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St. Joseph’s is already a case study in trying to schedule a college basketball season | Mike Jensen

Hawks coach Billy Lange, who wasn't in favor of a nonconference schedule that started during a surge in the pandemic, says patience is key for his program and sport.

St. Joseph's head coach Billy Lange wasn't a fan of starting the season with nonconference games in November.
St. Joseph's head coach Billy Lange wasn't a fan of starting the season with nonconference games in November.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

When a game suddenly got added to the St. Joseph’s men’s basketball schedule Saturday and then just as suddenly got deleted, a text to Hawks coach Billy Lange was about how it all must be driving him nuts.

“Blessed are the flexible,” Lange texted back. “They never get bent out of shape.”

His text came mere hours before the latest round of COVID-19 testing showed a “Tier 1” member of the Hawks program had tested positive.

Blessed are the flexible?

“No question,” Lange said over the phone Monday morning, after his program was sent into a 14-day quarantine, wiping out a scheduled Villanova game and then probably two more scheduled games, against Bradley and Temple. The next theoretical game, written in super erasable pencil, looks like Drexel on Dec. 16.

“Whether that’s the date remains to be seen,” Lange said of that one.

St. Joe’s obviously now has its own pandemic tale to tell. The Hawks played Thursday and Friday in Fort Myers, Fla., against Auburn and Kansas, looking competitive in both but losing.

“We have tested essentially every day since Oct. 13,” Lange said, missing only a couple of days when there was no practice, adding that he “can’t say enough” about the protocols and commitment from athletic director Jill Bodensteiner and the SJU staff “to make sure we could have a season, and do it safely.”

So they tested before the flight to Florida, Lange said, then tested all the days down there, then tested before the flight home, then tested after the flight home.

“We would not have jumped on that flight if there was one positive,” said Lange, who, when asked, confirmed he was not the one who had tested positive. He also realizes one positive on one day could be more on another.

All the previous negative tests, Lange said, “what that can tell you, how quickly this thing can change. That’s what had made this very challenging. Even when two teams are testing negative, it doesn’t mean someone isn’t playing in that game with COVID. That’s what we’re learning.”

You want to argue these teams shouldn’t be playing these games right now, there’s plenty of evidence. The fourth team in the Fort Myers grouping, Gonzaga, the top-ranked team in the country, got its two games in despite a positive test within its program between games. It was certainly eyebrow-raising that the Zags were allowed to play Auburn on Friday after that news.

“Every state is different, every city is different,” Lange said. “I don’t know what would have happened if that game was at the Palestra. We were all just following what we were allowed to do.”

On Saturday, a Hawks date with Villanova, scheduled for Monday, was moved back to Wednesday. Lange said the move wasn’t a request from one side or the other. “It kind of happened organically. It just made sense. Once Temple paused their activities …”

That was another part of the puzzle. Temple is now in its own quarantine. The Owls haven’t played a game yet.

“We had an opportunity to play Seton Hall,” Lange said. “Villanova was in a very secure spot. They want to play basketball games. It was a win-win.”

Not so fast on Seton Hall. The game was announced, then hours later (before the St. Joe’s positive came in), the game was off. Seton Hall was going to play Iona, the first game back for new coach Rick Pitino, former boss of Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard.

There’s zero surprise those two programs would be looking to play each other. Raised eyebrows came from the timing. The St. Joe’s game was off. (Moot, it turned out. St. Joe’s couldn’t have played it anyway after the positive test.)

“Here’s the thing --- they have to concern themselves with delivering their season,” Lange said. “I’m not judging them on that. They have to do what’s best for Seton Hall.”

His evidence: St. Joe’s already had done what was best for St. Joe’s, rearranging its schedule to be able to play Auburn and Kansas. All sorts of games have been crossed off all sorts of schedules.

That said, Lange had not been in favor of having all these nonconference games to begin with. He’s looked at the whole landscape, from the NBA bubble to the college football season.

“College basketball as an entity, we were starting during a surge,” Lange said, noting that playing indoors with all sorts of different jurisdictions weighing in is so tough.

“We’re not bubbled, we’re not geographically aligned,” Lange said. “I don’t know necessarily if this was the right time to start, or the right way. It just seems too random.”

That said, playing basketball against top competition on national television was terrific for his program.

“I get to go back and review two calculus tests right now,” Lange said. “They are real grades. That tells you exactly where you are.”

And doing it right off the bat.

“That’s literally like starting off high school taking calculus,” Lange said, especially for his new players. “I am so grateful we got those games in.”

He’s not trying to place any weight on where or how someone picked up COVID. The St. Joe’s women’s program shut down for 14 days after a positive test before the Hawks got to a game. Same for Temple’s men and women. Villanova’s men had stopped to quarantine earlier in the preseason. And Penn, of course, shut the whole winter season down.

Lange said he’d texted with Quakers men’s coach Steve Donahue about how it’s hard when you don’t really know all the variables, that you have a civic responsibility to protect the world, and a leadership responsibility to protect the people in your own program, and “another part, to grow our program. These things are conflicting, right?”

He knows where to start, though.

“No one sees it — it’s just there,” Lange said of COVID. “To me, at this point, the way you have to lead through this, you have to normalize wearing a mask, not being in your locker room for more than 12 minutes, not having team meals together ...”

Doing it all, Lange added, without letting it affect your spirit. Especially true in 2020, since the twists always seem to lead to other turns, no matter how flexible you are.