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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

As Gonzaga and the rest of the college basketball world grapple with omicron, ‘the biggest challenge is the unknown’

Gonzaga men's basketball coach Mark Few is pictured in August, 2020. The Bulldogs and other teams are grappling with scheduling tournament games as the omicron coronavirus variant surges.   (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Last week, sports gambling website updated its college basketball odds, giving Gonzaga the best chance of winning a national championship.

Placing money on whether college basketball’s 2021-22 campaign will actually reach the finish line – and what measures will be required to do so with the latest surge of COVID-related cancellations and postponements – could become a much dicier affair as the sports world continues to grapple with the highly contagious omicron variant.

As of Thursday, more than 660 men’s and women’s games had been postponed or canceled because of COVID-19, and local college teams haven’t been immune to the wave of omicron cases that have permeated the region over the last month. The men’s and women’s teams at Gonzaga, Washington State, Eastern Washington and Idaho had 17 combined games postponed or canceled because of their own COVID-19 setbacks or those of an opponent.

The Gonzaga men’s team has been most affected, missing out on four games so far, while the EWU men are the only Division I team in the area to have avoided a cancellation or postponement.

“It’s unfortunate because we thought with vaccinations we’d be kind of bulletproof from these kind of pauses, and having to reset the clock and go with the same protocols we had last year, it’s stressful,” Washington State coach Kyle Smith said recently. “It’s stressful for everybody, but that doesn’t mean the stress doesn’t wear on your team, your kids. COVID plus winter plus practice, it wears on them.”

The Gonzaga men are coming off a three-game pause that caused the country’s fourth-ranked team to postpone games against San Diego, Loyola Marymount and San Francisco. The rest of the season becomes a minefield for a GU program that’s now working to avoid a second COVID-19 pause – something that could be destructive to the Zags’ national title hopes if it occurs at the wrong time – while trying to reschedule three West Coast Conference games around a league slate that doesn’t offer much in the way of flexibility.

Both regionally and nationally, omicron cases continue to pile up in rapid fashion, but athletic department officials are hopeful Gonzaga’s early outbreak could reduce the chances of another lengthy pause later in the season. Further, predictive data from Dr. Steven Lim of the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington suggests the state’s omicron surge will peak in late January or early February, which conceivably reduces the chance of shutdowns as the season hits the critical junctures of late February and early March.

“I think the hope is because it’s so virulent it’ll burn itself out relatively quickly,” Gonzaga Athletic Director Chris Standiford said. “In other words, as these teams have these shutdowns, that the virus spreads broadly enough, that that’s the last time they’ll have to shut down. So they’ll have to go through a period, but once they start back up it won’t shut them down again. That’s the hope.”

Mirroring guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the WCC shortened its isolation period from 10 days to five days for those who’ve tested positive for COVID-19, regardless of vaccination status. To reduce the spread of the virus and promote mask-wearing, Gonzaga announced Thursday it will suspend the sale of food and beverage at ticketed athletic events, only allowing attendees to purchase bottled water at select spaces on the concourse at McCarthey Athletic Center.

Standiford and his team continue to have conversations with Spokane Regional Health District, but none of those have revolved around keeping fans out of the Kennel for Gonzaga home games, or limiting attendance to family members and friends of student-athletes, as UCLA did in Thursday’s game against Long Beach State after the Bruins came out of a monthlong pause.

“That has not been something that’s been advised at this point,” Standiford said. “Certainly, not playing the game and not letting anybody in is the safest thing to do, right? But there is always risk in public assembly, whether that be at a baseball game getting hit in the head by a foul ball or whatever. We definitely have some things to consider and discuss, and we’re gaining insight and advice as we move along, but our hope is to continue to conduct our games with fans.”

Gonzaga has two open dates on its conference calendar, but the process of rescheduling games will continue to become more challenging as WCC cancellations pile up, Standiford said. Case in point: the Bulldogs are theoretically available to play on Jan. 22 and Feb. 17, but USD, LMU and USF – the three teams GU postponed games with – are all scheduled to play on both dates.

Some anticipate WCC teams will have to play three-game weeks in order to honor conference obligations.

“The biggest challenge is just the unknown,” Standiford said. “If we knew today that no other cancellations were going to take place and all the available dates we could identify were static, it’d be easy because it’s just math at that point. But you’ve got to have feel, so you’ve got to be able to anticipate – we’ve got some of the teams in the WCC that haven’t returned to play yet or don’t anticipate returning to play this weekend, so that’ll have further implications.”

Kentucky coach John Calipari recently said he’d spoken with Gonzaga’s Mark Few about potentially playing a midseason game if both teams share an open date, and Standiford noted the Bulldogs’ coach has been “engaged with a broad group of constituents” about scheduling possibilities.

“They want to play,” Standiford said. “What we don’t want to do is end up with an open date where we’re healthy and ready to go and we don’t have an opponent. They’re just building contingencies to where we don’t end up with an open date where we’re sitting on our hands where we could be out there playing basketball.”

Local athletic departments have urged athletes and coaches to pursue vaccine booster shots. In October, Gov. Jay Inslee announced those attending large sporting events in Washington would need proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, but not a booster, within the last 72 hours for admission starting in November.

“I got my booster, I know my wife got hers. I think in talking with different coaches on different times of the year, it’s not a one-time for the whole athletic department,” WSU Athletic Director Pat Chun said. “I know we have coaches that have talked, have already begun the process of just talking to their team about the importance of boosters. So, those are ongoing talks with each team and everyone’s at different points of their calendar as well.”

Without providing a specific number, Standiford said “the vast majority” of GU’s men’s basketball team has already received a booster shot.