Utah basketball hopes to play nonconference games, possibly before Jan. 1

From a basketball perspective, when the Pac-12 postponed all sports until at least Jan. 1, the league was viewed as a pariah.

Yes, all 10 FBS leagues were in the process of altering or, in the case of the Big Ten, postponing football, but no one besides the Pac-12 was making November basketball decisions in August. One month later, the Pac-12′s official position remains that no sports will be played through the end of the calendar year, but there are signs that the league could back off of that.

Last week, the Pac-12 announced it would have access to rapid-response COVID-19 testing thanks to San Diego-based Quidel at the end of September. Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott called it “a game changer,” while saying that he didn’t think his league would have access to this kind of testing until November at the earliest.

With better, stronger, faster testing coming to Pac-12 campuses, that is one hurdle cleared. Eyes now turn to Sept. 16, when the NCAA will announce its position on the college basketball season, specifically a start date. The prevailing notion is the college sports governing body will start play on Nov. 25, which, at least in theory, would help preserve some semblance of a nonconference portion of the season, even if opponents, dates and locations have to get moved around.

Equal testing among the teams will be key. A high-major program is unlikely to put itself at risk by playing, for example, a low or mid-major program without some guarantee that the latter is on the same testing plane as the former.

To that end, Scott may be in a position to help given the Pac-12′s new testing initiative with Quidel.

“I could not imagine looking everyone in the eye and say we have a high degree of confidence that COVID is not going to spread through the practice activity, the game activity, and then have a lower standard for a nonconference game,” Scott said on a Zoom call last Wednesday as part of the rapid-response testing announcement. “We would have to hold our opposing teams to this same standard.”

Scott did not fully commit to providing rapid-response testing to nonconference opponents, but he did indicate that such a move could be possible, which may very well help the University of Utah get a nonconference schedule played.

According to game contracts obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune through a public records request, five of the Utes' 10 nonconference games are to be played at the Huntsman Center against Utah Valley, Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton, Fresno State and Rice. All five programs are defined as low or mid-majors, all five have less money and fewer resources than a Pac-12 school. All five could theoretically take advantage of the Pac-12′s willingness to help nonconference opponents with testing, whether it be in the days leading up to the game, or even day-of testing.

To be clear, Utah did not release its nonconference slate before the Aug. 11 postponement announcement, but it has nine signed game contracts to play 11 nonconference games. One of those is an exhibition against crosstown Division II Westminster College, another is the back end of a home-and-home agreement at Missouri, a third marks the beginning of a new four-year series with BYU that has Utah playing in Provo Dec. 12.

A Missouri athletic department spokesman told The Tribune last week there has been “no discussions or movement on that between the schools right now.” That is not expected to change before the NCAA weighs in on Sept. 16.

As for BYU, Utah athletic director Mark Harlan told reporters on Aug. 12 that his deputy AD, Kyle Brennan, has reached out to his counterpart in Provo to discuss the matter, but offered nothing substantial at the time.

With seemingly everything up for discussion right now, the big-ticket item on Utah’s basketball schedule — the Battle 4 Atlantis — is going to get the most attention.

Played across three days during Thanksgiving week inside a converted ballroom at Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas, Battle 4 Atlantis annually draws a stacked field of high-majors with a top-end mid-major or two sprinkled in. Normally, three games in Atlantis would highlight Utah’s nonconference resume, for better or worse, in helping to decide its NCAA Tournament fate.

“A number of events like this, you have to fly across water, but that’s a little bit of a dangerous thing right now,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak told The Tribune. “Owners, organizers, operators of these events, you’re starting to hear about bubbles, but we’ll have to see. There’s obviously a lot of moving parts and a lot of things still need to be addressed.”

The Bahamas have a 14-day quarantine in place upon arrival. Even if they didn’t, asking Utah and the other seven programs involved to fly to the Caribbean in the middle of a pandemic would be viewed as reckless. CBS Sports reported Monday afternoon that Sioux Falls, S.D. would be the preferred mainland destination, with other sites still under consideration.

Atlantis is currently scheduled for Nov. 25-27, but that could shift.

“I think in this environment, you need to stay open to a lot of ideas,” said Krystkowiak, who previously floated the idea of an in-state round-robin among the state’s Division I programs. “Things are constantly changing and the people of the hierarchy, President Watkins, conference commissioners, they’re going to make decisions. This is not a time to be surprised by anything, we just have to navigate what’s in front of us.”