College basketball coaches wait for next shoe to drop amid coronavirus pandemic

The Ivy decision to forgo most of its nonconference basketball schedule could touch off a slew of similar conference decisions. Photo by M. Anthony Nesmith/Icon Sportswire

When the Ivy League announced on March 10 it was canceling its conference basketball tournaments due to the coronavirus pandemic, it was the first domino to fall in a hectic 48 hours that ultimately saw college sports ground to a halt. Earlier this month, the Ivy League again became the first to strike, announcing there will be no sports during the fall semester, which runs through the middle of December at most Ivy institutions.

After word came down from the conference, Yale head coach James Jones gathered his players and coaches on a Zoom call to break the news: No games until at least mid-December for the reigning Ivy League champs.

"It was a down vibe," Jones said. "We were trying to think about how that's going to affect us and what our year is going to look like."

Ivy teams know they won't be playing until closer to the 2021 calendar year, and a handful of other Division I leagues could be where the next shoe drops. The Patriot League, CAA, MEAC, America East and SWAC have all announced the cancellation or postponement of fall sports since the Ivy League's decision, with several others announcing a delayed decision. Unlike the Ivy, those conferences have not established any timelines for a possible resumption of activities around winter sports including basketball nor have they ruled out playing college basketball games during the traditional opening months of November and December.

But several leagues have vowed to reevaluate that schedule later in the fall, and coaches at all levels of men's college basketball told ESPN they are beginning to see a nationwide January start as a legitimate potential outcome.

"[We are] preparing for an on-time start as [a] precaution, but not confident," UNC Wilmington coach Takayo Siddle said.

"We are planning on an on-time start just because it wouldn't make sense to be targeting a Jan. 1 start until it's announced," a Patriot League assistant said. "Ultimately, the feeling is we aren't going to play nonconference."

For the Power 5 conferences, decisions regarding football could inform the protocol and timetable for basketball. Earlier this month, the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced they were playing conference-only schedules in football. The ACC, Big 12 and SEC have not made any final decisions yet, but late July has long been perceived as the deadline for those determinations. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said on ESPN Radio recently, "We are running out of time."

Among the top leagues without football, the Big East canceled nonconference games for fall sports, while the Atlantic 10 and West Coast Conference are postponing the start of fall sports.

The American Athletic Conference, part of football's Group of 5 conferences, has delayed its fall sports other than football.

"I feel strongly in the coming weeks that all of college basketball is going to have to figure out they have to adjust," Penn coach Steve Donahue said. "Make it a little further down the road."

As the only league certain to begin later on the hardwood, the Ivy League could again provide a template for all of college basketball.

The summer will be unchanged from past years, as team workouts are restricted in the Ivy. As for the fall, there are still questions to be answered before Ivy League coaches know what their preseason buildup and preparation is going to look like. Only two schools in the league, Penn and Cornell, are expecting to have a full student body on campus before 2021. So those schools will be able to follow general NCAA guidelines on in-person workouts.

"The kids have been great," Donahue said. "They get it. They're glad their school is one of the few that's going to have everyone on campus. So day one, we're going to be able to work out."

As for the other six Ivy schools, coaches in the league are expecting further guidance and direction in August.

"I'm not certain what access we're going to have with our guys when they get on campus," Jones said. "If they're on campus, but taking classes remotely, what does that mean for us exactly? I don't know. I'm not certain what we're going to have to do differently."

Even if Ivy programs return to action, there are questions about whether they will be able to field complete rosters in the spring. For example, Brown is not allowing freshmen on campus in the fall semester, and it could apply that status to sophomores in the spring, "if the public health situation has not improved." Yale is not allowing sophomores to live on campus in the fall, and not allowing freshmen in the spring. Princeton is allowing freshmen and juniors on campus in the fall and sophomores and seniors in the spring. Harvard is only bringing up to 40% of students to campus, with freshmen the priority in the fall and seniors in the spring.

As a result, coaches have discussed potentially needing waivers from the Ivy League just to field a complete roster.

"We're preparing for a different fall than normal," Brown coach Mike Martin said. "Obviously, no games, but a different fall in terms of how we return to basketball-specific workouts and team practices. We're hopeful, and we're planning on those opportunities.

"We're going to prepare however they tell us we can."

"I feel strongly in the coming weeks that all of college basketball is going to have to figure out they have to adjust."
Penn coach Steve Donahue

Of the dozen coaches contacted by ESPN from the five other leagues that have pulled the plug on fall sports, the majority said they are planning for an on-time start for basketball and winter sports -- for now, and with some adjustments.

