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John Blanchette: As the coronavirus tears through college basketball, Gonzaga must move day by day, test by test

UPDATED: Sat., Nov. 28, 2020

By John Blanchette For The Spokesman-Review

At more than a few Thanksgiving dinners hereabouts after Gonzaga took down Kansas with extreme prejudice, the topic du jour – 6 feet apart, naturally – was what could possibly derail the Bulldogs this season.

On Leftovers Day, that was answered – hypothetically, if not definitively.

No, not another basketball team. Heartburn forbid.

The Zags returned Friday and ran Auburn out of the gym 90-67 during the Breakfast with the Bulldogs portion of the Rocket Mortgage Fort Myers Tipoff, an impressive result that became pretty matter-of-(before-the)fact simply because of how the Jayhawks had been dispatched the day before.

The day’s other news was matter-of-fact only in the context of these contagious times.

Shortly before tipoff, Gonzaga announced that two players would have to sit out the game after being put into COVID-19 protocols, following tournament and Florida Department of Health guidelines. After the game, coach Mark Few said one had tested positive for the coronavirus, and athletic director Mike Roth confirmed the second player was isolated after contact tracing.

Neither player was identified, but freshmen Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther were the only two Zags who saw action Thursday that didn’t play against Auburn. Harris’ father Shawn wrote on his Twitter account that his son had to “quarantine because he was in close proximity with a player who tested positive.”

Nonetheless, after consultation with Florida authorities and the medical staffs of all four Tipoff teams, Friday’s games went on, as they did the day before when a nonplaying member of Gonzaga’s traveling party tested positive, and two others were isolated.

The Zags remain in Fort Myers until Monday, when they’ll depart for Indianapolis and a Wednesday game against West Virginia – which volunteered its services after Tennessee had to pull out of the date due to COVID complications.

And Gonzaga’s quarantined five?

“No way any of those five are traveling to Indianapolis with the team,” Roth said. “Now, are they going to have to stay in Florida for the duration of their quarantine/isolation, or will they be allowed to get back to Spokane in a way that is safe? At this point, it’s not a Gonzaga decision, it’s a Florida health authority decision.”

And so begins the season of waiting for shoes to drop.

When do the test results come in? What players are out? What coach? For how long? What about the opposing team? Is the next game on? Will it be made up?

And, somewhere in there, is it safe?

“You have to react and stay agile,” Few said. “We followed the COVID protocols of the tournament and the Florida health board down here, they’ve all been great. It’s been very professional. Our guys have been incredibly diligent about following all the rules. We’ve been taking PCR tests, the gold standard. We react to whatever happens after the tests. I think it’s going to be like that all year.”

Why should college basketball be any different than college football?

The sport’s opening week has been part triumph, part train wreck. Prominent schools like Butler, Creighton and Utah, among others, have put their programs on pause. Prominent coaches like Jim Boeheim and Scott Drew have tested positive. And schedules are being ripped up and replaced by a roulette wheel.

The same epidemiologists and health authorities who advise us to mask up and trust the science are the ones who have given the nod to play on, though in mostly empty arenas. That doesn’t keep reasonable people from being conflicted over teams like the Zags flying cross country for their close encounters – and the inevitable quarantines.

And, again, athletic teams being tested three, four, seven times a week – which at the moment is the only way they’re able to keep playing safely – while many health care workers across the nation are denied testing by their employers is simply unconscionable.

But, hey, you don’t turn to the sports page to parse society’s priorities.

Roth and other athletic directors are asked to assess the imperatives daily, and the mileage often varies.

“The one thing we’ve been really clear with all our student-athletes is that they have the means to opt out of the season with no judgment and no jeopardy,” Roth said. “They don’t lose their scholarship or place on the team.

“Our priority continues to be the healthy and safety of our athletes, but it’s not the only priority. If it was, we’d have sent them all home on Day 1 and told their parents to lock them in the closet. They want to play. I’ve had this discussion with every team. They’re asking us to allow them the opportunity, and in return we need them to follow all the protocols.”

Of course, even then there are no guarantees.

That’s one of sport’s eternal lessons. Now the Zags, like every other team, digest that game by game, practice by practice, test by test.

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