INDIANAPOLIS – The latest domino in what has become a coronavirus-ravaged men’s basketball season fell Saturday – this one between the country’s top two teams.
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The game between No. 1 Baylor and No. 2 Gonzaga was called off Saturday due to positive COVID-19 tests within Gonzaga’s program. The teams will attempt to make up their highly anticipated game, but the more glaring takeaway is whether playing December and January games amid a nationwide surge of coronavirus is worth it.
“It’s a fair question to ask, ‘should we be doing this?’ We are going to continue to see these kind of disruptions over and over again,” ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas said. “We felt like we knew this would be a bumpy ride throughout the winter time with programs pausing activity and games being postponed or canceled.”.
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Also on Saturday, No. 10 Illinois canceled its game against UT Martin and No. 24 Ohio State canceled a game with Alabama A&M. Since the season began on Nov. 25, more than 50 games have been postponed or canceled and on Friday Louisville became the latest high-profile program to pause activities due to issues with COVID-19.
One power five coach, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter, said the inconsistency of the season has become a major headache to coaches and players who have to travel, watch film and prepare for opponents – only to have those games canceled or postponed or be given a new opponent their team is unprepared for.
“This is total chaos,” longtime college basketball voice Dick Vitale said. “My feeling from Day 1 was that we should’ve started the season around February and then played conference games because this thing is out of control. Basketball is my life and my love. But it comes secondary when the disease is running rampant. We’re going to have a lot of this happen and we should be listening to the experts.”.
Those experts are advising against playing. The season started just as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was advising Americans not to travel because of a surge in COVID-19 cases. Dr. Sten Vermund, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Yale’s School of Public Health, told USA TODAY Sports prior to the season: “You couldn’t be starting a season at a worse possible time … It would be best to delay the season until there’s a better handle on the virus.”.
Gonzaga and Baylor had coronavirus woes before Saturday’s contest. Baylor coach Scott Drew missed the first two games of the season after testing positive. And last Friday, two members of the Bulldogs’ traveling party tested positive for COVID-19 at a multi-team event in Florida. Gonzaga played against Auburn with the blessing of local health officials and medical staffs from both schools. With similar circumstances – a Gonzaga player and non-athlete testing positive prior to Saturday’s tip-off – both teams opted to pull the plug on the advice of health officials in Indiana.
Drew and Gonzaga coach Mark Few issued a joint statement following Saturday’s cancellation that read: “We’re disappointed to not be able to play one of the most-anticipated games of the season, but we are following the advice of public health officials. There are much greater issues in this world than not being able to play a basketball game.”.
That’s where Vitale feels as if the sport’s pulse should be checked – knowing that people’s health and wellbeing trump a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup.
“The bottom line is that we should not just be playing games to get games done, then having them canceled,” Vitale said. “That’s not good for the student-athletes or anybody.”.
Bilas said there is an obvious reason to keep playing: money.
“I’m not in the camp of people who say, ‘no don’t have the season.’ Because this is a multi-billion dollar industry with people’s livelihoods riding on this,” Bilas said. “But this certainly does go against the narrative that the NCAA has been putting forth for the last decade – it’s hard to make any rational claim that (college basketball players) are just amateurs who shouldn’t make any money. We’re proving that they’re not every day now.
“The NCAA just needs to be transparent. If the NCAA wants to hold a press conference any time a player is getting an extra nickel, then why is there silence about why we are having this season, why isn’t that part of the national conversation? It’s the same reason other places are staying open. It’s for money, and that’s inescapable. A lot of businesses are staying open for money. … Pretending like it’s any different is disingenuous and that’s being kind to the NCAA.”.
Follow college basketball reporter Scott Gleeson on Twitter @ScottMGleeson.