The BYU basketball team’s charter flight from Provo to Southern California in late December was well into its journey when coach Mark Pope received a phone call from deputy athletic director Brian Santiago.
Santiago, who oversees the basketball program, had just received word that the Cougars’ game at Pepperdine the next day, on New Year’s Eve, had been postponed due to COVID-19 issues within the Waves’ program.
So Santiago told Pope to talk to the pilot and tell him to return to Provo.
That’s power that Pope didn’t know he possessed. But he did it, and soon, the team was winging its way back to Utah.
“That’s literally how it happened. They had to turn around and come back home,” Santiago said. “We were fortunate that they could come back so they weren’t stuck down there.”
Two days later, BYU was practicing in Provo, preparing for a Jan. 2 contest at San Diego. As practice was wrapping up, Santiago received a call from the athletic director at that school, informing him that this game would also have to be postponed due to COVID-19 protocols.
“I had to walk into practice and tell coach about it two hours before we were getting ready to travel,” Santiago said. “It’s almost impossible to prepare for. One positive test in basketball pretty much knocks out a team. You can’t just hold one person out because of contact tracing. There’s a lot of uncertainty and you have to be flexible. You have to roll with it. That’s the way it is.”
As if that weren’t enough adventure for one week, the following Monday, Pacific, which was scheduled to play in Provo the next Thursday, let BYU officials know that it would not to be able to due to COVID-19 concerns. At that point, half the WCC’s teams were on pause due to the virus.
Facing the prospect of another week without a game — BYU hadn’t played in almost two weeks after three straight postponements — the coaching staff and school officials scrambled to fill the void. That same day, it became known that Santa Clara would not be able to play No. 1 Gonzaga that Thursday. So Pope, Gonzaga coach Mark Few, conference officials, and ESPN worked together to schedule a BYU-Gonzaga matchup on short notice, moving up the scheduled game in Spokane on Feb. 6 to Jan. 7.
Welcome to college basketball during a pandemic.
When it comes to playing games at a time like this, “the key words are uncertainty and flexibility,” Santiago said. “You just have to be flexible. Coach Pope has done a great job with the players and we’re doing everything we can to keep things on a positive note. When stuff happens, you can either let it impact you negatively or just take it for what it is and try to be positive and move forward. That’s what our coaches have done. That’s our mentality as an athletic department: control what we can control and handle it with positivity.”
What makes this situation even more intriguing is that the Cougars were one the few teams around the country that managed to play the NCAA-maximum 11 nonconference games. No nonconference games were canceled or postponed.
“We’re really fortunate that we’ve been healthy. The cancellations haven’t been on our side. We’ve taken all the precautions we can with testing and we’ve tried to keep our players in a quasi-bubble,” Santiago said. “All those things combined, we’ve been very fortunate to be able to play in the nonconference and so far the conference has been an adventure. But getting to play those 11 games was a result of staying healthy and being flexible.”
Last spring, BYU had several high-profile games scheduled, against teams like Oregon and Arizona State, and they had agreed to play in a multi-team event in the Bahamas — the Junkanoo Jam — that also featured Boston College, Tulsa and George Mason.
But all of those games were canceled due to the pandemic.
While the Cougars weren’t able to play in the Bahamas, a year after participating in the Maui Invitational, they were able to schedule another multi-team event at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut, which was dubbed “Bubbleville.”
“It’s been a little bit complicated,” Santiago said. “But we feel like we’ve done a great job. Coach Pope and I work closely on the schedule.”
One big MTE was planned in Orlando, Florida, where the NBA held its bubble last season, and several teams around the country were signed up to play there. But that fell through.
As for BYU, it worked with a group that was coordinating two MTEs, including the one at the Mohegan Sun, created in 1996 by the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut in partnership with Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment, according to its website.
Numerous programs played games at the Mohegan Sun in the early days of the delayed college basketball season. Fellow West Coast Conference team San Francisco, for example, upset nationally ranked Virginia there.
