Shannon Ryan: The college basketball season is a mess before it even starts. With the sport's leaders intent on playing on, they need to simplify schedules to adjust for the COVID-19 surge.

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DePaul Blue Demons coach Dave Leitao calls out a play in the first half against the Butler Bulldogs at Wintrust Arena on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2020. - John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/TNS

The college basketball season is a mess, and we haven’t even gotten to the opening tipoff.

The season starts Wednesday, and at least 40 Division I teams are quarantining or have paused activity because of COVID-19. That includes DePaul and Loyola, which reported outbreaks. Illinois had to find a last-minute replacement for its multi-team event Wednesday through Friday when Wright State dropped out because it didn’t have enough available players.

Baylor and Seton Hall mutually called off their game Sunday after Baylor coach Scott Drew tested positive for COVID-19. No. 8 Illinois’ Dec. 2 game against the second-ranked Bears in Indianapolis also could be in jeopardy.

Feels like we’ve been here before, right?

Prioritizing sports above public health and safety? Pushing through despite common sense and scientific evidence?

After seeing the college football schedule pockmarked with weekly cancellations, how does college basketball — a contact sport played indoors with much smaller rosters — expect to play a meaningful season? College basketball is acting like the people who walk into crowded bars eight months into a pandemic. No lessons learned.

But this is another decision guided by money. (Ever wonder why the only fall sport the Big Ten played was football?)

Starting from that reality, the only thing that matters to college basketball is getting to its cash cow, the NCAA Tournament, which generates close to $1 billion in revenue.

Considering the money lost during a college football season that was abridged and played with limited spectators and the crippling effects of the pandemic on athletic departments, which are mostly mismanaged spendthrifts, playing the NCAA Tournament is vital to making up some of that revenue.

Some conferences, including the Big Ten, will test basketball players daily for COVID-19, while others will test three times per week. The Big Ten also plans to hire officials solely for Big Ten games, according to Stadium. Those are smart moves, although the lag time in infection and possible diagnosis means there are no guarantees.

It would be wise to rephrase the question “Can they play?” with “Should they play?” But it’s clear the games will go on — even with the logistical difficulties of canceled and postponed games and the danger of players and coaches contracting the virus.

Everybody knows it will be a wreck. Everybody knows players and coaches will get sick. Everybody knows there isn’t a special sports-only virus that remains contained on a team.

The thing is, few seem to mind.

Rick Pitino, now coaching Iona, has called for delaying the season and playing “May Madness,” but that’s being wholly ignored — which says a lot about either how his stature has fallen or how intent colleges are on proceeding.

There have already been missteps in minimizing risks.

Uniformity is a problem in college football, and with 350 Division I teams, it’s likely college basketball will have even less of it.

The reason college football went with mostly conference-only schedules was because there was no assurance everyone would test equally. Some schools just can’t afford it. So it would make sense for the NCAA to kick in here and help supply schools with testing while it’s allowing some (totally unnecessary) nonconference games.

A conference-only schedule would have been wise. The Missouri Valley would be a good example on how to approach it with a pared-down conference slate and teams playing the opponents that are on the schedule twice in back-to-back games to cut down on travel.

The decision in September to delay the start of the season by two weeks, presumably so it could start more safely with other students off campus for the holiday break, looks misguided now as the season tips off amid a nationwide surge. Hospitalizations and deaths have risen dramatically in recent weeks.

Health experts warned for months that cases would rise with people moving indoors and gathering as cold weather takes hold and coincides with the cold and flu season.

It doesn’t help that all of this converges with basketball season.

A plan to play the NCAA Tournament in a centralized location — in gyms in and around Indianapolis — is also wise. But it would be even better to make this year’s tournament more like the isolated and secure NBA bubble with a pared-down bracket.

Yes, that would signify college players actually are unpaid employees, but who are we kidding? They already leave school for days and weeks at a time for March Madness.

Will die-hard college basketball fans care that much about seedings this year if an NCAA Tournament can be played?

Long-suffering Illinois fans surely would rather see the Illini play Baylor in March than in early December. They would certainly sacrifice Wednesday’s opener against North Carolina A&T to ensure the NCAA Tournament would be played.

Last season’s postseason cancellation should be a haunting reminder.

“Make It to March” should be the new NCAA slogan, so it needs to rework the conference schedules to be as simple as possible. The schedules will be jumbled and unpredictable anyway.

Americans have adjusted their Thanksgiving plans. Students have made do with months of remote learning. Recitals, band concerts and theater performances have been scrapped or moved to virtual experiences with little whining and no media outcry.

It’s inevitable the games will go on, no matter the risks.

The least college sports can do is make sensible adjustments and act like it has learned something.


©2020 Chicago Tribune