NCAA allows return of basketball in November, Ivy League will wait to decide

With most regular seasons and championships for fall sports postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, college athletes and fans have been anxiously awaiting word on the winter sports schedule. They received good news on September 16, when the NCAA Division I Council, chaired by Penn athletic director Grace Calhoun, announced that the men’s and women’s basketball seasons could begin on November 25.

“The new season start date near the Thanksgiving holiday provides the optimal opportunity to successfully launch the basketball season,” NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said to ESPN. “It is a grand compromise of sorts and a unified approach that focuses on the health and safety of student-athletes competing towards the 2021 Division I basketball championships.”

While basketball enthusiasts around the nation rejoiced with the news that meaningful games would soon be returning to the hardwood, fans of the Ancient Eight were left wondering if the league would move from its July 8 decision that teams could not participate in intercollegiate athletics competition prior to the end of the fall semester.

The short answer is no.

“There are no changes at this time,” responded Ivy League associate executive director, strategic communications & external relations Matt Panto to a request from Ivy Hoops Online. “The decision we have made is it (hold on competition) goes through the (end of the) fall term.”

Presently, only Cornell, Dartmouth and Yale have a large percentage of students on campus with Brown welcoming students back for the resumption of some in-person classes on October 5. As a result, the conference is not jumping into a one-size-fits-all model.  “Each institution and the league as a whole have established guidelines on when you can move forward from phase to phase and a lot of that is campus-based,” said Panto.

Brown athletics communications assistant Nick Dow informed IHO, “We will be adhering to all Brown University and Ivy League guidelines as appropriate for any strength and conditioning or other group activities. Brown has created a Campus Activity Status that outlines activities on campus over three levels.”

Teams have started with virtual meetings or conditioning, with the hope of moving towards small group activities.  When campus climates improve, more athletes can be incorporated into the activities, followed by full team practices and eventual competition.

If the viral numbers go in the wrong direction, however, the plans will need to go in reverse.

This was discussed by Penn sophomore Lucas Monroe, who told the Daily Pennsylvanian:

Coach Donahue is optimistic about getting in toward October maybe or early November. I think that’s what they talked about in terms of the weight room maybe. In terms of the Palestra, we haven’t heard too much, but I know that they’re kind of working on a slow reopening of everything. So letting people onto the field slowly in small numbers, and then I think after that, hopefully letting people into the weight room in small numbers, and then letting us have group workouts in the Palestra. So I think they’re slowly working toward it within the next few months, but with the way things are going right now, anything could happen, things could change in a second.

The NCAA Division I Council announcement stated teams could play a maximum of 27 games and would need a minimum of 13 games to be considered for postseason bids.  The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball committees also issued a non-binding recommendation for a minimum of four non-conference games.

Penn men’s basketball coach Steve Donahue told the DP he remains optimistic about playing a number of local nonconference contests and a full conference schedule, but the league has not made any definitive plans.

“There has been no determination on scheduling, simply because we’re not there yet,” said Panto.  “We’re (still) in the preparation stage.”

Penn director of athletic communications Mike Mahoney told IHO, “all things are on the table (for a nonconference schedule) but we will work with the Ivy League toward those ends.”

With regards to the the conference schedules, the league is looking at various options – a bubble versus traditional travel schedule, complete versus partial conference schedule, and back-to-back weekends versus days between games.

“Everything is still being discussed,” Panto explained.  “Of course, exhausting every option is important and discussing every option thoroughly is important, and, for better or for worse, that’s the stage we’re in right now.”

The results of these discussions, coming from league officials, medical experts, athletic directors and coaches, will eventually be forwarded to the eight Ivy presidents, who will make the ultimate decisions regarding the upcoming campaign. The timeline for that decision remains unclear.

I don’t think you’ll see anything in the near term,” noted Panto. “I really think we’re trying to see how this semester goes and make the decision when we have to.”

In a September 22 article at ESPN, Jeff Borzello talked to at least one source from each of the 32 Division I conferences and came away thinking that there’s “a substantial chance the Ivy goes conference-only, and doesn’t start until mid-to-late January.”

What about the athletes?

While the league has not received any direct lobbying from the players, IHO was told that they are aware there has been a lot of feedback, dialogue and continued conversations between those students and their schools.  It was also mentioned that the conference will engage with the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAG), which will be holding regular meetings throughout the semester.

No representative of the 16 Ancient Eight programs mentioned any specific athletic or safety concerns from their students, when asked by IHO.

Faced with campus pandemic restrictions that look to extend into the spring term and a season that is expected to be at least one month shorter than most of the NCAA, players may consider transferring, taking a leave of absence or opting-out of playing this year.

Seniors Chris Knight (Dartmouth; Second Team All-Ivy), Aaryn Rai (Dartmouth), Danilo Djuricic (Harvard) and Rio Haskett (Harvard) have already entered the transfer portal for ’21-’22.  Knight will miss the year due to recent surgery on his torn left Achilles tendon, but the other three non-injured players retain the option to return to their teams for this year.

On September 14, the Yale Daily News’s William McCormack reported that nine players from the reigning men’s championship team, including 2020 Defensive Player of the Year and ’20-’21 captain Jalen Gabbidon, are not registered for classes this semester.  Five members of this group (Gabbidon, Jameel Alausa, Michael Feinberg, Yassine Gharram and Emir Buyukhanli) told the YDN they do not have plans to return in the spring.

In a review of Ivy rosters on September 22, the following players were noted to be missing from the ’20-’21 rosters (Princeton men, Princeton women and Yale men did not have these rosters available):
Brown men – Josh Watts
Brown women – Mia Mascone
Cornell women – Elodie Furey
Harvard women – Lola Mullaney (Honorable Mention All-Ivy), Rachel Levy (’19-’20 captain), Maggie McCarthy, Maddie Stuhlreyer
Penn women – Kenzie Wood
Yale women – Camilla Emsbo (Second Team All-Ivy), Jenna Clark, Klara Astrom, Alex Cade, and Ayla Elam

That same day, IHO contacted all league programs to confirm the status of their athletes. Mahoney noted there were no athletes sitting out the fall semester for the Penn men’s team but did not believe any decisions had been made for the spring.  Meanwhile, the ’20-’21 Yale women’s roster, which was down to nine active players, was removed from the team’s website.

If a team has a significant number of athletes who chose not to play, there is a distinct possibility that the program will not be able to compete.  While no program would confirm if they would be able to field a team for this coming season and the league could not discuss the ability of individual schools to have competitive teams on the court, internal conversations about the minimum number of teams needed to have a viable conference schedule are being held.

That’s part of the ongoing conversation of what the athletics directors are discussing,” Panto told IHO. “That is a relatively active conversation.”

As the pandemic enters its eighth month and a worrisome portion of the calendar begins, there is still too much uncertainty to know what a possible Ivy basketball season will look like.  At this point, the only thing that is certain about the season is the fact that the 116-year-old Columbia University Marching Band will not be involved.

Conference faithful will have to keep their social distance and hold their masked breath, hoping trends move in a favorable direction for there to be any semblance of a ’20-’21, or at least ’21, season.

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