Jeff Gordon: Fans must wonder if COVID-19 will ruin college hoops season

©St. Louis Post-Dispatch

College basketball fans are getting restless. Their usual fall excitement is giving way to autumn anxiety.

News about the 2020-21 season comes in dribs and drabs, little teases that keep them engaged. Any enthusiasm is tempered by COVID-19 realities — such as Monday’s announcement that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo contracted the virus.

His symptoms are mild, so he should return after missing time — just as scores of players across the country will miss time and return this season.

“No matter what you do, it’s a little bit like Russian Roulette, you just never know,” Izzo told reporters.

The college basketball industry is driving forth into the headwinds of the global pandemic. Last spring’s NCAA Tournament cancellation followed by diminished football revenue this fall delivered crippling economic blows.

Athletic departments need money, so the sport plays on. Expect postponements, cancellations and chaos of partial rosters playing partial schedules.

COVID-19 clouds the outlook for an otherwise promising season in this region. Illinois ranks eighth in the Associated Press Top 25 poll for its first preseason ranking since 2010-11.

Guard Ayo Dosunmu is back to lead the Illini back to national prominence. The tag team of Kofi Cockburn and Giorgi Bezhanishvili provides inside might. Senior guard Trent Frazier will knock down three-pointers and a Top 15 recruiting class adds skill and depth.

“I’m excited for the fans,” Dosunmu said after deciding to forgo the NBA Draft. “The fans deserve it. The fans have been through so many rough years. Now, they’re finally getting the team they deserve to cheer and show why they’re the best fans in the country.”

SLU also seems ready to make a deep NCAA Tournament run with the talented core of Jordan Goodwin, Hasahn French and Javonte Perkins. Gibson Jimerson’s return from foot surgery adds critical perimeter shooting. Sophomores Yuri Collins and Terrence Hargrove Jr. should take big steps forward.

Strong guard play is critical, so Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin loves his seasoned crew of Xavier Pinson, Dru Smith, Mark Smith and Drew Buggs. Martin used his pandemic down time to study NBA offenses, so let’s see if he can make critical adjustments — as Illini coach Brad Underwood did last season.

Fans are eager to see these teams play. At this time last season Illinois had already dispatched Nicholls and Grand Canyon in non-conference play.

SLU had victories over Florida Gulf Coast and Valparaiso at this point and Missouri had beaten Incarnate Word (the college, not the high school) and Northern Kentucky.

The NCAA pushed back the start of the season to Nov. 25 in response to the pandemic. Midway into November programs are still working to finalize their schedules.

“We’re practicing and can’t even say we’re opening with so and so, or we’re doing this the first week. That’s been a little challenging, to say the least,” Izzo said. “Understand that nobody wants to practice for six, seven weeks, including the coaches, without a game.”

Mizzou has scheduled most of its non-conference games, but it hasn’t finalized a multi-team preseason event. Reports had Missouri and Oregon among the teams looking to play three games in early December at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut.

The Illini will play at Duke on Dec. 8 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, but they are still nailing down the rest of their slate. SLU will host Indiana State on Dec. 15, but we’re waiting on the rest of the schedule. Missouri State hosts Arkansas Little Rock Dec. 21, but what will happen before then?

Normally schools will hire visiting teams to round out their non-conference slate. But many athletic departments lack the resources to do that.

“People want money,” Missouri State coach Dana Ford said during Missouri Valley Conference media day. “COVID-19 times. So if you’ve got money, you can get some home games. If you don’t have any money, I guess you can’t.”

Oh, and here’s another thing: More fans must cheer from afar. Duke decreed that no spectators will attend games at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Louisville will limit attendance to 15% of capacity and similar ratios will be in place elsewhere.

Martin shrugged off the issue, pointing to the brilliant basketball played in the NBA playoff bubble. He expects college players to adapt just as the pros did.

“You’ve got fans in the gym or no fans, it’s basketball, man,” Martin during a Zoom call with reporters. “If you need fans, what are you doing playing the game?”

True, but atmosphere is a huge part of college basketball’s allure. Big Ten games at Illinois are electric, with the roaring orange crowd riding momentum waves and the animated Underwood working the sideline in his loud orange jacket.

This season there will be far fewer fans and no orange jacket. The Illini staff will feature an unplugged look of slacks with either polo shirts or pullovers.

That’s just another sign of the strange times. “It’s COVID 2020,” Underwood told reporters last month. “It’s the year of not having a lot of knowns, but we’ll get there.”


©2020 St. Louis Post-Dispatch