Bob Holt is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and a voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 basketball poll. Holt has been awarded Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year three times.
Basketball teams reworking schedules around new dates
Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman reacts, Wednesday, March 11, 2020 during a basketball game at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn.
FAYETTEVILLE — SEC men’s and women’s basketball teams now have dates for the start of conference play for the 2020-21 season.
Men’s teams are scheduled to open either Dec. 29 or Dec. 30 — the Tuesday and Wednesday after Christmas — and the women will start Dec. 31, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey announced Friday in a news release.
The men are still scheduled to play 18 SEC games and the women 16. The Big 12/SEC Challenge for the men and women also remains intact with both University of Arkansas teams participating.
“We’re all excited to be playing 18 SEC games, which is how it’s been in the past,” Razorbacks Coach Eric Musselman said. “We’re excited about playing in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.”
Dan Leibovitz, the SEC’s associate commissioner for basketball, said in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that he is pleased the conference office was able to set start dates for conference games.
“This was a personal goal to try to see if we could get this wrapped up this week for our schools to build a schedule,” Leibovitz said.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought uncertainty to college sports since the middle of March when events such as the NCAA Tournament, indoor and outdoor track and field championships, and College World Series for baseball and softball were canceled because of safety concerns.
SEC football teams are opening their seasons today. Now there is good news for basketball.
“There will be many more hurdles, but this is a good first hurdle for us to clear,” Leibovitz said. “In this environment today, ‘finalized’ is an interesting word. We’ll keep an eye on the way things are progressing and hopefully there’s not a need for any further radical adjustments.”
The NCAA Division I Council announced Sept. 15 that the start date for basketball was being moved from Nov. 10 to Nov. 25.
“I was hopeful we would have started the season on time,” Musselman said. “As a staff, we’ve been trying to work around the new start date, and the schedule is still up in the air.
“We just want to try to create as much normalcy as we can for our student-athletes, for them to get the best experience they can from this year of college basketball.”
Leibovitz said he’s not sure when the SEC will release its full schedule with opponents and playing dates for every school.
“It’s too early to tell,” he said. “If you look at the fall sports, some of [their schedules were finalized] much, much closer to the actual start of the season than they’ve been probably in the history of college athletics.
“I couldn’t put a date on [a finalized basketball schedule], but we’re working to do it as quickly as we can.”
Matchups for the men’s teams in the Big 12/SEC Challenge haven’t been announced, but Leibovitz said he expects those games to be finalized before the SEC schedule. This will be the eighth consecutive season for the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
“I believe it’s important,” said Leibovitz, a former college and NBA coach. “It’s a nice day for both conferences. It’s a nice day for college basketball. It’s a great window of visibility, and it’s something that’s served us well.”
The NCAA cut the maximum number of regular-season games from 31 to 27. SEC teams now have seven weeks to revamp their nonconference schedules.
“It’s somewhat compressed, but I believe it’s realistic and workable for our schools,” Leibovitz said. “On top of any concerns about compression, we just want to make sure our student-athletes are in the best health and condition given covid.
“That’s the ultimate challenge, right? It’s not about proximity of games. I think that’s workable. We just want to make sure we’re healthy and safe.”
Arkansas was scheduled to play in the MGM Resorts Main Event in Las Vegas along with Louisville, Colorado State and the University of San Francisco on Nov. 20 and 22, but a source said it now seems unlikely the Razorbacks will be part of that tournament.
CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein reported last week that Louisville won’t play in the Las Vegas event.
Bigger news from the Commonwealth came this week when Louisville Coach Chris Mack said he would like the Louisville-Kentucky game to be played at a neutral site this season rather than Louisville because of coronavirus concerns limiting attendance with next season’s game being in Lexington instead of Louisville.
Kentucky Coach John Calipari understandably is opposed to the game not being played in Rupp Arena during the 2021-22 season.
“While I understand the difficulty and the complications created by the pandemic, we are prepared to come to Louisville to play this season under the previously agreed upon terms, and we fully expect Louisville to honor the agreement with a return game to Rupp Arena next season,” Calipari said in a statement Friday. “We are contracted to play Notre Dame and a Big 12 opponent for the SEC/Big 12 Challenge in Rupp Arena this season and we are honoring those contracts even if it is with little or no fans.
“It is no one’s fault we are in a pandemic. We cannot predict the future with this virus, whether that’s this December or next December. My hope is they are not trying to end this series because it is important for this state that we play.”
Kentucky plans to host its own bubble tournament this season with Detroit Mercy, Hartford and Richmond, according to CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander, with each team playing the other once. The visiting teams are expected to be paid $200,000 each.
“We have to make sure that we’re taking care of some of the smaller schools that are missing out on buy games that could end their program,” Calipari said on a podcast with Andy Katz of NCAA.com. “Those are scholarships for kids. My son [Brad] goes to Detroit. I don’t want that program to say, ‘OK, we’re done. We can’t operate.’ ”
Katz also has reported the Champions Classic with Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and Michigan State is tentatively scheduled for early December in Orlando, Fla., which has been hosting every NBA and WNBA game since professional basketball resumed.
The Razorbacks were scheduled to open the season against Oral Roberts University on Nov. 10 in Walton Arena, but that game’s status is now uncertain as are other games scheduled after Nov. 25, including Northern Illinois on Nov. 28, Texas-Arlington on Dec. 2 and Lipscomb on Dec. 5 in Fayetteville; against Oklahoma in Tulsa on Dec. 12; against Old Dominion in North Little Rock on Dec. 19; and against Abilene Christian in Fayetteville on Dec. 23.
At least the Razorbacks aren’t losing out on a trip to the Caribbean or Hawaii.
Texas A&M was in the field for the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament, but instead of playing in the Bahamas, teams are being relocated to an event in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Alabama is in the Maui Classic, which is being moved to Asheville, N.C.
“I’ve heard [Asheville] is a great place,” Alabama Coach Nate Oats said in a Zoom call with reporters. “It’s not Maui, though.
“So it’s a little disappointing that we’re in [the Maui Classic] the one year Maui’s not played in Maui. Hopefully, we get back in it here soon.”
The men’s SEC schedule normally would have started on Jan. 2, a Saturday, but Leibovitz said it was decided to push it back slightly to the middle of the week.
“A large part of that decision was consideration for a make-up date at the end,” Leibovitz said. “So we will make a final determination of exactly when that window will be.
“Perhaps midweek in that final week of the season. Just with potential interruptions based on what we’re seeing in other sports in the fall, we believed it was a good idea to leave that open.”
Practices are scheduled to begin Oct. 14.
“This is a lot like it was when I got into coaching,” Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland said in a Zoom call. “It used to be the Friday after Thanksgiving was the first game, and we started practice on October the 15th. So we’re kind of back to the future in terms of how we’re doing it now.”
Leibovitz said SEC athletic directors unanimously approved the dates for the start of conference play.
“It always ends up a 14-0 vote,” Leibovitz said of the SEC decision-making process. “That’s what’s important for us, that we always have a united front. It wasn’t a contentious discussion, either.”
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