'Wake up, America': College basketball season crumbling with growing COVID cases

For men's and women's college basketball, the holiday season has come with a sickening sense of déjà vu. 

As a new variant of the coronavirus, known as omicron, races across the globe, the sport is beginning to grapple with a familiar round of cancellations and postponements impacting nearly every conference and many of the biggest names in the country.

Duke was originally scheduled to end non-conference play this past Saturday against Cleveland State but was forced to cancel after COVID-19 concerns pushed the Vikings' program into an indefinite pause.

The Blue Devils, ranked second in the Ferris Mowers Men’s Basketball Coaches Poll, then rescheduled with Loyola University Maryland, but the Greyhounds also went into COVID-19 protocols. Finally, a third opponent in a 72-hour span was found in Elon, and the Blue Devils cruised past the Phoenix. 

"Our sport is being impacted in an amazing fashion with the virus," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

Tennessee players walk off the court after their game against Memphis was cancelled because of COVID-19 protocols.

COVID-19 issues with No. 21 Colorado State forced the program to preemptively cancel a crucial neutral-site matchup against No. 11 Alabama, robbing the Rams of an opportunity to post a résumé-building win against a major-conference opponent.

No. 18 Kentucky canceled this past Saturday's game against No. 12 Ohio State and Wednesday's game against Louisville, marking the first time the two rivals have not met since 1981-82. No. 6 UCLA has already had three games canceled — Alabama State, North Carolina and Cal Poly — while the Bruins' women's program has canceled twice.

On the women's side, UCLA has been joined by Arizona, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Indiana and others in canceling or rescheduling games as result of COVID-19.

In the most dramatic display of how the pandemic continues to place the sport on thin ice, last Saturday's hotly anticipated rivalry between Memphis and No. 18 Tennessee was canceled little more than an hour before tipoff after an outbreak left the Tigers with just four players, coach Penny Hardaway said.

"We're not going to schedule a team that has that many unvaccinated players," said Tennessee coach Rick Barnes. "That would be irresponsible on our part."

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In all, more than 50 men's programs have been or are currently in a pause to team-related activities as a result of the coronavirus. More than 100 games have been canceled or postponed for men and women since Saturday alone.

After soldiering through the heart of the pandemic last winter, when vaccines had yet to become readily available to the public, these recent developments have reignited fears that the 2021-22 season will follow the same start-and-stop path through the conclusion of the men's and women's tournaments.

First designated by the World Health Organization in late November after an outbreak in South Africa, the omicron variant has swept across the country. According to numbers shared on Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the variant made up nearly three-quarters of all new infections in the past week.

"The 'good news' regarding the omicron variant is that Mother Nature has worked the way she is designed, which is to give an advantage to life that adapts in ways to preserve itself," said Dr. Rand McClain, a California-based sports medicine expert.

"In this case, the virus has mutated so that it is less deadly but more contagious. This leads to greater viability for the virus in the obvious manner of increased transmissibility but also in being less virulent."

Omicron has made a similar impact on other sports. In the NFL, 51 players were named to the COVID-19 reserve list on Monday and several games rescheduled. In the NBA, the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors have postponed three games after COVID-19 outbreaks left the two teams with a combined 18 players in health and safety protocols.

In college football, Texas A&M was forced to drop out of the Gator Bowl after a roster already trimmed by transfers and opt-outs was depleted by an outbreak. The College Football Playoff has announced detailed plans for how to handle an outbreak involving teams in the New Year's Six games, national semifinals and championship game. 

Uncertainty over how the variant may unfold over the next few months has left open the possibility that college basketball could revert to the standards in place during the 2020-21 season, which included testing players and coaches three times each week.

“I would like to know if the other team was tested just before we play going forward,” Krzyzewski said. "We are making a big mistake in not doing that."

Conferences have already modified rescheduling policies to reflect the rising number of coronavirus-caused cancellations. Men's and women's teams in the ACC must have at least seven student-athletes and one countable coach available to play a game.

"Games that cannot be played as scheduled will be rescheduled. If a game cannot be played and cannot be rescheduled, it will be considered a no contest," the league said in a statement.

Similar policies were unveiled this week by the SEC, Big West, Big 12, Mountain West, Pac-12 and others. After a troubling run of canceled games involving more than half of the league's members, the Big East voted on Wednesday to change its forfeit rules; the rule is retroactive, meaning games already forfeited are declared no-contests.

"Circumstances have clearly changed since our interrupted game policy was implemented in August and this updated approach is intended to support healthy, fair and equitable competition," SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said.

These policies represent only a temporary fix to the larger problem: Even as recent data from South Africa suggest a decline in numbers from a recent peak, according to the country's leading infectious disease scientist, omicron could wreak havoc in college basketball through the winter and into the early spring, potentially disrupting the men's and women's postseason tournaments.

“They're starting to cancel other things,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "Wake up, America, let's get after it, because I want my guys to play all 31 games.”