Jim Souhan: Stop playing college basketball games, delay the season and give us May Madness instead

©Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota women’s basketball team will begin its season on Wednesday with seven players who are healthy and available.

The UConn women’s basketball team has canceled three games, delaying the debut of freshman Paige Bueckers because of coronavirus outbreaks, and is only now being allowed to resume small-group practices.

The Minnesota men’s basketball team is 3-0 while playing sloppily against inferior opponents, the sloppiness a result of a lack of offseason practice during which their new players may have gained some level of cohesion.

This college football season is becoming a joke, short schedules shortened further by the sport’s easily predicted inability to manage its massive rosters and support staffs on campuses during a pandemic.

The NFL decided to play at all costs, and is proceeding as such, turning a sport that once promoted the uniqueness of “Monday Night Football’ into a season featuring “Every Night Football.”

According to the experts Americans should have heeded all along, our country is facing the threat of our current spike in COVID-19 cases turning into a long, winter plateau of COVID-19 cases worsened by a lack of discipline during the holidays.

It’s too late to form a better plan for college football, and the NFL will accept any level of risk to make its television money, but college basketball has a chance to get this right.

What do we know about sports during a pandemic?

Entire leagues operating within a bubble can thrive. Leagues that try to play outside of a bubble face some level of risk, whether that winds up looking like college football superspreaders, the NFL’s barely-contained-so-far outbreaks or Major League Baseball’s we’ll-figure-it-out-as-we-go, that-wasn’t-too-bad approach.

Here’s what we should remember about college basketball as it awkwardly begins its seasons:

They don’t have to play right now. And a plan to play later could reap all sorts of benefits.

Here’s what the plan should be:

— Pause the season now. Allow teams to practice as long as they follow strict protocols. The quality of play upon resumption will improve.

— Restart the season in February, or thereabouts. The post-holiday spike will be over, we hope. A vaccine may have already been distributed and made its way to front-line workers. Athletes shouldn’t be the primary recipients of vaccines, but once the front-line workers are taken care of, they can benefit from the vaccines and resume play.

— A postponement to later this winter may enable more or all of the games to be played in front of fans. That would provide a massive financial boost to colleges. And it would be a lot more fun than watching what look like scrimmages on TV in front of empty seats, with coaches constantly yanking down their masks to yell — another sign that some Americans aren’t smart enough to operate during a pandemic.

— Ratings are down for almost all sports as the pandemic alters viewing habits and dampens enthusiasm. The ratings would be better later.

— March Madness is a cool nickname, but May Madness would work as well this year. The NCAA Tournament will draw viewers and attendees no matter when it’s played.

— College athletes aren’t paid and shouldn’t be asked to prop up the finances of their schools and networks by playing during a pandemic. Let them wait until it’s safe.

This could be the year that Lindsay Whalen’s Gophers emerge as a Big Ten power. She has recruited well and has an intriguing roster.

But her team isn’t going to make great strides while playing seven players.

As for sports fans, we have NFL games to watch every night of the week, and the NBA is about to restart, and the NHL is on its way.

It would be far better for spectators, as well as the athletes, to see full-fledged, stands-full, safely played basketball in February than what we’re watching now.

The choice is stark: Bad basketball with limited rosters and canceled games now, or better basketball later.

Only the virus would choose the former.

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©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)