Larry Krystkowiak is not ready to rule out an on-time start to the college basketball season, but at this point, the University of Utah coach will tell you that contingency plans need to continue to be discussed.
Randy Rahe, Weber State’s head coach, puts an on-time start at 50-50. Utah Valley’s Mark Madsen sounds more like Krystkowiak, hopeful for an on-time start, but continually coming back to the realities the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing to college athletics. Fourth-year Southern Utah coach Todd Simon ackowledges two schools of thought. If colleges are going online-only starting around Thanksgiving, try to squeeze in non-conference games starting then, with no kids on campus, or kick the can down the road and delay the start until the New Year, potentially with a conference-only schedule.
There is no universal plan, or even universal thinking for what will happen to college basketball this winter, but Kyrstkowiak, Rahe, Madsen and Simon agree on at least one thing. How and when a college basketball season happens will have a lot to do with what happens with college football, which remains a fluid situation full of educated guesswork.
“Our season starting on time will be dictated by football,” Rahe told The Salt Lake Tribune. “If football starts canceling stuff, if they can’t finish the season, it will be hard for us to start in November. If they do, I think we’ll be good to go. If football goes off well, hoops will do the same.”
There are substantial questions remaining before college football can begin this fall, but hypothetically, let’s say the season starts in September and plays without a major interruption. In turn, college hoops begins on time in November, but given pandemic concerns, air travel is drastically limited, if not eliminated. By extension, a handful of non-conference games involving teams from Utah are eliminated. What then?
Krystkowiak has an idea.
Could an in-state round-robin work?
Utah’s non-conference slate as presently constructed includes two airplane trips. One is to Missouri to face the Tigers on Nov. 15 for the back end of a home-and-home series. The other is a much more daunting excursion to the Bahamas to take part in the prestigious Battle 4 Atlantis during Thanksgiving week.
As Krystkowiak sees it with these games still four months away, putting players, coaches and support staff on an airplane would not appear to be in anyone’s best interest. Instead, Krystkowiak views Utah’s seven Division I programs playing each other, potentially in one central location, as a more feasible, safer alternative.
“One of the things being advocated, if the season starts on time, is to have some regional involvement,” Krystkowiak told The Tribune. “Get on a bus, drive to an in-state school, don’t put the players or staffs in harm’s way, and we all get to play. I think that’s a big one.”
An in-state round-robin is not yet being considered in an official capacity, but Rahe and Simon both said the topic has been talked about internally with their staffs. Rahe, Simon and Madsen all indicated they would be on board if things got to the point where air travel was out of play.
“We do live in a unique state where there are a plethora of Division I schools, so that makes for a natural solution if things don’t get better,” Simon told The Tribune. “Doing a regionalized out-of-conference schedule, we all know we can get on a bus and go to a lot of places, so yeah, we could do a nice little round-robin.”
Added Madsen: “I’ve heard that idea, and if things do get too bad to the point where out-of-state games are out, I think it’s a fantastic idea. Of course, I think the hope is still that things die down and get better.”
Weighing positives vs. negatives
To some extent, an in-state round-robin should not be hard to pull together because there are already a lot of games scheduled between in-state schools.
Utah is slated to host Utah Valley in the Nov. 10 season opener for both before traveling to BYU to begin a new four-year agreement on Dec. 12. Southern Utah will play first-year Division I program Dixie State and Utah Valley, while Utah State has BYU, Dixie State and Weber State scheduled across a 13-day period in December.
Conversely, there would be considerable hurdles to clear. Can all seven schools get on the same page in terms of testing and medical protocols to produce the safest possible environment? That one may be the biggest hurdle, simply because a Power Five athletic department like Utah will have more money and more resources than a Big Sky athletic department like Weber State or Southern Utah.
Would these be home-and-homes or would everyone play at one neutral site? If it’s a neutral site, which one would be willing to take this idea on? Regardless of on-campus or a neutral site, would fans be allowed to attend?
It is also important to note that while the coaches would get on board, none of them are likely to be happy about it, because it means their non-conference schedules fell apart. For some of the in-state mid-majors, that could be quite costly.
Southern Utah has six figures worth of “guarantee games” next season between trips to Kansas, Wake Forest and Michigan. Per the game contract, obtained by The Tribune via GRAMA request, Utah Valley will receive $80,000 for that Nov. 10 opener at Utah. A significant piece of Weber State’s non-conference schedule is its participation in the Paradise Jam, Nov. 20-23 in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“We’ve had no conversations about moving or altering any of those games,” Simon said of SUU’s trips to Kansas, Wake Forest and Michigan. “You’re talking about getting legal departments involved at those places, and I hope that is not where we’re headed.”
According to Rahe, Nels Hawkinson, Executive Director of Basketball Travelers Inc., which owns and operates the Paradise Jam, recently told him everything is still going as planned for the event.
Rahe does not discount that Hawkinson and his staff are doing everything they can to stage the event, but competing outside the mainland United States, let alone outside the state of Utah, would be a major undertaking, even if the event does remain on as planned.
Krystkowiak is dealing with a similar, albeit higher-profile situation.
Will Battle 4 Atlantis get played?
Along with the Maui Invitational each Thanksgiving, Battle 4 Atlantis has morphed into the preeminent early-season event on the college basketball calendar.
Contested inside a ballroom at Atlantis Paradise Island in Nassau, the eight-team field generally consists of high-major brand names with maybe a mid-major contender or two sprinkled in. To that end, Utah has a monstrous opportunity among a field including Creighton, Ohio State, Duke, Texas A&M, West Virginia, Wichita State and Memphis to build a non-conference resume as it looks to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016.
“We talked to them last week and everyone is still going, but things are changing and decisions might need to be made,” Krystkowiak told The Tribune earlier this month. “There’s been nothing reassuring in four months, no good news.”
If testing and even pre-tournament quarantining can get worked out, there is an argument to be made that Battle 4 Atlantis is in an advantageous position to hold the event because it is completely self-contained on the Atlantis Paradise Island property.
Getting all of those logistics worked out would be a Herculean task, though, potentially made more difficult by the fact that as of Wednesday, the Bahamian government is banning travelers from the United States and other countries where COVID-19 cases are surging.
One other option short of canceling is to move the event to the United States. That plan would bring with it a slew of other logistical questions, and even if college basketball is being played at that time, who knows what kind of shape the country would be in to host eight teams from all over. Uniform testing protocol would likely be an absolute must.
“The last time we talked to them, the tournament was still on,” Krystkowiak said. “They’re ready to hold the event, full steam ahead, and we’re preparing as if we’re going, but at some point, everybody might need to get creative.”