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A Grip on Sports: College basketball returns today, but are all the cancellations and postponements evidence the sport should wait a while?

The NCAA will distribute $225 million to its Division I members in June, $375 million less than had been budgeted this year because the coronavirus outbreak forced the cancellation of the men's basketball tournament. (Michael Conroy / AP)
The NCAA will distribute $225 million to its Division I members in June, $375 million less than had been budgeted this year because the coronavirus outbreak forced the cancellation of the men's basketball tournament. (Michael Conroy / AP)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • College basketball is tipping off the 2020-21 season today, though the schedule of your favorite team has probably changed already. Which brings up a pretty important question: Why are games being played? We know the answer of course, but we thought we would ask anyhow.


• Remember March 12? I know, it seems like a lifetime ago, but it hasn’t even been a full nine months. Still, it was a red-letter day in college basketball. A big red “C.” As in “Canceled.”

That’s the day the NCAA pulled the plug on the 2020 NCAA Tournament, effectively ending college basketball in the nation for the season. Why? The coronavirus epidemic was raging throughout the country.

According to the CDC, there were 405 new cases and six deaths reported that day – in the entire United States.

And the NCAA shut everything down.

Looking back, we realize two things: It was just the beginning – there would be 35,099 cases reported on April 4 and 1,556 deaths – and the organization may have been a tad too hasty.

A little time and effort – and some out-of-the-box thinking – might have been able to save what has become an American institution and, at the same time, alleviated a financial crisis college athletic departments find themselves in today.

When college basketball at the Division I level begins again.

Sure, we’ve learned much about COVID-19 in the past eight-plus months. We’ve discovered transmission paths and treatments, have a better understanding of long-term effects and have parsed death rates by age and health risk. A vaccine is not that far away. But the bottom line is the pandemic, which has taken the lives of more than 260,000 Americans and nearly five times that many worldwide, is still raging. Hotter than ever.

Yet, despite more than 100,000 U.S. citizens testing positive each day, the powers that be in college sports have decided it’s a good time to begin playing once more. I’m not sure the families of the two or three thousand people who have died around the nation in the last week would agree.

Maybe that’s the lesson college administrators have taken from the past months. Damn the virus, full speed ahead. It seems to be working so well for football (and yes, that’s satire).

Already nonconference games are canceled or postponed everywhere. Gonzaga has suffered from them. Washington State. Eastern. Idaho. No one is immune to them – or the virus. And that’s the point. Every cancelation is also a new outbreak. One or two sick people here, more there. As the nation tries to get a handle on a still-building third wave, college basketball programs are contributing their fair (or unfair) share.

Throughout the nation, hospitals overflow. Here too. Families cancel Thanksgiving plans. Here too. But college hoops? The season begins today. Teams are flying all over the country like a platoon of Santa Clauses, spreading basketball cheer near and far – and maybe spreading other things as well. Who knows?

Heck, there’s a curfew in effect in California. No matter. The Pac-12 just starts its football games earlier and the state’s colleges do the same with whatever basketball games they can get in.

Did I mention California has reported 150,748 new cases in the past two weeks?

And yet the season begins today.

Which brings us back to our original question. And the true answer. The NCAA has to have a basketball season. If the tournament is canceled again, the organization faces a financially disastrous future. The same can be said about the more than 300 Division I athletic departments. Money is not only the root of all evil, but the root of this season as well.

But why start now? Why not a couple months from now, maybe even February, when the hope of a vaccine slowly coursing through society should be a reality, slowing the spread and helping to tamp down a holiday-fueled wave? May Madness may not have the same ring to it – and I don’t believe is trademarked by CBS – but it’s a better bet and better PR.

Tradition, maybe. The worry the better players will opt out and the ratings will suffer, maybe. Inertia, maybe. I’m not sure what the answer is. All I know is you better have your seat belt on the next few weeks. The whiplash from games canceled, postponed or just plain disappearing is real. And may get worse. Just like the pandemic.


