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Big East releases only a portion of schedule entering 2020-21 season complicated by pandemic

A smattering of fans watched at Madison Square

A smattering of fans watched at Madison Square Garden before the Big East conference tournament officially was canceled.   Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

The Big East managed on Wednesday to hold its annual men’s basketball media day — this time virtually instead of at Madison Square Garden — and there was plenty of news.

The annual 10-contest Gavitt Tip-Off Games between it and the Big Ten are canceled because the NCAA has pushed back the start of the season from the second week of November by two weeks. The Marquette program has been shuttered by a 14-day quarantine because someone tested positive for COVID-19. And the conference released only about a quarter of its schedule — only through Dec. 23 — instead of the entire slate.

It appears nothing is going to be easy for the Big East — now at 11 teams with the return of UConn — about holding its season in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, which canceled conference tournaments and the NCAA championships last March.

"We are planning to resume conference play after the holidays on Dec. 30, but it's our intention to hold off a little bit longer in announcing that second part of the schedule just so we can continue to assess the landscape and get ourselves comfortable with the most appropriate scheduling format," Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said. "[That] will of course hinge on the status of the virus and related factors. Our goal there is to make sure we have safe competition."

For years we’ve talked about college basketball programs being "on the bubble," but the Big East is contemplating having its teams play "in the bubble" during the second semester as students return to campus. Because of the success of the NBA and WNBA returning successfully this summer in isolated bubble formats, the Big East is considering doing this in a variety of forms.

It could bring all the teams together for a period to quarantine and then play large chunks of the season. Or it could do so in smaller formats where groups of teams gather regionally and get in three-to-five games at a time.

"There's no doubt: the bubble is the answer," said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose team had a 14-day shutdown last month. "If you want to get where you are sure that you're going to get all your games in, the bubble's the answer [and] the medical experts will agree to that. The challenge for us is . . . our players and students. They're not employees so to force someone to go into a bubble is shaky. And, if you do it for the men you have to do it for the women, which doubles the cost for everybody. . . . [and] we don't think the schools, really have the finances to do that."

Ackerman said bubble models are being contemplated, but that the conference’s standard travel model is the first choice. "If we determine that another model is safer and/or necessary, we're going to be in a position to pivot to that and that could include a single venue format for all of our schools [or] some portion of our schools."

Another huge issue is the NCAA guidance requiring the 14 days after someone tests positive. Should another player or member of the team’s inner circle test positive during that period, it will be extended.

By the second week in November, all Big East programs will have coronavirus testing three times each week. Some coaches feel that the quarantines should end when people test negative again, rather than the 14 days suggested as guidance. Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard said "if we’re testing so much, why not use the tests to move forward?"

"If you're going to put a guideline out, you should have a way you can mandate it and make sure that everyone does it [and] that's a problem," Wright said. He pointed out that the SEC and Big 12 have been using their own standards to return people to their football programs after a positive test.

Individual teams also are dealing with pandemic-related shifts in their non-conference schedules. On Monday ESPN canceled 10 multiteam events it was to hold in Orlando because of disagreements about how positive tests for COVID-19 would be handled; it affected more than 20 teams that were to play non-conference games, including Seton Hall.

Asked about putting together the Pirates’ non-conference schedule, Willard said "disaster" was too light a term. "It’s just a total [expletive]," he said.

The 2020-21 Big East Preseason Coaches’ Poll (with first-place votes in parentheses):

Points

1. Villanova (9) 99

2. Creighton (2) 91

3. Providence 79

4. Connecticut 69

5. Seton Hall 67

6. Marquette 50

7. Xavier 47

8. Butler 37

9. St. John’s 33

10. DePaul 20

11. Georgetown 13

Big East Preseason Player of the Year

G Marcus Zegarowski, Creighton, 6-2, Jr.

Big East Preseason Freshman of the Year

F Dawson Garcia, Marquette, 6-11, Fr.

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