Nebraska Cornhuskers and Illinois Fighting Illini warming before the basketball game
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska’s Reward for Returning from a COVID Shutdown is an Unrelenting and Unnecessary Gauntlet

February 14, 2021

“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward. As time progressed and after hours of discussion with our Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee, it became abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty regarding potential medical risks to allow our student-athletes to compete this fall.”

Kevin Warren, Big Ten league commissioner, in a statement on Aug. 11, 2020 regarding the postponement of the fall football season. 

This you?

When the Big Ten reversed course and, in the months that followed that statement, reinstated a football season, it did so at the last minute with zero flexibility baked into the league schedule. Miss a game? Sucks to suck. Unless you’re good enough to earn a CFP spot. 

Rivalry games were missed for the first time in decades. “Leave us alone, you got to play,” was what it felt like. 

Now, six months later, Nebraska basketball, on the heels of a near-30 day program-wide pause because of positive coronavirus tests within the team, was handed a schedule to make up lost games that features seven contests in 12 days, four games in six days, and a back-to-back.

Nebraska was in State College Saturday and Sunday for a game against Penn State, and it will stay out on the east coast through Wednesday because it’ll play a back-to-back against Maryland on Feb. 16 and 17. 

The Lincoln Journal Star’s Chris Basnett sifted through the schedules: Nebraska hasn’t played the same opponent on back-to-back days since 1976, and when it did so then it wasn’t playing a conference opponent in the heat of league play. 

Almost four years ago, the NBA all but eliminated instances of pro teams playing five games in seven nights. In the 2016-17 season, the average team did it three times in an 82-game season. The schedule put forth for the 2017-18 season had that number down to 1.3 per team. 

Stretches that saw teams playing four games in five nights and 18 games in 30 days were completely eliminated. Back-to-backs went down, and it was a goal of the NBA’s to keep it down until the coronavirus forced hands. 

High-profile players were sitting out games. This was a little before the term “load management” came into the basketball lexicon, but rest wasn’t a new issue. Teams perform worse on the second night of a back-to-back. Bodies get worn down. Players didn’t want to do it in the regular season. 

These are pros we’re talking about, adults who get paid to play. 

If Nebraska remains in the COVID clear, it’ll play 11 games between Feb. 6 and March 7 (30 days) at the very least. Nebraska could get to 15 if the conference is serious about everyone hitting 20. How many is too many for college students? An overtime loss to Illinois on Friday night started a four-games-in-six-days clock that will end in Maryland. More makeup games will get added to the schedule, you have to think.

“For people that have played this game, you know how hard that is,” Husker coach Fred Hoiberg said. “To take that amount of time off and have your bodies deconditioned, and then to ask your guys to bounce back and compete like they are and have games stacked up on top of each other and to play their asses off every time they’re stepping on the floor? That’s hard to do, man.”

Mind you this is the same league that brought out a soapbox last fall to tell the greater college football public it was more worried about the potential longterm heart and lung affects brought on by infection in athletes than it was about its bottom line. 

Will Michigan face the same fate after a multi-week pause in its program for coronavirus cases?

The Wolverines lost five games during their shutdown. If they’re going to fulfill the 20-game league schedule, they’ll have 22 days to play 11 games. Does the Big Ten want to do that to a team that sits at 13-1 on the season and was just projected as the No. 3 overall seed by the NCAA Tournament selection committee?

“That would be very challenging,” Michigan coach Juwan Howard said Friday. “It would be challenging on a lot of levels. Let’s start with school. We’d miss a ton of classes. Let’s also look at the mental health standpoint. This is our guys’ team, their schedule and their college experience. Would they want to play 11 games in 22 days? And then from a health standpoint, I’m not sure if it would be smart because of the long layoff. Rushing and playing that many games in a short amount of time doesn’t give the human body time to recover.

“At the end of the day, we’re not machines. We are humans. That’s not the type of pressure that I want to put on my student-athletes at this time. Unfortunately, this is a very uncomfortable year, crazy times that we all are dealing with. We’re pivoting in different directions but at the end of the day, we have to be smart. If the main thing is about our health and safety, let’s make sure that’s the main thing. Is it smart to play that many games in that many days?”

It wasn’t important enough to ensure Ohio State-Michigan was played during the fall (frontloaded rivalry slate. . . why wasn’t this a thing?), but will it be essential to play 20 league basketball games in the winter? 

The Big Ten came off then as sticking it to Nebraska for being a “problem child” in the run-up to the season, handing NU a road trip to Ohio State in the first game of the year. Could it not have scheduled The Game as the opener—billing the league’s biggest rivalry as a full-throated, full-strength return to the football scene—instead of the finale when any sane person could have predicted the later-season games would be in more danger? 

If Michigan doesn’t play all 20 games, the Big Ten will once again look like it’s talking out of both sides of its mouth. Nebraska will look like an opponent offered up by the league to teams looking to reach the Big Dance and the conference’s golden boy will look like it’s being given preferential treatment again. 

Who’s handling messaging over there?

“I ain’t gonna sit here and lie, it’s tough,” Husker forward Lat Mayen said. “I don’t know about the rest of the guys, but for me, I’ve never played games back to back or every second day. So it’s definitely tough on your body, and mentally.”


“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made…”


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