College hoops braces for rocky COVID-19 start with NCAA determined to play

Jay Wright’s biggest concern isn’t how to juggle minutes. It’s not who to start. It’s not that day’s practice package, recruiting targets or injury issues. It’s not even about the looming challenges in the Big East.

It’s tests — but not exams taken in the classroom. It’s making sure COVID-19 hasn’t returned to his program after previously infecting multiple players.

“I’ll be honest, I lay in bed at night thinking about it,” the Villanova coach said.

It’s a worry most coaches, administrators and NCAA higher-ups share. College basketball is slated to tip off Wednesday with a full slate of games, and instead of excitement over a new season, there is concern over how long it will last.

The novel coronavirus pandemic ended last season prematurely, forcing the first cancellation of March Madness, and now college basketball is back. But so is overwhelming uncertainty, as positive cases have risen nationwide and have begun to spread through the sport.

“The words that come to mind are disruptive, uncertain, crazy, unusual, unprecedented and hopefully won’t happen again,” Big East commissioner Val Ackerman told The Post. “Everybody is resigned to all those outcomes.”

A number of programs are currently in a 14-day pause just days before a new season begins, as an NCAA guideline suggests. If a “Tier 1” individual — a player, coach, manager or staff member — tests positive, everyone is expected to quarantine for two weeks. Six Big East teams have had workouts interrupted and three — Seton Hall, DePaul and Creighton — are currently in quarantine. So is Syracuse, nearly half of the MAAC, along with UMass and St. Bonaventure. The Ivy League canceled winter sports, and Bethune-Cookman and Maryland Eastern Shore aren’t playing basketball, either. A majority of non-conference tournaments have been canceled. Others have had to scramble to create completely new fields of teams and move locations. ESPN was attempting to create a bubble at Disney’s Wide World of Sports to host a series of tournaments, but that fell apart.

“It’s nowhere near quote-unquote normal,” St. John’s athletic director Mike Cragg said in a phone interview. “It’s going to be full of challenges.”

Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard has described the state of scheduling as a “s–tshow.” Iona College’s Rick Pitino believes the NCAA should push back the season until March, play only league games and host the tournament in May. St. John’s sophomore Julian Champagnie said it will be a “circus” because of the uncertainty of every day.

“From this year, I don’t really expect a whole lot,” Champagnie said. “I expect to play, but I know there are going to be some hiccups.”

NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said the plan remains to forge ahead, with the understanding there will be disruptions, postponements and cancellations. The NCAA seems determined to crown a champion, already announcing plans to host the tournament in one city instead of numerous sites around the country. It wouldn’t use the world bubble — Gavitt has called it a “controlled environment” — but that seems like semantics. Players and teams will not be allowed to leave this “controlled environment” upon entering it until they are eliminated.

“It’s only not happened once,” Gavitt said, referring to the NCAA Tournament. “Under my watch and with the committee that’s working on it, we’re going to do anything and everything we can in a safe and responsible way to make sure that was the only time in our history, and it won’t be repeated.”

Gavitt acknowledged there are risks, but also stressed that conferences are testing three times per week, there is only a minimum of 13 games to be eligible for the tournament, and the NCAA is offering another year of eligibility for student-athletes to make up for what is expected to be a haphazard season.

“The alternative is we just don’t play at all,” Gavitt said, adding, “We owe it to the players to give them a chance [to play].”

Getting to March will be a difficult task, however, considering what one positive test can do to a program. Most conferences are planning on travel and not bubbles, and hoping the absence of students on campus over the next two months will lessen the spread of the virus.

One mid-major coach whose program just recently returned from a 14-day pause said he believes if this were to happen in-season, it would take “at minimum” three weeks to be ready to play a game again. Another mid-major coach, whose team is still in quarantine and has been there for three weeks, said he thinks a month would be the optimal time, considering players really can’t do much in terms of conditioning and working out for the two weeks of quarantine.

After the two weeks are up and players are cleared with negative tests, the ones who previously had tested positive can’t just return to practice. They have to pass an assortment of tests on their heart and undergo an MRI exam to be cleared. For instance, the first coach said, on the first few days of practice for a player who tested positive, he couldn’t do full-court workouts with teammates.

“It’s so hard to maintain the 100 percent rate [of being COVID-19 free],” the coach said.

It’s clear, mere days before the season, this will be a very different one. Games will feature limited crowds, if any at all. Schedules will frequently change. Teams will be sidelined for multiple weeks at a time. But the plan for everyone involved is to have a season. There will be games on Wednesday, scattershot and as strange as they may be, with the hope that this March will provide Madness of the right kind.

“A good ending,” Ackerman said, “is more important or more impactful than a rocky start.”

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