle a trip to London, the home of senior center Daniel Akin and junior guard R.J. Eytle-Rock.
“We try to take those kind of trips because it’s a good cultural experience and because you’re locked in there spending time together, a great bonding thing,” Odom said.
Early season MTEs offer a similar opportunity to coaches who embrace getting their team off-campus together for at least a couple of days.
Bottom line now, though, is the shot clock is running down and it’s hard to find anyone that has released anything resembling a full schedule. Engelstad said he thinks Mount St. Mary’s has one. He just doesn’t have many signed contracts, and the NEC hasn’t publicly released the conference game dates.
“We thought we had a schedule, we thought it looked good,” he said. “And then we had to go back to the drawing board. We’re in the midst of trying to pin down some games. I think we all know that things change. But there’s a game that’s supposed to be played next month and we’re trying to lock in who that might be.”
And that’s college basketball in 2020.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of UMBC Athletic Communications