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Two of this season’s top men’s basketball programs suddenly found themselves without contests this week after COVID-19 caught up with their would-be opponents.
Another, also impacted by the coronavirus, found itself with an opportunity.
Salt Lake Community College played host to a game between two hot Division I mid-major programs, the University of San Francisco (13-1) and Loyola-Chicago (9-2), on Thursday afternoon. It was a sign of the times: A premiere college basketball game, thrown together on the fly, in a JUCO gym in a state neither is from.
It’s the first time SLCC has offered itself up as a neutral site for two teams displaced during the pandemic. But SLCC men’s basketball coach Kyle Taylor said, judging by the calls that have been coming in with more frequency, he doesn’t expect it to be the last.
“This is something that hopefully could be done even, you know, beyond COVID,” Taylor said. “This could be something where we host [a multi-team tournament] or we could host individual games between two people looking for a neutral site in the middle of the country that’s easy to get to.”
This titillating game comes courtesy of a twist of irony. The only reason SLCC’s gym was available is because the Bruins are in the midst of their own coronavirus outbreak, their first of the season. Eight players and two coaches had tested positive as of Tuesday.
“We had a home game already scheduled, so we already had, you know, our whole crew of video, table people, scorer all of that set up,” said Taylor, who was among those who tested positive for the virus. “So I think that also makes life a little bit easier. They’re not playing the same time slot we were, but I think knowing that our game got canceled kind of freed up some time and space in the gym.”
With its arena-like gym and close proximity to the airport, plus the state’s relatively lax COVID regulations, though, SLCC makes sense for non-conference opponents trying on short notice to fill schedules laid to waste by the coronavirus. Post-pandemic, Taylor believes outside teams will continue to see some benefit in holding games there.
“I don’t think Division I schools three years ago were thinking outside the box very much and doing stuff like that,” Taylor said of teams playing one-offs at neutral sites. “So I just think [with] COVID and the market that the opportunities are starting to present themselves more and more.”
But that’s the future. In the here and now there appears to be plenty of need for places like Bruin Arena as COVID begins to once again shuffle the conference schedules of teams around the country.
On Dec. 28, CBS Sports reported 119 D-I men’s games had already been postponed this season. The next day, BYU lost its West Coast Conference opener at Portland because of an outbreak within the Pilots’ program. By the end of last weekend, every WCC contest had been disrupted by COVID.
The virus has ripped through the Pac-12 and the Mountain West Conference as well. Utah State has had two MWC games postponed in the last week because of cases among the Aggies’ opponents. And a Pac-12 matchup between Colorado and Oregon to be rescheduled twice already, though the Utes men have somehow so far been unscathed.
The same cannot be said for the state’s women’s teams. The BYU women saw both their WCC games last week postponed because of infections in the San Diego and Portland teams. The Utah women, meanwhile, have missed their last four games while dealing with their own outbreak.
“It’s just a bummer,” said BYU senior Alex Barcello, whose team is prepping to host Pacific in WCC play Thursday. “We prepare so hard for each game. Just knowing that that’s one less game, potentially, that unless we reschedule it we don’t get to play. And we do love playing games. That’s what gets us up in the morning, just going through the preparation for it and going into it each game, just playing in their arena or our arena, whichever it may be. There’s a lot of energy that surrounds that. And I would just say it’s a bummer.”
Cougars coach Mark Pope, who would like to guide his team back to the NCAA Tournament, said he’d gladly seek out replacement contests like the one scheduled for SLCC if more games drop off BYU’s schedule and if the school is granted permission by the conference. The Cougars have maxed out their schedule and cannot play another non-conference opponent without a special exemption.
“It just turns into daily conversations with the guys on your schedule,” he said, “and the guys who prospectively could jump onto the schedule.”
Said University of Utah men’s basketball coach Craig Smith: “I just think you put your head down, go prepare for everybody, and whatever happens is going to happen. You feel bad for the student-athletes involved, but at the same time, I think these student-athletes have some pretty tough skin because they’ve been going through this for quite some time.”
The Dons’ schedule came off the rails on New Year’s Day, when St. Mary’s pulled out of their conference opener to adhere to health and safety protocols. A couple of days later, San Francisco’s highly anticipated showdown against Gonzaga, set for Thursday, crumbled when the Zags announced they were going on COVID pause. Because a replacement WCC team could not be found in time, the conference/league granted San Francisco permission to play an out-of-conference opponent. Enter Loyola-Chicago, whose Thursday-night Missouri Valley Conference tilt fell apart when the virus affected the Illinois State program.
Having a nationally televised game showcasing Bruin Arena — a roughly 4,500-seat facility that also serves as home court to the G-League’s Salt Lake City Stars — could make life easier on Taylor recruiting-wise down the road. Not that the coach needs much help finding talent. The Bruins have reached the NJCAA national tournament every season since he arrived in 2019 and they are currently the No. 1-ranked community college program in the nation.
The coach said he’s not too worried about the hiatus derailing his team, which he said has bounced back well after previous breaks over the holidays. These days, though, anything can happen.
That includes two prominent D-I teams 3,000 miles apart meeting in a JUCO gym at noon on a Thursday just so they can get a game in.
“Two years ago, if we’d called our [athletics department] and game-day operations people and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to host a Division I game in three days,’ they would have freaked out and said, ‘No thanks,’” Taylor said. “But, you know, two years into COVID, it’s like, yeah, that’s par for the course.”