The pandemic has been difficult on many teams during this college basketball season unlike any other.
Take Villanova. The Wildcats have had three pauses after positive coronavirus tests in their program and 13 postponed or canceled games through Tuesday. They are likely to finish the season with 15 Big East games under their belt, five short of the maximum and fewer than most of their fellow teams.
Villanova has five scheduled games remaining in the regular season, then moves on to the Big East Tournament from March 10 through 13 at Madison Square Garden, and the NCAA Tournament in the Indianapolis bubble beginning March 19. The key here, maybe even more important than championship basketball, is remaining safe and healthy.
“It still comes down to every day getting those tests results back,” coach Jay Wright said Tuesday in a telephone interview.
Conference teams across the country are trying to find a way to compete in the postseason — league tournaments and the NCAAs — without positive COVID-19 tests. Teams that qualify for the NCAA Tournament face the difficult task of meeting the requirement of seven consecutive days of negative test results before arriving in Indianapolis.
For Wright, it’s a matter of trusting the Big East’s setup in New York to stay virus-free.
“We’re going to tighten up our bubble for that reason, and I’m confident in what the Big East has set up,” he said. “We have our own hotel, our own floor, so I think the Big East Conference has set up a bubble-type situation to help each team ensure that they can produce seven days in a row of negative tests.
“All factors considered, we feel safe going to the Big East Tournament and being in that bubble for that week.”
Some coaches nationally have talked about the possibility of opting out of conference tournaments if they feel their teams are a lock for the NCAAs, believing that remaining on campus and practicing would be safer than if they had to travel. However, in the Big East, “there are significant penalties and restrictions about the idea of opting out that are written into the bylaws,” Villanova athletic director Mark Jackson said.
Jackson said the league’s athletic directors have talked about opt-outs “because it is a national story line. But I know for us, it’s not something we’re exploring or the what-ifs, if we sit out if we’re healthy.”
As for Wright, “We’re thinking we’re going to go play in the Big East Tournament whether we feel like we have a shot at the NCAA Tournament or not.”
As of Tuesday, Villanova is a No. 2 seed in the latest ESPN Bracketology.
It is no secret that the cancelation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament meant a tremendous financial loss to colleges. According to the NCAA’s financial statement acquired by USA Today, the association was scheduled to receive $827 million from CBS and Turner for television coverage but ended up with $113.1 million. Combined with insurance and money from its reserves, the NCAA gave $225 million to its Division I schools, compared to $611 million in 2019.
NCAA senior vice president Dan Gavitt announced in August that March Madness would return. Some thought that perhaps a later start to the tournament — i.e. May Madness — would allow for fewer COVID-19 cases, especially if a vaccine were to be in circulation.
Wright said he understands that the NCAA waited as long as it could before making a final decision in December and while he admitted May Madness “would have been a good idea,” he recognizes the uncertainty.
“Especially now going through this, I respect everybody having to make tough decisions,” he said. “I definitely don’t want to be the one criticizing them afterwards because I know when they had to make them.
“Sometimes I do it. I made the decision about Virginia Tech and I made the decision about staying [in the Mohegan Sun bubble] to play Hartford, and if I looked back on that, I probably wouldn’t have done that. But at the time, I thought we were doing the right thing.”
While there have been many obstacles toward finishing the season, Wright is hoping for the same ending that college football enjoyed.
“I look at it much like the college football season,” he said. “If we get to the end and we didn’t have major health issues, and we get to a national championship game and we crown a national champion, I think we’ve been successful, the NCAA’s been very successful.”
An idle week
The Wildcats are off until Saturday’s contest against Connecticut at Finneran Pavilion. Wright said he had several discussions with the Big East about arranging a game for Wednesday but couldn’t work it out.
“We tried a lot of different options, but none of the opponents would agree to play this Wednesday,” he said, “and it’s understandable because there are other times they ask us and it doesn’t fit our schedule. We were ready to play because we want to start to get into a rhythm. I think we’re starting to, but obviously we need a little bit more work.”
Two Big East opponents that the Wildcats have yet to play, and aren’t scheduled to play — Xavier and DePaul — each were scheduled for games Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.