The Big Ten just might have the best plan when it comes to dealing with the coronavirus. Yes, I know that sounds absolutely ridiculous after the league screwed it up with college football. But the Big Ten has figured it out better than anyone else when it comes to college hoops.
That’s due to daily testing that’s not just for coaches and players in Tier 1, but also for referees.
The conference has decided to have all of its programs, as well as the officials, utilize Quidel’s daily COVID-19 antigen test.
“Who knows what’s right with so much uncertainty [surrounding the virus],” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told Stadium on Monday afternoon. “But I feel good about our plan with daily testing. I feel as though that’s the best way to try and play this season.”
“It’ll give us the best chance of eliminating the contact-tracing piece from competition,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood told me.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 are both testing every day, but most of the other high-major leagues are testing three times per week, using PCR tests. Many of the low- and mid-major conferences have been testing weekly, and are now — with the season starting this week — required to test three times per week.
“It’s a shitshow and it’s only going to get worse,” one low-major head coach said. “Now we can’t manipulate the contact-tracing anymore like we’ve been doing. In the past, we could go practice non-contact the day before everyone was tested. Now, with it being three times a week, you can’t do that.”
One positive test result often leads to a full 14-day quarantine for the entire team, which doesn’t make a ton of sense.
But that hasn’t been the case in the Big Ten. The player who tests positive has to go into a 21-day quarantine, but the remainder of the team is able to test out of quarantine as long as they are negative each day.
“It’s logical,” said one Big 12 head coach. “It’s what we need to all be doing.”
According to multiple sources, the Big Ten is also on the verge of hiring approximately 15 referees in an exclusive deal in which they would solely work Big Ten games once league play begins.
Underwood has been adamant that the referees could be the key piece in a halt to the college basketball season, calling them “potential super-spreaders.” They are independent contractors, and therefore, are able to jump from league to league — and state to state — on a daily basis.
But the Big Ten has decided to pay up and lock in a core group that would be tested six days a week. For instance, when they arrive in a town like East Lansing the night before the game, they would all be tested. Then they would get another test hours prior to the game. The league has also opted to hire a fourth official in case one of the referees is unable to work due to COVID-19.
“The Big Ten has the best odds of pulling this off,” said one elite-level referee. “They have the best plan, and it’s not even close.”
Every conference should follow suit and hire 15 officials that are exclusive for this season, manage their travel and enlist an alternate in case something goes awry. I’d even keep them in pods for accountability reasons.
But even if that doesn’t happen, daily testing is currently the game-changer.
Yes, I know not every league can afford it. Low-major conferences like the NEC and SWAC are having a difficult time affording testing three times per week.
That’s where the NCAA should come in.
It’s got around $900 million reasons (that’s what it stands to lose if there’s no NCAA Tournament) to help out this season, so why not do the right thing and give $1 million to the 20 or so leagues that would need it in order to conduct daily testing or set up a “controlled environment” for league contests.
The problem with college basketball isn’t all that different with what happened to college football. Leagues and schools weren’t on the same page — they just did their own thing.
It’s time to figure out the best plan and implement it universally across the sport, and right now, the Big Ten is ahead of just about everyone else.