By the time an official tosses the ball for the opening tip at noon Saturday at Alumni Hall in Annapolis, Minnesota and Texas Tech and Seton Hall, among others, will have played 14 games apiece. Duke canceled the majority of its nonconference schedule. Four Maryland games were canceled, and its one Saturday was postponed, with coronavirus-positive Nebraska hastily pushed out and replaced by Division II Wingate for a noon tip on a Friday. It’s college basketball’s season-long Twister game.
To this point, American University has played zero games. So until that ball is in the air to begin the Eagles’ game at Navy, there are no guarantees.
“Hopefully,” American Coach Mike Brennan said, “we get there.”
That’s how a college basketball season in the midst of a pandemic is held together: with safety protocols and flexibility and, above all else, hope. There are 357 Division I men’s programs across the country. The Ivy League opted out of playing, as did Bethune-Cookman and Maryland Eastern Shore of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
Of the remaining 347 schools, just two have yet to play: American and Loyola (Md.), its peer in the Patriot League. Both are scheduled to open play Saturday, fully two months after a normal season would begin: American at noon in Annapolis, Loyola at 4 p.m. at Lafayette.
After all this, an actual game?
“They’re dying to get on the court,” Brennan said. “They’re dying to compete. I give our guys credit: They’ve been great in practice. But after a while, it’s just hard to go against your roommate every day. There’s got to be something beyond that.”
In a normal season, there is a rhythm in getting to a season opener. Small group workouts over the summer lead to full team practices in October that build over six weeks to the first game.
But as college sports tried to push through the coronavirus pandemic — playing even when most students aren’t on campus, as is the case at American — the regular rhythms were replaced by an unpredictable syncopation. American’s first full-squad workout didn’t come until the Monday after Thanksgiving — a point by which the team would normally be playing nonconference games. American, though, elected to play only a conference schedule, and the Eagles were set to open Jan. 2 against Loyola.
“It seemingly felt like forever,” Brennan said.
Turns out, forever and a couple weeks. On Dec. 31, the Loyola program returned a positive test from within its “Tier 1” personnel — the group that includes players, coaches and the most essential support staff. The next day, American’s program returned a positive, too. That wiped out not only the two American-Loyola games that weekend but, per safety protocols, mandated a 10-day pause for both programs. Thus, American’s games against Lehigh scheduled for this past weekend also were postponed.
“There was a point when we had been practicing for like a month, and we got like three days around Christmastime, when we needed a break,” Brennan said. “But then we didn’t need a 10-day break right after that. You’re trying to spin it positively by telling the guys they’ve been great to this point, but you also know they’re essentially in quarantine. What do you do? Ask them to do push-ups, just stay safe. We watched film as a team. We watched film individually.”
And then they got back at it. The Navy game was a goal but by now, the Eagles knew, not a certainty.
In the meantime, the college basketball industrial machine pushed on. Even as games were postponed or canceled because of positive tests in programs from coast to coast, a constant stream of games pumped onto TV screens. When that happens, it can seem as if the competition is merely programming for networks that desperately need it. The players are reduced to actors making money for others as they put themselves at risk when the rest of their classmates are told to stay home.
There’s truth in that, and it’s not fun to think about. But reducing high-level college basketball to that line of thinking also dismisses the fact that most players want to participate in these games for the love of the sport, for the competition it provides. That’s what the players at American have missed over these many months. To them, the games on TV are athletes getting to do what they would love to: play.
“They miss it,” Brennan said.
And so to get the opportunity — or to keep hope alive the hope that they eventually will get the opportunity — they make sacrifices, just as we all have during these extraordinary times. They practice in masks. They live in near-isolation. Now, with a game within reach, they can all but taste it — even as they don’t want to jinx that a game might actually happen.
“We’re scheduled to play Navy,” Brennan said. “You almost want to lock everybody in a room until tip-off. But our guys have done a really good job. They understand why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Given what they’re doing — practicing in fits and starts, trying to prepare for games when those games aren’t guaranteed to be played — there’s a fair question: Is it worth it? The Ivy League is sitting out. Others are struggling to patch together schedules.
“I don’t think there’s a right answer or a wrong answer,” Brennan said. “But I feel confident about AU and how they’ve gone about the whole process from the very beginning. I never felt apprehensive about calling parents and telling them our plans. I’m feeling good about running practices where not just the kids but the people who have to help to make it happen are safe. We’re not doing anything reckless.
“Obviously, you could make an argument: What kind of a season is it, really? But I’m glad we’re doing it.”
And when the referee tosses that ball up and it’s tipped and the clock starts ticking, Brennan will become the second-to-last men’s Division I coach in a spotty 2020-21 season to perform his most basic duties: coach his team.
“I think it’ll be relief,” he said.