CHAMPAIGN — It’s November.
The 2020-21 college basketball season starts this month. In just 24 days. Fingers crossed.
Who the Illinois men’s basketball team might play this coming season — and when those games could happen — is still a big, ol’ TBD. The Illini still don’t have a schedule with the start of the season coming later this month.
The only known game at the moment is arguably the most anticipated one: Dec. 8 at Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, with the official announcement made on Friday about that matchup.
In theory, Illinois will open the season at home in a four-team, multi-team event at State Farm Center. Wright State will come to town along with Ohio and North Carolina A&T, which will be making a second trip to Champaign in as many years.
But that MTE — a replacement of sorts for the canceled Emerald Coast Classic — is still theoretical. So is a potential showdown with Baylor in the Jimmy V Classic. Illinois was already a reported replacement team for that event, which has since lost its home when ESPN announced this week it had scrapped its collection of MTEs in a Disney bubble in Orlando, Fla.
Those games remain theoretical until contracts are signed. Illinois coach Brad Underwood said earlier this month that the 2020-21 Illini schedule was a blank sheet because there were zero contracts signed.
“There’s been nothing like it,” Underwood said with a laugh. “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.”
Discussions remain ongoing to answer the logistical questions of a basketball season played in an ongoing pandemic. A pandemic, it bears mentioning, that is currently trending in the wrong direction in the United States.
Testing disparities from conference to conference are an issue. Testing and other coronavirus-related protocols — and a lack of consensus on following them — were the onus for ESPN to cancel its eight events in Orlando.
“We know it’s not going to come off unscathed more than likely,” Underwood said. “Teams are going to have issues. We could have issues. You’ve got to be safe knowing that other teams and other conferences are testing the way we’re testing. To be honest, us and the Pac-12 right now are the only two conferences that are testing every day. We all know that state-to-state getting tests and getting tested is very different. Some states you can’t get a test unless you’ve got symptoms. Some states you can’t get them period. It’s really challenging from that perspective.”
Beyond the testing concerns, there’s the issue of a gap in the schedule because of finals weeks across the country in December. And what to do about what has been a required holiday break — time off between Dec. 22-25 in previous seasons — where basketball players could return home to be with their families.
“How do you do that and not have to quarantine them all coming back for a period of time?” Underwood said. “There’s a lot of issues that doesn’t have anything to do with the games, but have everything to do with scheduling the games.”
That doesn’t even hit perhaps the largest concern before the season starts. How are conferences going to handle scheduling officials? They typically work several nights a week for different conferences and bounce from state to state to do so.
In a pandemic? That’s … not ideal.
Just take, for example, the schedule regular Big Ten official Bo Boroski worked in the 2019-20 season. Boroski officiated 21 different nights out of 26 possible last November. That included games in eight different states and one game in Canada.
Boroski’s November 2019, though, doesn’t even touch what Roger Ayers accomplished. Ayers officiated games in each of the first 22 days of the 2019-20 season (and 25 of 26 total) and hit 16 different states in the process.
“That’s one of the major issues,” Underwood said. “That’s one of the things that could potentially knock us off our rails is how we handle the officials — especially in non-league games. … I use this term. They’re very toxic in terms of they fly commercial, they stay in hotels, they eat at restaurants and they’re in rental cars. We’ve got to address those issues, and we’re working through that right now.”
Underwood repeatedly mentioned safety as his top priority for the 2020-21 season. That’s for athletes, coaches and officials. When it comes down to it, though, his other stated goal for the coming season is to play as many Big Ten games as possible.
“I, personally, am a big fan of just playing league games, but I don’t know if we’ll go that direction,” Underwood said. “The NCAA has requested that they want us to play four non-league games. We also have in the Big Ten a 21-day out because of the myocarditis testing that we have to do. We could lose one player for up to 21 days if he’s positive.
“We’ve seen nationwide already some of the issues that have developed around the country in different conferences that are playing football. A lot of them have stemmed from travel, pregame meals and having family members come visit from out of state, out of area. It’s very, very difficult to create the bubble, yet we’ve got to do the best we can to protect our student-athletes.”
Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is email@example.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).