Despite uncertainties around it looming for months, basketball season is here.
The NCAA has compiled regulation after regulation since COVID-19 impacted the world of sports, including numerous return to action plans for the different levels of athletics.
MIAA Commissioner Mike Racy isn’t worried, he said Nov. 11 at the virtual MIAA Media Day.
“You always have concerns about every season and the health and safety of our student-athletes and coaches,” Racy said over Zoom. “We feel we’ve got appropriate protocols in place that we’ll continue to educate our student-athletes and coaches about appropriate behavior during a pandemic, regarding mask wearing and socially distancing and good hygiene and all of the appropriate precautions.”
The MIAA, collectively, agreed to test every Monday throughout the entirety of basketball season. It’s created complications throughout the format the MIAA has created, an 11-week schedule that has games played every Thursday and Saturday.
Northwest men’s basketball has already faced the ramifications of COVID-19 prior to the season even beginning. The Bearcats were supposed to start the season Nov. 19 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, against Northeastern State. The Riverhawks announced Nov. 13 they had positive coronavirus tests among the program and wouldn’t be ready to face Northwest.
It’s a pattern that administrators, coaches and players fear will reverberate throughout the walls of gyms across the MIAA this season.
“It’s gonna be difficult when we have more games get delayed or postponed or whatever you want to call it. It’s going to be tough,” Northwest Director of Athletics Andy Peterson said. “I keep telling people, ‘It’s not that it’s not going to be fair; it is going to be unfair.’ There’s a difference there. We all know it’s not going to be fair, but it’s really hard to grasp the idea that it’s going to be unfair. You’re going to be going to someplace, at some point, playing people that have had three, four, five days rest, and you’ve got two games under your belt in the last three days.”
The NCAA partnered with the Sport Science Institute to create the Core Principles of Resocialization of Collegiate Basketball, a guide full of recommendations across all levels of the NCAA for the return to the court for programs.
The outline suggests that programs competing test three times per week on nonconsecutive days but never mandates or requires any of those suggestions.
There are two tests recommended by the NCAA for programs planning to compete during the 2020-21 school year: the PCR and antigen tests.
The PCR test is one that has become familiarized across the United States, the one in which people are required to have a swab in their nose or saliva sample. Those, due to the accuracy, can be costly. Peterson said Northwest is using this model since it’s more accurate than the antigen test and costs Northwest Athletics $90 per test.
The antigen test is more commonly known as the rapid test, in which the results are presented in approximately 15 minutes. However, Peterson said, it’s less accurate than the PCR test is. One of these costs Athletics roughly $35.
“The PCR testing is a lot more sensitive, so you’re hoping that folks that are testing with that once a week catch it earlier than if kids are — No. 1 before they get symptomatic and No. 2 before they get contagious,” Peterson said. “Antigen testing is just what it is. It’s not quite as sensitive, but if you do it more frequently, it’s going to be just as accurate as you are with the PCR test.”
Peterson isn’t sure what the future holds for basketball season, particularly regarding the amount of testing it’ll require to get through it. He hopes testing once a week works but understands the situation is still as fluid as it was in March.
“I think with antigen testing, we could get there pretty quickly,” Peterson said about testing more than once per week. “It just comes down to, at that point, a budgetary finance and if we’d be able to do that.”
The biggest issue, of course, is trying to get 12 programs through a 22-game schedule. Peterson said he’s hoping it’s slightly easier because of the conference-only format the MIAA adopted this season.
Another issue is what programs will do whenever key players are out due to either testing positive or due to contact tracing from previous games.
“That’s where it’s gonna be unfair,” Peterson said. “You’re going to have people that are contact traced or positive, and you’ll be without your All-American or Freshman of the Year or your defensive superstar, whatever it might be. You’re going to be without that person for however many games. It’s going to be crazy.”
The MIAA had concerns that coaches wouldn’t want to play games if key players were out. Peterson said the conference came together to decide it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter that Northwest could be without reigning MIAA Player of the Year Trevor Hudgins, Defensive Player of the Year Ryan Hawkins or standout guard Diego Bernard — the Bearcats will still have to take the court.
“That’s where athletics directors and presidents of the universities get involved and say, ‘If you’ve got six healthy bodies, we’re playing basketball,’” Peterson said. “It may not be the right six, but if they have six then we’ve got to play to get that game in.”
Regardless if it’s the right or wrong players, teams across the MIAA will embark on a journey that’s scheduled to conclude in the last week of February. Through every speed bump, obstacle and detour that stems from the weekly COVID-19 tests, the MIAA is hoping to get 12 teams to the end destination of the postseason.