How the Big East will operate during COVID-19

In this March 7, 2020, file photo, Villanova head coach Jay Wright gestures during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Georgetown in Washington. Two-time Villanova national champion coach Jay Wright says it’s “50-50” the sport — which took one of the first major hits in the coronavirus pandemic era with the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament – can make it through this season intact. Photo by Nick Wass/AP Photo, File.

Without a doubt, the biggest topic of conversation during Big East Media Day was the COVID-19 pandemic and how the conference will operate. 

Val Ackerman, the commissioner of the Big East, discussed the current plan for the season. 

Ackerman said they have an intraconference COVID-19 task force, composed of several team physicians and national experts in infectious diseases, that has been regularly advising them while they make protocols for the upcoming season. 

“The health and safety of all of our participants is paramount,” Ackerman said. 

This sentiment was shared by coaches all around the Big East, including Xavier head coach Travis Steele. 

“Our doctors here in the Big East, our administration, is doing everything we can to make sure that our student-athletes are safe and healthy,” Steele said. “That’s always going to be priority one. Number two, if you ask our guys, they want to play, they want to compete, and we’re trying to give them that platform in order to do that. And I think our league’s done a really good job.” 

Per NCAA guidelines, the Big East will be doing testing three times a week of tier one individuals — the student-athletes and essential basketball personnel. It was up to the schools to make the testing arrangements, which Ackerman said they have, but the conference has an arrangement in place to assist them. 

One of the biggest challenges is the 14-day quarantine for teams with players who have tested positive for COVID-19 or come in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. 

In fact, Marquette is in the midst of one right now. For some coaches, like Marquette’s Steve Wojciechowski, the 14-day quarantine poses some problems. 

“The one positive test and 14-day quarantine is a challenge, there’s no question about that,” Wojciechowski said. “There’s going to be outbreaks across the country, there’s gonna be outbreaks across our league, and the 14-day quarantine creates a lot of problems, not only for the school that is going through it, but also when we’re in season, the schools that are supposed to play that school.” 

If more outbreaks occur, it could impact how the Big East has a season. 

“Obviously, as a coach, your number one priority always is the health and safety of the young men you coach,” Wojciechowski said. “We don’t ever want to put our kids in a position where we’re putting them in harm’s way. But there’s also a side of it that our kids, and I would assume every kid that’s wearing a Big East member institution uniform, wants to have a season. We need to make sure that happens, and I believe we will.” 

Some coaches, like Seton Hall’s Kevin Willard, are more strongly opposed to the 14-day quarantine, and said if it remains, it will be almost impossible to have a season. 

“[Wojciechowski] just did it, he had one kid test, so now he’s going to quarantine for 14 days,” Willard said. “You’re gonna need four days to get your team back, and then you’re still going to be testing — what happens now when someone else gets tested positive? Now you’re down for another 14 days. It just doesn’t make sense to me why, if we’re going to test so much, why we’re not using the tests to keep moving forward.” 

Willard said Seton Hall is testing every two days, so if someone tests positive, they can isolate that person and know everyone he came in contact with. Then, they can do more testing and see if it spread. 

UConn’s Dan Hurley also said he would like to see “testing out” be introduced, wherein if a program has to be put on hold because of a positive test, people can “test out” of isolation with negative tests. However, Hurley also stressed that he is not a medical expert, and ultimately, they need to listen to the science.  

Ackerman said the conference has built-in time for make-up games, but the plan is to still finish the season by early March. 

Conference play was moved up and will start on December 11, with every team playing four to five games before the holidays. 

“Our hope again is to get in that full slate of 20 conference games, and if the virus doesn’t allow for that, so be it, but that is our hope as we go into conference play,” Ackerman said. 

Perhaps the biggest change to the schedule was the Big East and the Big Ten mutually deciding to cancel the 2002 Gavitt Games. The intention is for this to be a one-year change and to continue the Gavitt Games next season. The Big East’s non-conference challenge with the Big 12 will still occur. 

“We intend to persevere in the coming weeks and months, and are going to do our level best to stage a season where disruptions are kept to a minimum and a robust number of Big East schools are in a position to compete for the NCAA National Championship next spring,” Ackerman said. 

The decision on whether or not to have fans in attendance, and how many, will be left up to the individual schools in compliance with their state regulations, Ackerman said. The conference will have protocols to control how far away the fans would be from the court as well as various other issues for the schools that do allow fans in attendance. 

Creighton head coach Greg McDermott echoed the sentiments shared by many coaches when discussing the possibility of fans, stressing safety as the most important factor. He also noted how the rise of cases in their state of Nebraska could impact the number of fans allowed at their games. 

“Two weeks ago it probably looked good for us to have the opportunity to have a fair amount of fans in the stands. Obviously, the cases in Nebraska have escalated, and now those conversations change to ‘what is safe?’” McDermott said. “If we’re gonna have fans in the building, we’re going to do everything we can to ensure the safety of the players and coaches from both teams, and also for the fans.” 

One big topic of speculation has been the potential of playing the season in a bubble, but Ackerman said the current plan is to travel for games. She said the conference has been advised by their doctors that the travel model can work safely.  

However, if they need to, they are prepared to shift to other options, including a single venue format or a regionally focused format, Ackerman said. 

“Models are on the table, and we’re going to do our best to pick the one that most suits our needs and provides the safest environment for our athletes at whatever time we have to make that decision,” Ackerman said. 

Some coaches, like Wojciechowski, see the bubble as the best long-term solution. 

“I do feel like a bubble could work, and it may end up being our best option,” Wojciechowski said. “With the NCAA guidelines as they are right now, to think that we’re the only university that’s gonna have a COVID positive test is just not realistic, especially with where our country is trending as it relates to COVID. So we may find that although we’re going to start the season in a travel model, the best bet to have a season that best resembles what we’re all used to, in a lot of ways, is a bubble.” 

Villanova head coach Jay Wright agrees, but he doesn’t know logistically if it is a real possibility. 

“There’s no doubt the bubble is the answer, there’s no doubt,” Wright said. “If you want to ensure that you’re going to get all your games in, the bubble is the answer. All the medical experts will agree to that. The challenge for us and college athletics, specifically college basketball, is our players are students, they’re not employees. To force someone to go into a bubble is shaky, and number two, if you do it for the men you have to do it for the women, which doubles the cost for everybody … I don’t think the schools have the finances to do that.” 

Hurley has some concerns, as he is worried about the idea of a long-term bubble for the student-athletes. He said he prefers that bubbles, if they were to occur, be smaller, short-term solutions. 

“Do a little mini bubble with rapid testing every couple weeks, maybe every two weeks, where you bring maybe four teams in and you try to knock out three games in five days, go back to campus for 10 days, and then go back into the bubble for maybe a shorter period of time and try to knock three or four games,” Hurley said. “Going in for a month, to play a bunch of games, to me, could become a very unhealthy environment.” 

Ultimately though, Ackerman and many of the coaches stressed that the onus is on student-athletes to be accountable for themselves. If this is to work, it will hinge on how well they can follow the rules. 

“A lot of the success of this will be on them and their ability to follow the guidelines, to mask, to be physically distant from others, to manage their social lives, which is heartbreaking that they might have to do that, but really paying attention to the rules and taking it upon themselves to do what they need to do in order to make this a successful endeavor for all of us,” Ackerman said. “So that particular issue, student-athlete accountability, I think will loom large in the success or not of all of our endeavors.” 

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