College basketball life in the age of COVID-19 has been morphed out of all recognition for the norm that would typically take place during the offseason. That's no surprise given that nearly all walks of life have been deeply affected by the pandemic.
For college basketball, however, there's constantly moving parts, inequity between schools and where they're at in preparation, different states with different rules, loss of revenue, added costs and a general sense of uncertainty given the direction the virus may go.
Will there be a season? Will a season be delayed and played in the spring? Will fans be able to attend? There are no experts to answer these questions for the experts that run the Missouri Valley Conference and the 10 programs within it. The uncertainty and inequities were evident as the MVC men's basketball coaches came together on Tuesday in a Zoom teleconference with the league media.
"I don't want to be blindsided or naive, but no one is going to happen next week, much less three or four months from now. I've tried to stay in the moment as we tell our guys to do," said Illinois State coach Dan Muller, summing up the general mood in the league.
The uneven playing field is something that is bizarre in the very structured world of college athletics. Typically, practice dates, arrival on campus, recruiting periods are designated down to the hour. In the age of COVID-19? All of those protocols are out the window.
For example, Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois have all or nearly all of their players back for the July 20 date in which teams will be permitted to practice. Loyola has not even opened its campus, much less had students going through quarantine. Every other school in the MVC — including Indiana State — has some players back and some still to arrive as they stagger their individual quarantines.
And though UNI — the defending league champion and possible favorite in 2021 — has returned to campus? UNI coach Ben Jacobson also confirmed the Panthers have had two positive COVID-19 cases on his roster. He did not reveal the players concerned. Both have recovered.
"Two of our players (seven positive cases) were positive. That's going back two or two-and-a-half weeks. Both guys are feeling great and doing the protocols. They're back in line to join the group as it's been long enough since they had symptoms and since they've tested positive," Jacobson said.
There's very little the coaches can do about the uncertainty. All have kept in-touch with players via Zoom meetings and individual remote feedback. It's life as it has to be lived at present, but it's an adjustment for everyone.
"The biggest thing for coaches is being away from the players and not seeing them. To not have the daily interactions and personal connections with the guys about the COVID stuff and the social injustice? We've been doing the best we can. It's not ideal, but as far as what we can control? It's the best we can do right now," Southern Illinois coach Bryan Mullins said.
Some teams are also dealing with missing players, especially foreign-born ones, who are overseas. Both Illinois State and Valparaiso said they still don't or won't have players back who can't fly back to the United States due to travel restrictions.
When players do return, coaches don't really know what they're going to be getting. College sports are so predicated on near-constant vigilance of player work habits. Players also rarely have a true off-season, working out in some fashion to prepare for their new season. Now? There is no structure for anyone.
"I don't know if any of these guys have been off for this long, since ... third grade probably? Maybe even longer than that. There's going to be a transition to get a lot of things back," Loyola coach Porter Moser said.
All of the challenges the coaches have had are predicated on no new interruptions to the current college calendar, a highly unlikely prospect given that COVID testing positivity is on the rise in more states than not — including Indiana. It is possible college sports will be delayed or canceled.
"[If the season doesn't start as scheduled] ... we're looking at a lot of models, either for a late start to the fall season or basketball season or to moving those seasons. We're going to be in a position soon where we have to make those decisions. There's no answers at this point. We're waiting to see what the virus dictates to get to some sense of normalcy," MVC commissioner Doug Elgin said.
Elgin said that if he had to start the season today? He wouldn't be comfortable doing so. Even if the season does start on-time, there will be challenges.
"Local and regional specifications are going to lead. We'll follow those in each of our campus markets. Most decisions about student-athletes will be made on the individual campuses. We will have some conference standards on whether an athlete can compete or not, but we haven't determined those yet," Elgin said.
"We could have interruptions, including one or more campuses, given the state of health for athletes in their sports. We'll rely heavily on medical authorities and campus officials on whether athletes and teams can compete or not," he continued.
There's also significant financial challenges. Elgin said the MVC's NCAA Tournament distribution was less than $6 million, down from the anticipated $15.5-16 million. That money is allocated to the schools and it usually represents as much as 5 percent of their athletic budgets.
Then there's the cost of testing. Depending on how often athletes are tested? The costs could be significant, possibly into six-figures depending on frequency.
"There will be some costs that will be prohibitive if we have to test every game beyond taking the temperature. There's going to be a great strain on our schools if standards are higher than anticipated. It's going to be a cost of doing business. It's a major concern and focus for our staff and campuses in the weeks ahead," Elgin said.
Will there be a season at all? Coaches are preparing to have one and dreading the possibility it may not happen.
"I can't imagine not having a season. I'm scared to death of it. I'm paying close attention to what other sports and other leagues are doing. I'm worried about football, I'm a huge college football fan and friend of [ISU coach] Curt Mallory, and I'm praying every day," said ISU coach Greg Lansing, who said his concern goes beyond himself. "I have a good life. There's been people devastated. There's been deaths. There's been families and businesses devastated. You want things to go back to normal, but right now? It's not."
Drake coach Darian DeVries probably captures the prevailing attitude in the league best. Right now? There's a lot more wishing than any kind of certainty.
"I check my Twitter every morning in the hope that someone a lot smarter than I am comes up with some sort of treatment or cure to make it go away as soon as possible," DeVries said. "But that's not reality."