The COVID-19 outbreak continues to warp the country’s sports timelines, and college basketball is no exception. UNLV suffered its own setback on June 26, when the university announced it was suspending voluntary on-campus workouts for all sports after four players tested positive for the coronavirus.
The pause didn’t have a huge impact on the Rebels’ offseason plans, as voluntary workouts hadn’t really kicked into full swing before the school closed down all its athletic facilities, but time may be running out to get basketball back on schedule for the 2020-21 campaign.
The next important date is July 20, which is supposed to be the first day of organized summer workouts. That’s when coaches will be able to hold full team practices; the NCAA allows four one-hour sessions per week, plus four additional hours of strength and conditioning work.
While voluntary workouts basically amount to shooting around and access to the on-campus weight room, team workouts focus on actual on-court practices and are generally viewed as a vital part of the offseason.
UNLV head coach T.J. Otzelberger said the entire roster is now on campus and that as long as the university avoids another rash of positive tests, team workouts should commence on time.
“We’re hopeful that everyone tests negative next week,” Otzelberger said. “Ever since the NCAA announced July 20 as the date, I think that has become our target.”
Beyond that, Otzelberger believes the virus’ sustained surge could alter the college basketball season significantly.
He pointed to a later start date and the elimination of non-conference games as options that may have to be explored.
“What I could see happening is the possibility of the season starting after the new year,” Otzelberger said, “because it looks like vaccines may be coming in December and if that’s the case we should be able to control it a little more and make it safer.”
The priority for the 2020-21 season, Otzelberger believes, is preserving the NCAA Tournament. That monthlong hoops extravaganza is the sport’s most important revenue generator, and the NCAA is still trying to recover from having to cancel the 2020 tourney.
Otzelberger believes shortening the regular season and pushing the start time back could be the best way to ensure March Madness goes on as scheduled. Iona coach Rick Pitino expressed a similar sentiment on Wednesday, suggesting that nonconference games may have to be a casualty of the pandemic.
For UNLV, that would mean dropping 13 games, including the team’s much-anticipated trip to the Maui invitational in November. The Rebels would also lose out on scheduled home games against Cal (Nov. 14) and UCLA (Nov. 17) and road contests at VCU (Dec. 2) and Kansas State (Dec. 5).
Otzelberger thinks cutting the schedule down to Mountain West games might be unavoidable if the pandemic continues unabated.
“I want to go to Maui and play all of our non-league games, and we have a great schedule,” Otzelberger said, “but at the same time, common sense would say to me that the only thing that matters is the NCAA Tournament, because we all benefit from it substantially. You’ve got to make sure the tournament is played this year. To do that, you’ve got to have just enough games to determine which teams you want to have in it.”