The stark reality of COVID-19 first resonated for millions of Americans on a basketball court.
The abrupt cancellation of an Oklahoma City Thunder-Utah Jazz NBA game due to positive player tests accelerated the public response from hesitation to action. As city and state governments called for closures of mass gatherings and in some instances, implemented shelter-in-place orders, the 2020 NCAA Tournament became the highest-profile cancellation.
Among the very last teams to secure a bid to the Tournament that never happened was Hofstra. The Pride beat surprise championship game participant Northeastern, 70-61, on March 10 — almost 24 hours to the moment that fans were sent home from Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena, and two days prior to the cancelation of the NCAA Tournament.
“It was an interesting 48 hours,” said Hofstra acting head coach Mike Farrelly. “You go from the top of the world Tuesday night, the dream we worked for seven years here at Hofstra to accomplish. We get there, we’re on top of ladders cutting down nets, celebrating on the court that night in Washington D.C., it was amazing. Then, 48 hours later, it comes tumbling down.”
The Pride are picked to again finish atop the Colonial Athletic Association, which — if it comes to fruition — might be karma’s way of making up for last year’s missed NCAA Tournament. It would have marked the program’s first appearance in the Big Dance in 19 years.
With the top-to-bottom depth of the CAA, however, and a host of unknowns heading into the campaign, projecting order of finish is the least of the unpredictabilities ahead of the 2020-21 season.
COVID-19 remains as much an issue at the precipice of a new season as it was at the sudden closure of the last. November began with a wave of new cases recorded around the United States.
The aim is to navigate through what CAA commissioner Joe D’Antoni called “a season like no other” applying the knowledge gained of the virus in the last eight months and applying it as effectively as possible.
Other sports returning to competition provide some blueprint for college basketball.
The continued NBA season went off without a hitch, spanning three months from the return of teams to workouts until the conclusion of an NBA Finals in which CAA alum Devontae Cacok received a ring.
News of the NCAA exploring a single-site Tournament akin to the NBA’s Orlando-area bubble broke on Nov. 16. Early-season tournaments are planned, including some featuring CAA teams, following a similar model.
Towson and Delaware are among those set for Bubbleville at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. However, the execution of “bubbles” isn’t guaranteed to avoid disruption; Bubbleville participants Siena and Iona both had reported outbreaks the week of Nov. 9.
FBS college football is also ongoing, but its course has hit far more potholes than the NBA campaign. The so-called “third wave” of COVID-19 infections cost college football 25 games through the first two weekends of November, reaching single-week highs for cancellations each week.
“There are going to be cancellations,” D’Antoni said. “We’re all prepared for that to happen, though we certainly hope that’s at a minimum.”
The CAA plans three-time-a-week testing to catch and mitigate cases as effectively as possible. D’Antoni said the goal is to help each of the conference’s members play the 13 games necessary for championship consideration, as the NCAA mandates.
In its scheduling, the CAA slated weekly back-to-backs so that opponents play each other on consecutive days, a measure that limits travel.
All of this preparation is the crescendo to a trying time. Each CAA program faced its own, unique challenges amid the pandemic. UNC-Wilmington and James Madison, for example, hired new head coaches -- Takayo Siddle and Mark Byington -- who took over at a time when they couldn’t meet with their new teams face-to-face initially.
“When I took the job, it was crazy because everything hit. I had to connect with my players over Zoom calls and FaceTime and text messaging,” Siddle said. “I had to get used to that.”
The world at large has convened over communicative services like Zoom these last eight months, but going over quarterly reports isn’t exactly like implementing the kind of pressure defense-intensive, fast-breaking offense Siddle aims to run at UNC-Wilmington.
If Siddle had any advantage, it’s in the heavy Eastern Time Zone presence on the Seahawks roster. Juggling communication across multiple time zones -- domestic and international -- can add an extra layer of difficulty.
Even more concerning with regard to international players is transit. COVID-19 is truly global in its reach, and travel restrictions remain in place for various nations.
In March specifically, the uncertainty of how the virus further complicated international travel. Chalk it up to the unprecedented tasks programs had to tackle in 2020.
“When you’re going through a pandemic, you want to be around your family,” said Drexel coach Zach Spiker, whose team features players from Canada, England, Hungary and Lithuania.
“We were trying to find a way in March to get our guys home as quickly as possible,” he said. “We don’t know how long this was going to last....Our administration helped us jump through all the hoops to help us get it done.”
Drexel was able to “navigate [the process] pretty seamlessly,” and has its international players back ahead of the season. The lingering reality of COVID-19’s impact looms, however. Lithuania, for example, reinstated lockdowns on Nov. 7.
Overseas travel restriction also factors into the complexion of schedules. The Paradise Jam, for example, moves from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Washington D.C.
Northeastern’s among the four-team field, tipping off its 2020-21 in the same city where it ended 2019-20.
The Paradise Jam could be part of a more extensive non-conference slate for the Huskies, though Northeastern coach Bill Coen notes: “Like everything else in 2020, it’s constantly in flux.”
Such is the theme for this historic season. So much of what transpires for the next few months, on and off the court, will be an experiment. Returning to the hardwood for the sport that ostensibly marked the beginning of national shutdown marks a significant milestone, a sort of full-circle moment.
It’s no return to normalcy, as it’s not normal in any way. In what should be a highly competitive CAA season, all 11 teams share a common goal.
“Above everything,” said Spiker. “There’s the umbrella of player safety. We’re going to do everything we can to make this the best experience, but at the same time, make it the safest experience.”
Kyle Kensing is a freelance sports journalist in southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.