Nebraska Cornhuskers guard Elijah Wood shoots a three pointer over defender
Photo Credit: Nebraska Athletics

Padding the Stats: ‘Nature of the Beast’ with College Basketball This Season

November 25, 2020

The strangest basketball season any of us will have ever experienced begins today.

There’s a strong argument to be made that we should not be playing basketball at all with COVID-19 cases skyrocketing across the country. But the NCAA, most conferences, coaches and players have decided to forge ahead, and so here we go.

Cancellations and postponements and rescheduling have been happening throughout the last couple of weeks, right up to the eve of the first day of the season. The turmoil is clearly not done, either. No game is safe this season until it tips off.

After several iterations, Nebraska finally has its schedule for this week — a nonconference game against McNeese State to get things started and then games against Nevada and North Dakota State in the Golden Window Classic. Fred Hoiberg said his staff prepared game plans for three different teams the Huskers won’t face. Coaches are really going to earn their paychecks this season.

“Hopefully with where things are right now, we can get our games in,” Hoiberg said. “Is it going to 100% happen? Absolutely not. The likelihood of something happening I would think is pretty high. We’ve got a 10-day window after our last nonconference game against Creighton before we open up against Wisconsin, so if we do have to postpone a game or find another opponent if we cancel, we do have a window where we can potentially do that. It’s been a really, really strange time for coaches. Never have I seen a time where you prepare for a team, you get your scouting report done and then you find out a couple days later you’re not going to play that opponent.”

I’ve heard a lot of people argue for scrapping nonconference games and for pushing the start of the season back. The NCAA has shown no interest in delaying the season all the way back until a vaccine becomes readily available to the public (hard to plan for something when you don’t know when exactly it will happen). With that in mind, I think it would be wise to give teams the opportunity to fit in as many games as possible, which means starting now.

Factoring in the incubation period, all of the players or “tier one” program members who test positive this week would have contracted the virus back on campus or the surrounding community. So tweets like this…

… don’t make any sense. If in another week or two we can trace a bunch of cases back to teams’ traveling to their nonconference and/or MTE destinations, then perhaps it would be evidence that scrapping them would be the right move. But even then, teams can’t bus to every other school in their own conference. I don’t think a flight to the Mohegan Sun is any different than a flight from a Midwest school to one on the east coast.

If both schools are comfortable with testing protocols, I don’t really see any difference between conference and nonconference games.

As bad as things are right now, I also have a hard time seeing how things would be any better if we pushed things back another month so. What we have coming up is a window where there won’t be many students on campus as the semester ends, reducing the risk of exposure for the student-athletes that will stick around for their season.

Just like with college football, I think the path forward for college basketball is going to be to play as many games as possible. Be smart and be cautious, shutting down whenever test results or contact tracing requires it. Those that are fortunate enough to avoid COVID-19 issues play on. The players seem to be mentally prepared for what could be the wackiest season we’ve ever seen.

“I don’t think it’s that hard because that’s the nature of the beast this year,” junior Teddy Allen said. “We know there will be teams pulling out, teams getting positives, rescheduling, cancellations. We’ve known this since the summer time, so it’s not really too much to worry about know. We were just hoping we could play, so I guess we’ll take what we can get.”

Fans need to prepare themselves as well. Every schedule is subject to change at a moment’s notice. We’ll see games come off schedules and replacement games set up. We’ll see many teams fall short of the maximum of 27 games. The goals this season, besides keeping everyone involved as safe as possible, are to give the student-athletes a season and to make sure the NCAA Tournament happens (for financial purposes).

The NCAA plans to use a bubble (or more accurately, a closed campus) environment for the NCAA Tournament, which is a prudent move. We’ve seen how well that kind of set-up works in preventing the spread of COVID-19 and allowing events to play out as scheduled. However, as we saw with the NBA’s bubble, it is both expensive and mentally taxing on the athletes to be confined for such an extended period of time.

With the cost required, the number of teams involved and the athletes’ status as college students rather than well-paid professionals, I just don’t see how bubbling up the whole season would be feasible. I know many conferences have contingency plans if things continue to deteriorate and the need to pivot to bubbles for league play arises, but that decision will come later.

For now, we play, and that’s the mindset Hoiberg is taking into the season.

“The biggest thing that I’ll continue to stress and what I keep talking to our guys about is all we can do is control the things in front of us,” Hoiberg said. “Those things could spiral out of control with everything going on. We’re ready for it, we’re prepared for it, but we just need to go out there and prepare as if we’re going to play 27 games starting with the home opener. It’s been a really bizarre preseason, as strange a time as I’ve ever been through in my many years in this game as a player, as an executive and as a coach. We just have to continue to stress worrying about the things that we can control, and that’s playing hard, it’s preparing the right way, and it’s trying to stay out of harm’s way.”

If there’s anything I’ve learned from covering high school volleyball and football this year, it’s to appreciate every game that takes place. All of this could come screeching to a halt at any second, so enjoy whatever basketball we get this season.

And please, do your part to help get the pandemic under control and make sure we can get through the season.

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