Not unlike football, the 2020-21 college basketball season is full of mixed signals. Will they play? Dr. Carlos del Rio, one of eight doctors on the NCAA’s COVID-19 Advisory Panel, called for the suspension of college sports. He points to the record number of deaths for a day as influencing the call.
“I feel like the Titanic. We have hit the iceberg and we are trying to make decisions on what time should we have the band play,” del Rio said.
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas reacted to this comment, “I kind of know how the Titanic worked out.”
Yet, others have different opinions.
“As long as basketball is being played safely anywhere in the world this season, we’ll be playing as well,” said Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball. “Both regular season and certainly the tournament in 2021.”
Kentucky Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart, who will chair the Men’s Basketball Committee (aka the Selection Committee) for the 2021 NCAA Tournament, agreed.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to find a way to play a championship,” he told NCAA.com.
So, it’s no surprise that Dr. Rand McClain is unsure of the state of the college basketball season. Dr. McClain is the co-founder of LCR Health, a Santa Monica, Calif. based clinic that specializes in sports medicine.
“I’m not sure that is a medical question or one for the Amazing Kreskin,” he said in reference to the noted mentalist/entertainer in the 1970s.
Currently, one thing college basketball can do is look to the professionals for some insight. Due to airflow and other factors, there’s an assumption that outdoor activity is safer than indoor. Oddly enough, the NBA and NHL have had fewer issues playing than baseball.
Even though they play indoors, the NBA and NHL have been playing all games at one site, eliminating travel. When not competing, the players live in a “bubble” environment. This helps minimize exposure to the outside world.
“What that tells me is there is a path for intercollegiate sports,” said Sheldon Jacobson, who studies sports analytics as a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Illinois. “The question is are people willing to walk it.”
It’s harder to recreate these factors at a college level. Are older, more susceptible coaches, staffers, and referees suppose to live within the bubble as well? Should college athletes be separated from the student body and treated like professional athletes?
“They’re already professionals,” Bilas said. “That horse has left the multi-billion-dollar barn.”
”It seems to me the longer it goes, there’s more uncertainty out there.
Bill SelfKansas Coach
Two coaches from the Pac-12 have shown support for the idea of suspending sports activities through the end of the calendar year.
California Coach Mark Fox, who formerly was Georgia’s coach, told The Mercury News of San Jose, “If it’s not safe for football, which is nose-to-nose, to play before October or November, why would it be safe for basketball to do it, either?”
Arizona Coach Sean Miller suggested the Pac-12’s lead will be followed. “A lot of conferences will move in the same direction as us,” he told The Mercury News. “I think it will be an active September.”
Although, one thing decision-makers have on their side, according to Mike Tranghese, a consultant to Southeastern Conference basketball, is time. Bilas called for regular briefings by the NCAA to keep everyone informed on the situation.
“This is a public trust,” he said. “These institutions all take federal aid. That’s taxpayers’ money. They’re always telling us they’re about education. Well, you need to educate the public, specifically your own players, your own staff, your own coaches.”
However, even with these briefings, it seems no one can agree. The Big 10 and Pac-2 are suspending play, while the SEC, Atlantic Coast, and Big 12 are on the road to football.
“If the SEC pulls this off and they can play football and get through to the College Football Playoff, that doesn’t mean the decision the Pac-12 made or the Big Ten made was wrong,” Bilas said. “But if we have a negative outcome with a player in any conference moving forward with football, they’re going to be seen as wrong.
“God forbid somebody suffers a health catastrophe. They’re going to be looking at the conference leadership saying, what the hell are you doing?”
Further, the uncertainty continues to a fan favorite ritual—March Madness. What will happen? Kansas coach Bill Self has doubts about KU staging a Madness celebration, especially since the scheduled game against UCLA is surrounded with uncertainty.
“The reality of having fans that soon from now — six or seven weeks from now — I don’t think it’s realistic,” Self told The Kansas City Star. “We’re not giving up on it (but) I don’t think it’s realistic.”
On how the impact of the pandemic on the college basketball season is trending, Self said, “It seems to me the longer it goes, there’s more uncertainty out there.”
The National Association of Basketball Coaches recently launched a nonpartisan program to encourage voting among college athletes in November, as well as regular participation in the country’s democratic process. Coaches who are onboard and supporting include Cuonzo Martin (Missouri), Frank Martin (South Carolina), Eric Musselman (Arkansas), Anthony Grant (Dayton) and Lon Kruger(Oklahoma).
Two other supporters of note are Indiana assistant coach James “Bruiser” Flint, whom speculation has as the likely replacement for Kenny Payne on the UK staff, and G.G. Smith, the son of former UK coach Tubby Smith and now his associate coach at High Point.
Because conventional whistles project saliva droplets into the air, Mitch Barnhart, UK Director of Athletics, predicts that referees will use electronic whistles for the college basketball season. Barry Mano, the president of the National Association of Sports Officials, says that because the referees will need to change how they use the whistle, they will need time to adjust. Instead of lanyards, referees will need to hold whistles and press a button to make a call. The electronic whistle is made by a Canada-based company named Fox 40 International.
“Very, very challenging for basketball referees because we use our hands a lot,” Mano said. “You’re signaling and stuff.”
Because pressing a button takes longer to alert fans and coaches than blowing a whistle, there may be some second-guessing.
“In basketball, you’re expecting an instantaneous whistle,” Mano said. “If there’s even a one-second delay, you’d be aghast. It would seem like an eternity.”
Ron Foxcroft — a retired referee who is now the chairman, founder and CEO of Fox 40 International — acknowledged that a slight delay is not helpful. “There’s no way around that,” he said.
Although inconvientant, its a necassary change to take in the middle of a pandemic, Foxcroft says. They may even be used in NCAA football.
However, there is an alternative in the “Fox 40 protective pouch,” which Foxcroft described as “a baggie over a whistle.” It’s being used in NBA games at Orlando.