"When our men get back to campus, we'll ease them back in with the plan of an on-time start until told otherwise," one Patriot League head coach said.

UMBC head coach Ryan Odom pointed out that he has international players on his roster, meaning that when the team returns later this summer, those players will have to quarantine upon arrival due to federal travel restrictions.

"We made the decision to send Dan [Akin] and R.J. [Eytle-Rock] home as soon as the season ended for fear that they would not be able to make it home," Odom said, referring to his two players from England. "Unfortunately, they have not been able to return to the States because of the ban. We are hopeful that the recent developments in regards to students with an F-1 visa will allow them to return to campus soon."

It's not just international players, either. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have 31 states on a coronavirus quarantine list, meaning any visitors from those states have to quarantine for 14 days. One mid-major coach from New York said his school has yet to fully figure out how it will quarantine all those players when they arrive on campus. When it's safe to return to play is another consideration.

"I'm more concerned than ever about too much too soon," a CAA head coach said. "While I know guys are working this summer, I do think trainers and strength coaches have to be outstanding in the fall that we do not overuse guys early."

The mechanics of testing remain a major question mark -- as does the financial cost. Multiple coaches at the mid- and high-major levels told ESPN that insurance has covered most of the cost of testing for their basketball programs so far, but some have mentioned a limit to how much insurance will cover, while others have said the school is paying for testing, independent of the athletic department.

According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation analysis, the median list price for a single coronavirus test is $127. For 13 scholarship players, a head coach, three assistant coaches and just one support staff member (that would be a minimum; most programs travel with multiple support staff members and graduate assistants), that means a round of testing would cost $2,286. The latest NCAA return-to-sport guidelines recommend results within 72 hours of competition for high contact risk sports -- meaning players might need to be tested two or three times a week. Twice a week for eight weeks could run as much as $40,000 -- and that's just for men's basketball.

Finding the resources to fund those efforts is intertwined with another issue hanging over the heads of the majority of Division I programs: How the loss of revenue from nonconference games will impact the bottom line.

A large percentage of mid- and low-major programs rely heavily on the money earned from playing Power 5 schools on their home courts. MEAC and SWAC schools spend most of November and December on the road, traveling to Power 5 and other well-resourced schools to help subsidize the budgets of athletic departments. An average guarantee game costs about $75,000, with some schools paying six figures for a game. One MEAC coach said his league's schools usually raise anywhere from $200,000 to $600,000 in one nonconference season and that two schools have raised as much as $750,000.

Without those games, budgets for a number of mid-major programs will be in trouble. A MEAC head coach said his program scheduled five guarantee games this season, while another mid-major head coach told ESPN earlier this month they have seven on the schedule.

"It would be a tremendous hit," another coach said. "We rely heavily on guarantee games to fund the program."

A Patriot League coach countered the guarantee game argument by pointing out how the cost of coronavirus testing, should players be allowed to return, would mitigate that financial benefit. The cost of testing every player once, twice or even three times a week for two months of nonconference games could cost a school or program more than what would be earned for a guarantee game.

For several coaches, the trade-off of zero nonconference games in exchange for an NCAA tournament is worth it. The three-week spectacle when all eyes are on the sport also provides a financial boost. The NCAA distributes money to its conferences in "units," with each one being worth roughly $280,000, a number that rises by a couple of thousand each year. That money is paid out annually over six years, so conferences received units for the 2012 to 2017 tournaments in 2018 and the units for the 2013 to 2018 tournaments in 2019. So even teams that are one-and-done each year earn around $1.7 million per season for their conferences. And each tourney win is worth another $280,000, with most conferences splitting the revenue evenly among their members.

"Losing the NCAA tournament allotment would be a far bigger deal," one Patriot League assistant said. "I think we need to do whatever we can -- assuming it's healthy to do so -- to have an NCAA tournament."

What would be the ramifications of a shortened season -- and therefore incomplete résumés -- on an NCAA tournament, though?

"If we get pushed back, hopefully the tourney gets pushed back and we have a full season with 'May Madness.' If not, it will make for an interesting year," a CAA coach said. "No mid-majors will get at-large bids. But I'll tell you what. A lot of Power 5 guys ... you will see a lot of 6-14 records or worse, minus those eight buy games at that level."

There will undoubtedly be more decisions in the coming days for leagues and fall sports, and basketball decisions likely won't be made until closer to Labor Day. But there's a general sense of pessimism, especially among those whose leagues have already postponed fall activities.

And if conference-only is the only answer? Everyone is in agreement that it's better than the alternative that the college basketball world faced this past March.

"I want our league's season so we can compete for a championship," Donahue said. "That would still get us excited come November."