Badgers men's basketball: Putting together the 2020-21 schedule a complicated endeavor
Constructing a schedule is always like piecing together a puzzle, but this version is more complicated than ever for myriad reasons.
When asking University of Wisconsin men's basketball coach Greg Gard how the process of putting together the 2020-21 schedule is going, timing is everything.
"It's fluid. That's probably the most complete way to say it right now," Gard said. "What maybe you view as where you are at 9 a.m. may change by 1 p.m., and maybe again by 5."
In a typical year, the schedule would be complete and tickets for home games would be printed by this time of the year. This, of course, is not a normal year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NCAA has pushed back the first date of competition 15 days to Nov. 25 and reduced the regular-season schedule by four games to a maximum of 27. Constructing a schedule is always like piecing together a puzzle, but this version is more complicated than ever for myriad reasons.
For the better part of four months, Gard has been taking part in multiple calls per week with the other Big Ten coaches. In addition, he's part of the conference's scheduling sub-committee along with three other coaches and five athletic directors.
You'd think the first step would be figuring out how many conference games teams will play and going from there. But Gard said the non-conference portion of the schedule is more difficult to navigate, which would explain why the Big Ten hasn't even confirmed if it will play a 20-game schedule for the third consecutive season.
Gard declined to get into specifics of the potential makeup of the Badgers' non-conference schedule other than to say games involving a multi-team event or a neutral-site showcase are both on the table.
"Ideal world, you'd just like to play games and have it come off without hitches and have it come off without pauses or canceled games or postponed games," Gard said. "It's fluid because things outside of our world, specifically from the medical component, constantly evolve and change, and we learn or gather more information."
As of now, UW is still scheduled to play in the Fort Myers Tip-Off, which originally was scheduled for Nov. 23 and 25 but would have to be pushed back. Colorado recently backed out of the four-team event, which also includes the Badgers, Butler and South Florida.
If that tournament falls through, Gard said it's possible UW will find another multi-team event in what has become a game of musical chairs around the country.
The Badgers originally were supposed to open the season against Tennessee on Nov. 11, but that game will have to be pushed back if it's played at all this season. UW's game at Marquette is expected to be played, and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge likely will fill in another slot.
As for the "guarantee" games that typically fill out a non-conference schedule, finalizing plans on those is as tricky as ever due to fears of the virus spreading. While the Big Ten has secured partnerships with companies to help its teams perform daily testing in football and eventually other sports, opponents from non-power leagues may not have that capability.
"That's one of the hundred-plus questions we're trying to answer," Gard said. "I honestly am not comfortable playing teams that aren't tested consistently. We won't. I'm not going to put my guys (out there). There are enough unknowns out there, I'm not going to put them in the path of that.
"When this all comes together, we'll make as much as we can that we are playing opponents that are testing at, or very, very near, to the frequency that we will be when it's all said and done."
Another issue to sort out is the testing of officials, who are independent contractors. Some go from city to city, conference to conference, with games filling up their week.
There's also television to consider as the Big Ten works with its partners to broadcast games. "The viewing options right now are limited," Gard said, "so they're obviously eager to have live sporting events back on."
Gard said the Big Ten is relying heavily on the advice of medical experts and no stone is being left unturned. He brought up one example of what-ifs that have been discussed: If a player tests positive for COVID-19 on the road, does he quarantine in place for 10-14 days and, if not, how does the school get him home safely without putting others at risk?
Meanwhile, Gard said he's gained an appreciation for everything it takes to put on a game. Beyond players, coaches and officials getting tested, there are dozens of people on game day who potentially could spread the virus, from those working at the scorer's table to the television crew to event staff. For road games, there are flight crews, bus drivers and hotel staff to consider.
"There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of questions that have to be answered," Gard said.
One thing is certain: Teams will be playing in mostly empty venues.
The UW athletic department last week announced in a letter to account holders that it won't be distributing season tickets. As was the case with football and other sports, fans who have paid money for tickets for the 2020-21 season have the options of giving that investment to UW as a tax-deductible gift, rolling it over to the following season or requesting a refund.
While UW hasn't ruled out fans being inside the Kohl Center for home games this season, it is acknowledging that crowds will be limited due to the pandemic.
UW generated more than $6.1 million of revenue from men's basketball ticket sales in 2019-20 and had budgeted $6.375 million in revenue in 2020-21 prior to the pandemic that wiped out the postseason last March.
"We want to play as many games in the healthiest, safest manner possible. That's first and foremost," said Gard, whose veteran team is expected to contend for a second consecutive Big Ten regular-season title. "We've got great fans and I think this has potential to be a really exciting, fun team to watch that, unfortunately, in all likelihood, is going to have to be done via your TV screen."
Gard said it'll be at least another couple weeks before the schedule is finalized.
"We're moving in the right direction," he said, "but there are a lot of questions that have to be answered before we can really put things down in ink."
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