WSU: The virus-induced cancellations reached two this week, with the Apple Cup’s demise, as the number of Washington State athletes in the COVID-19 protocol continues to grow. Athletic director Pat Chun said the Cougars have a dozen athletes there now. Theo Lawson has more in this story. … Theo also shares the news the USC start time on Dec. 4 has been moved up a half hour and the Cougars have lost a third football recruit commitment in a month. … The basketball schedule has been finalized, sort of. As Chun said on the radio show last night speaking about the virus, “I have a lot of worries about men’s and women’s basketball.” … The Apple Cup needs to be played. If it can. Jon Wilner has a suggestion. … Was Nick Rolovich right about Husky Stadium? … Around the Pac-12 and college football, the conference was blasted by the playoff committee, though not verbally. The highest-ranked team is Oregon at No. 15. … Washington will play this week. The Huskies will host Utah on Saturday. The Utes lost their game with Arizona State. And lost their starting quarterback. … By the way, that’s probably always been the plan. If ASU could play, then UW might have played BYU. The Cougars swear they were ready to play, no matter what has been reported out of Seattle. … The Ducks need to improve their tackling when the face Oregon State on Saturday. The Beavers feel their passing attack needs to be better. The question is who will succeed? … Though USC has a COVID-19 case, Colorado is getting ready for the Trojans’ best effort. … UCLA should still be led by a freshman quarterback when it faces Arizona. … In basketball news, who is the best in the Pac-12? That would be UCLA. … The Bay Area schools are adjusting their schedules. … Same with Washington. … Heck, it’s the same for everyone. … Colorado just hopes to get going. … Utah expects to be improved. … A freshman should help USC stay in the conference’s upper echelon. … Arizona State will open against Rhode Island after a virus-caused change. … Arizona is going to miss its fans more than anyone.

Gonzaga: As of now, it looks as if the Zags’ matchup with Kansas tomorrow morning in Florida is on. But their Dec. 2 game with Tennessee is off. Jim Meehan covers both those events, the former with a story on Danny Manning’s son being a GU grad assistant. … Jim also tells us the Bulldogs will be even deeper now that the NCAA granted eligibility this season for Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard. … Jim covered a lot of those subjects with Larry Weir on the latest Press Box podcast. … The game with Kansas marks another in a series of matchups with college basketball’s blue bloods. Dan Thompson delves into the history of such games. … The Athletic’s Dana O’Neil has this story on the GU program. Hopefully, as history is written, the contributions of Gonzaga president Rev. Robert J. Spitzer won’t be overlooked. He was a driving force behind the school’s commitment to hoops after seeing first-hand what basketball did for Georgetown. … A majority of The Athletic’s college basketball writers think the Bulldogs will win the national title.  … Elsewhere in the WCC, BYU has rewarded second-year coach Mark Pope with a contract extension. … San Diego hasn’t practiced in a while. … Pacific has yet to establish an identity under Damon Stoudamire.

Idaho: The Vandals were going to open their season in Portland. That’s off, though no one is saying exactly why.

Seahawks: Carlos Dunlap has not only sacked the quarterback since arriving from the Bengals, he’s helped others do the same. … Can they get to Carson Wentz and the Eagles? … Chris Carson and Ethan Pocic should be back in the lineup this week. … Who should the Hawks target in the offseason?

Mariners: Blake Snell might be available. Should the M’s target the Seattle native? … We told you we would keep you updated on Tommy Lasorda’s health.

Sounders: There is no more dominant professional team in the region than the Sounders. They showed that again last night as they opened the MLS playoffs with a solid 3-1 win over visiting LAFC. There is little to dissuade us that they won’t reach their fourth finals in five years. … The opponent won’t be Toronto this time. It lost to expansion Nashville last night.


• We love college basketball as much as anyone. More than most. It also is a big part of our income. But it doesn’t make sense to play right now. The world is in an upheaval. This seems to be the darkest-before-the-dawn part. A little patience might allow a smoother and safer season. Patience, though, seems to have left the arena months ago. So we have what we have. I feel a bit like King Canute right now, trying to hold back an inexorable tide. So be it. Until later …

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