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The Math behind Basketball Preview Work

U.S.-WASHINGTON D.C.-IMF-ECONOMY Xinhua/Liu Jie via Getty Images

In a normal year, I start working on the basketball preview pieces in June.

In a normal year, I start researching the basketball preview pieces in July.

In a normal year, I start writing the basketball preview pieces by August.

This is not a normal year.

I don’t know how many hours I spend on the preview pieces each season, I try not to calculate it because it would make me question my life choices and sometimes it’s better not to take a hard look at the dumb things I do for my own well-being. I’m very much of the “if you test less, there will be fewer cases” mindset when it comes to evaluating the hourly wage I make dividing my stipend by the hours I put into writing. It might not be full-blown denial, but it’s at the very least extreme avoidance. I could probably be more efficient with my time if I tried; the first month or so involves a lot more random rumination than writing, opening up a Google doc and adding/subtracting something from an outline then disappearing for a handful of days. Sometimes I’ll write a bit on one player then go away, sometimes I write the majority of an article in one sitting. It varies, but just like any college freshman the intensity of the work ratchets up as the (admittedly self-imposed) deadline gets nearer.

This year, nothing is happening (yet). As for why, well, let me tell you the story of being in quarantine because, well, I’m still in it. Throughout the last few months, both my girlfriend and I have been minimizing contact with others. We’re fortunate to both be able to work from home, and my generally antisocial nature means I’m going out to the grocery store and that’s about it. I haven’t been to the gym since early March (RIP gainzzz), I go run during the hot part of the day because nobody else is out then, and I’ve spent more time on the bike trainer than I care to count (hello again, my extreme avoidance friend). I don’t think I’ve shaken a hand or hugged someone other than my girlfriend in like 4 months. It’s been...paradise?

My girlfriend is much more social than I am, and sometimes she needs to be around people other than me which, as me, I can completely understand. Even if I was interesting in person - debatable at best - we’ve been together for so long she’s heard my two interesting stories a billion times. She’s been responsible about her interactions; she’s done a ton of Zoom parties, when she goes to see friends it is invariably a small group who she has known for years and who aren’t COVID-truther idiots, and they tend to hang out somewhere outside like a pool where they can distance from each other and random other people. She and I have talked through these plans and we’ve agreed on the parameters, it’s been a conscious & collaborative effort. A week ago Sunday, she was hanging out with one coworker doing the social distancing thing at a lightly-attended pool when the coworker invited a friend (let’s call him P1) over to hang out. They hung out for less than 30 minutes, never touched/hugged. Fast forward to Thursday and P1 tells my girlfriend and her coworker he learned he was exposed to someone (P2) two days prior to their interaction who has since tested positive. P1 didn’t know until Thursday because P2 didn’t find out until Wednesday. So everybody P1 came into contact with from that Friday - Thursday window is now quarantining & getting tested, which includes my girlfriend and me because we live together and pawing all over each other like degenerates. I’m just kidding, we’ve been together forever; there has been no pawing. Still, we sleep in the same bed, work in the same house, if she’s exposed then I might as well have been at that pool with her. We don’t have any symptoms and it seems at this point (day 10 of quarantine) unlikely we’ve contracted it but we’re still effectively sidelined as we wait for our own test results. I actually just got my result as I’m typing this, 6 days after I took the test. It was negative, you can now let me cough in your face without any issues.

I haven’t started writing the preview because I’m skeptical the season happens at all. I was skeptical prior to being in quarantine, but this experience helps drive home the difficulty in keeping the virus out. We as a country are battling two distinct but related problems, both of which impact college sports:

  1. Keeping the virus out of groups
  2. Testing lag/contact tracing lag

The NBA is trying to restart in a tightly-controlled bubble, but this isn’t something very replicable in the world of college basketball for myriad reasons. For starters, they’re doing this with 22 teams where there are currently 350+ D-I basketball teams, so the sheer number of players/support staff involved is an order of magnitude more difficult. Most conferences are unable to fund a bubble system for conference play in the first place, and those bubbles don’t work in a non-conference schedule. Take Villanova; they’re supposed to play teams from the ACC & Big 12 among others. Take Texas, who is supposed to fly to Hawaii to play teams from the ACC, Big Ten, SEC, etc. Imagine the logistics of making that trip happen at all; you’re counting on every member of the 8 teams & their support staffs to test negative, then running them through flights where they interact with flight attendants, airport staff, etc., then having them stay at hotels where they’ll interact with hotel staff, plus the Hawaii arena staff...the 8 teams will be in a shared environment with thousands of other people, any of whom could be presymptomatic or asymptomatic. This isn’t the NBA where they’ll all be on chartered flights to Hawaii, some of these teams will be flying commercial. The logistics of pulling that off without a player testing positive is immense, and that’s just one non-conference tournament. Multiply that by 350+ other schools crossing the country to play games and it is hard to imagine this going well. The TBT tournament tried to do the bubble system with 24 teams, they had 5 different teams get disqualified for testing positive and were only able to fill 4 of the slots in time so one team advanced due to forfeit.

Secondly, the testing lag & procedures around quarantining is yet another hurdle which could throw a wrench into games being played. Let’s say for the sake of argument the power conferences go to a bubble system and only play conference games; that is an easier path than involving the non-conference schedule. If the Big 12 setup shop in Kansas City and utilized the T-Mobile Center (formerly Sprint Center) like they do for the conference tournament, they could attempt their own bubble system. (This still has significant financial downside for programs reliant upon home ticket sales to achieve revenue neutrality, but we will set that aside for the purposes of this discussion.) The Big 12 could put the 10 teams up in a large hotel, cordon them off from the public as best as possible, and hope they can pull off an 8-10 week conference schedule. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t; I tend to think keeping 130 college-aged men under lockdown for 2+ months is a Herculean task which is doomed to fail, there is only so much NBA2K those guys can play before they want to, uhh, hang out with their partner(s) of choice. Even if you get all of them to abide by that, it still means they’re susceptible to exposure from hotel/arena staff. Say we’re 5 games in and Kansas gets notice that one of the hotel attendants responsible for cleaning their floor tested positive and he/she has been in the room which David McCormack and Tristan Enaruna share while they were playing video games. How many games do those two miss as they sit in quarantine, and if there’s a 2-3 day lag on her test, how many times have those two players practiced with the rest of the team in the interim? It’s a short path from there to Kansas forfeiting at least one game as the team sits in quarantine, and if they played another team in that 2-3 day span it might quickly knock another team out of their next game as well. It’s not just the player tests that impact the logistics; even if they’re getting tested daily there are still layers of vulnerability beyond them. Not everybody has access to the best testing right now, unfortunately.

All of this is a long way of saying I don’t plan on starting the preview any time soon. I’m watching what college football does as one sign of the viability of college basketball, and I’m watching the positivity rate on cases in Big 12 country as another sign. I have all but written off the non-conference schedule absent a drastic change in the COVID landscape, and I am doubtful the conference schedule happens. Maybe things take a good turn - a vaccine shows up earlier than anticipated, quarantines get shortened due to new medical information, testing lags get shortened, etc. - and the math changes, at which point I will work on the season preview. For now - as with everything else in this godforsaken year - things are on hold.

That Villanova game would have been fun though.