Contracts remain arranged but unsigned. Schedules look truncated and weird. The season starts Nov. 25, fate willing, and North Carolina’s schedule has three lines: that game against UNLV on Nov. 30, that game against Alabama or Stanford on Dec. 1, and that game against TBA on Dec. 2. That’s it for now.
The annual old Maui tournament has moved to Asheville, N.C., with fewer waves but sufficient hippies. The Virgin Islands tournament has moved to Washington, to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Seven-eighths of the Bahamas tournament teams have moved on clear to South Dakota, prompting a South Dakota organizer to say, “We don’t have sandy beaches in South Dakota,” but they’d manage.
ESPN’s enormous tournament batch remains in flux. In a telltale snapshot of the national moment, the reliable Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports reported in recent weeks that Georgetown and Virginia had withdrawn from ESPN’s Wooden Legacy tournament, that Seton Hall and Boise State would replace them, and that it would move from Anaheim, Calif., to Orlando, but as of Thursday afternoon the tournament website boasted Georgetown, Virginia and Anaheim.
“You know, there’s no playbook for a situation like this,” said Jeff Wulbrun, the assistant coach who does the scheduling for Stanford, which will head for “Maui” in Asheville. A veteran of the scheduling puzzle for “probably 20 years or so at the college level,” he said, “I’ve always taken pride in being a year, two years ahead of schedule, and obviously the pandemic threw a wrench into that.”
“It’s been a zoo, you know,” began Dave Paulsen, the sixth-year head coach at George Mason. Normally, schedules get done the previous March, maybe May at the latest, but “normally” left the building — all the buildings — in March when the novel coronavirus pandemic entered. Once the NCAA declared Sept. 16 that teams could start opposing one another Nov. 25, well …
“Pretty much every contract we had was blown up,” Paulsen said, beginning with “the four or five games scheduled prior to” that date, and then other games involving leagues refraining from nonconference entanglements, and then teams with travel issues. “Every game on our schedule was thrown out,” he said, “and so we just try to start from scratch in a very short period of time.”
Fate willing, George Mason will have 18 Atlantic 10 games, but in going around arranging an additional nine for nonconference, Paulsen and staff have not gone far. They will “stay in our geographic footprint,” he said, and “minimize our chances of having a virus outbreak,” playing events such as the one that moved from the Virgin Islands to Washington for Nov. 26-28, the Paradise Jam. “The farthest I think we’re going to go will be an hour and a half from campus. We’re not getting on a plane — playing some local rivalries.”
Stop if you’ve heard this one before: Four or five Virginia-based coaches got on Zoom, and …
“We all agreed to play each other in a neutral-site kind of thing,” Paulsen said. “‘We’ll play you on Saturday.’ ‘We’ll play you other guys on Sunday.’” They “worked out two doubleheaders” as, Paulsen said, “The level of connectivity between head coaches has been greater than it’s been, because we’re all in the same boat. We’re just happy to be playing.”
In this climate, an event might not exist technically on a Tuesday, then pop up to life on a Wednesday, then aim to tip off the whole national season. That’s the Crossover Classic, set for the Sanford Pentagon of Sioux Falls, S.D., on Nov. 25-27, with Creighton, Dayton, Memphis, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Utah, West Virginia and Wichita State. That’s everybody once Bahamas-bound minus Duke and plus Dayton.
In Sioux Falls, it’s a smash.
“The leadership that dreamed up the Pentagon had things like this in mind,” Steve Young, the president of Sanford Sports, overseer of the event, said of the seven-year-old home of the Sioux Falls SkyForce of the NBA G League. He presented the tournament as a balm, with people “starved for some relief from some of the things that have been going on.”
They will have fans but aren’t sure how many. They will dole masks to the mask-less. Organization vice president Jesse Smith said it will “look a little like the [NBA] bubble [near] Orlando, with the plexiglass and the spacing.” And in a beaming signal of the times, their news conference starred a doctor, Jeremy Cauwels.
Cauwels, chief medical officer for the Sanford Health Plan in Sioux Falls, did undergraduate at Northern Iowa, medical school at Iowa and residency in Kansas City, Kan., so he has been around some basketball. “One of the other jobs I’ve picked up over time,” he said Wednesday, “is working with this NCAA, talking about a safe return to sports.”
He outlined the NCAA’s three tiers of a bubble — players and staff, support to players and staff, and building workers — and said arriving teams would be whisked from travel vehicle to testing area. Said Smith, “A lot of these MTEs” — multi-team events — “are falling apart, frankly, because they don’t have a Dr. Cauwels on their team.” Thereby did he open a fresh vein of American discourse among events: doctor pride.
At Harrah’s Cherokee Center Asheville, the substitute venue for the “Maui,” they’re meeting about how to welcome North Carolina, Davidson, Alabama, Indiana, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV. All eight remain inbound as of five minutes ago. Stanford, which will travel farthest, stuck with it because Coach Jerod Haase deemed it important and because tournament, school and conference parties aligned regarding safety protocols. “I know right now our administration is getting charter quotes,” said the Stanford assistant Wulbrun, with that flight method deemed safest.
“At this point,” said venue general manager Chris Corl, “we’re a hundred percent full force in ‘go’ mode.”
They’ve lost much else. They’ve lost “somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million in revenue” and, Corl said, “I don’t know how many events at this point.” They’ve got companies canceling for events in 2022 and 2023, getting deposits returned because they fear going out of business. At times through the hard months they’ve deployed their facility as a coronavirus testing center, as a place to feed the homeless.
Now the 24-member venue staff is meeting daily, analyzing passageways through the building in search of utmost safety, consulting with North Carolina colleges for what they’ve learned in resuming football. “Who is posted within a given hallway?” Corl said. “Or who has a specific door and the risk that comes with it?” They’re not planning on spectators just yet.
“Normally with an event of this size and this scale,” he said, “we’d probably be planning for at least a year.” Now it’s condensed, but the other events that would have crowded alongside it in the planning have subsided, canceled: a crafts show, a The Revivalists concert.
If all goes as planned — another lousy phrase lately — they’ll have players and coaches et al. entering their 7,200-seat arena in weeks. Paulsen of George Mason is not one of those, but he did say that when he returned to the gym after months of absence, “I got goose bumps.”