The Virginia men’s basketball team is supposed to open its national title defense for a second time — yes, the Wahoos are still reigning national champions due to the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament — on Nov. 10 with a home contest against Gardner-Webb.
Sunday marks 100 days until the scheduled return of Tony Bennett’s squad.
Even three months away from the start of the season, uncertainty lingers.
Will the fall sports season be played safely amid the COVID-19 pandemic? How does playing indoors impact the potential of a safe college basketball season?
“In college basketball, we are still planning on starting the season right now on schedule on Nov. 10,” NCAA Senior Vice President Dan Gavitt said in a recent interview with the NCAA’s digital team. “We have plans across the country through our schools and conferences to bring students back to campus safely just this month in August and early September. Many players have been on campus for weeks now, training on campus in a very safe way and have been very happy to be back playing the game they love with their coaches.”
The UVa men’s basketball team returned to Grounds in mid-July. The Cavaliers’ social media accounts shared photos of the team working out in a socially distanced manner. Bennett wore gloves and a face covering in one of the photos, while players wore masks.
Since their arrival in Charlottesville, 123 student-athletes outside the football program have been tested for COVID-19. Just one of those athletes has produced a positive test.
At the professional ranks, the WNBA and NBA recently began their seasons successfully. While some players opted out of playing in the respective bubbles, once teams arrived in Florida, positive cases have been low.
The bubble system seems to be off to a strong start.
“You’re seeing how difficult it is for the MLB, NFL, all these different leagues to try and get this [going], and I’d say we’re fortunate where we’re in a position where the NBA has done an extremely good job of allowing us to be here, providing us this sort of environment where we all feel safe and comfortable and really not have a lot of cases or a lot of distractions for that matter,” former UVa standout Joe Harris said recently.
Harris and the Brooklyn Nets played their first game in the NBA’s bubble Friday. He finished with 14 points in a loss.
The NCAA hopes to build off the success of professional leagues playing basketball without putting athletes, coaches and event personnel at risk.
“We’ve got a high level of confidence, as I’ve said before, that as long as basketball’s being played safely anywhere in the world this season, that we’ll be playing NCAA college basketball as well, both regular season and certainly the tournament in 2021,” Gavitt said. “We’ve got all sorts of plans and alternatives that we’re looking at in order to be able to do that in a safe and responsible way, but a high level of confidence there’s going to be — while different — a great experience playing college basketball again for those guys that want to come back to school, finish their education and have the great college basketball experience.”
Gavitt’s comparison is a bit perplexing. Comparing the NBA’s restart to safely playing college games isn’t quite like apples to apples.
For one, college athletes won’t be in a bubble.
Keeping case numbers low while practicing in a socially distanced manner is much easier than keeping case numbers low when playing games and taking classes with thousands of students on campus. Taking some online classes can help reduce the level of exposure for student-athletes, but reducing exposure at the same level the NBA limits exposure is close to impossible. Traveling to games across the country also brings increased risk of exposure, whereas the WNBA and NBA games are all being played at one location.
Recent postponements due to positive COVID-19 tests across Major League Baseball highlight the challenges of competing outside a bubble.
Whether it is players, coaches, or event personnel testing positive for COVID-19, people face exposure when outside of a bubble system. Any positive tests from those groups can hinder the chance of a safe season.
Add in the fact that the ACC recently dubbed basketball as a high-risk sport, and it’s clear playing a full college basketball season safely starting in November is a major challenge.
The NCAA expects conferences and administrators to take their time with any decisions to change the season, though. It’s worth waiting to see the attempted return of fall sports while also learning from professional leagues about what it takes to start and finish a season safely.
“I think at this point, we’re probably looking at some time in September having to make decisions about whether we stick with a plan to start on Nov. 10 or consider other alternatives,” Gavitt said.
While decisions may not come until September, plenty of events this month can impact the chances of Virginia’s season opener taking place on time. In-person classes for UVa undergraduate students begin on Aug. 25. Other leagues — like MLB — are still navigating how to balance positive COVID-19 tests with a regular schedule of games.
The NCAA board of governors is set to meet Tuesday. The meeting could include a potential decision on NCAA fall championships or at least more guidance for competing safely this fall.
Plans are in place to return students to campuses and to begin athletic competition in the next six weeks. The college basketball season is slated to begin Nov. 10.
While those plans haven’t changed, the likelihood of those events happening without a hitch is unclear. Playing outside a bubble complicates the return-to-play efforts.
The focus lies on starting fall sports, but for the UVa men’s basketball program, the next month could determine how its season looks.
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