“We were in communication with a number of those teams while they were there, trying to figure it out how it worked,” Santiago said.
BYU was scheduled to play USC on Dec. 1 and either Vanderbilt or UConn two days later. But Vanderbilt dropped out of the MTE due to COVID-19 protocols. USC and UConn scheduled a game against each other, leaving the Cougars without an opponent.
The Mohegan Sun organizers were able to bring in another team from nearby New York City — St. John’s. The Cougars and Red Storm met the next day. BYU rebounded from a 26-point loss to USC by beating St. John’s.
“We were scheduled to play Tuesday and Thursday and we ended up playing Tuesday and Wednesday, which allowed us to get back and have an extra day of preparation for Utah State (the following Saturday),” Santiago said. “The promoter of that MTE in Connecticut did a really good job. They were able to shuffle the deck. That was a big break for us because you don’t want to go all the way out there and play one game. We had a tough game in Connecticut against USC. Then we didn’t know if we had another game. We find out it’s the next day against St. John’s. The way our guys bounced back and competed, it was great.”
In Connecticut, all the participating teams were locked down.
“They literally kept us quarantined from the moment we arrived until the moment we left,” Santiago said. “We never were able to go outside. We were inside, we were in back hallways of the building. A lot of precautions were taken.”
In order to pull off games during a pandemic, “it takes coordination,” Santiago said. “You hope people are being as careful as possible. The reality of it is, it’s pretty motivating for the student-athletes to hold the line pretty good because they understand that it comes down to them being able to play or not. Being able to play games is super important to them. So they’ve done a good job of staying safe. Our medical staff here has done a great job with testing. It’s been a team effort. Everybody’s working together. I’ve joked that, and I say this at the end of almost every Zoom call, whether it’s with coaches, staff or players — ‘Live life, play ball.’ We have to live our lives but we have to be careful. We have to do the right things so we can play ball. So far, we’ve been very fortunate to play the games that we’ve played.”
As of Wednesday, in mid-January, BYU had played just one WCC game, against Gonzaga, with games scheduled at Saint Mary’s Thursday and at San Francisco Saturday.
So far, both the Pepperdine and San Diego games have been rescheduled on unusual days, for Jan. 27 (a Tuesday, at 1 p.m., MST) and Feb. 2 (a Wednesday), respectively. Santiago is confident that all of the postponed games will be played, including the Pacific game.
“We’re just trying to piece it together the best we can,” Santiago said. “There are certain games you don’t want to lose out on if you’re trying to put yourself in a spot to get a bid in the NCAA Tournament. You’re looking at all those scenarios. You hope and pray for the best and hope that people stay safe. You don’t want to lose perspective. These games are important but based on the worldwide pandemic, you want to keep things in perspective. We’ll play as long as people can be safe and it’s a safe situation. We’ll hope for the best as it plays out.”
After playing a dizzying 11 nonconference games in a compressed period of time from Nov. 27-Dec. 23, the Cougars have played just once since Dec. 23.
“It was a mad dash of games and then we basically went dormant,” Pope said.
Of course, a prolonged game drought, which many teams have experienced this season, can stunt the growth and momentum of a team.
“We’ve played only one game in a three-week period. That’s not a normal situation in a basketball season. You’re playing, you’re adjusting, you’re evolving as a team,” Santiago said. “This will be our second game in a three-week period. We’re working closely with these other schools. Hopefully everybody can stay safe and we can play. There are no guarantees.”
Santiago praised the players for being resilient, focused and flexible during these uncertain times.
“They’ve done a really good job. Not playing for two weeks and then going to play the No. 1 team in the country, I think that impacted us at the start of that game. It’s a tough grind but our guys have done a great job,” he said. “I’ve been so impressed with the way they’ve bounced back. They’re champing at the bit to play. They know we have a good team and we want to play. We’re doing everything we can to make sure we have games scheduled so we can play.”
That’s life in college basketball during a pandemic.