MISSOULA — The beginning of the 2020-21 college basketball season draws near, and, still, more questions than answers linger.
That was ever present on Wednesday morning when seventh-year Montana men's basketball coach Travis DeCuire met with the media for a wide-ranging press conference that lasted about 40 minutes to discuss the newly released non-conference schedule, the challenges of this team full of new faces and how UM and the rest of the college basketball landscape will handle this upcoming season as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on across the United States.
The season is scheduled to start Nov. 25 with Montana slated to begin at USC in Los Angeles on Nov. 28.
"(The virus) hasn't gotten any better," DeCuire said when comparing how things were going compared to when the Big Sky Conference tournament was canceled in March. "We're really in the worst state we've been in as a country. Problem is I think there's enough people out there in denial as to what kind of a threat COVID-19 really is.
"In March, if you asked me what I'd have thought about our upcoming season I'd have told you we'd have had our normal summer, guys would be here for summer school, we'd have gotten a hold of it and we'd be back to normal. Then when we got to June and I came back to Missoula after being gone since March, I would've told you once school starts we'd be fine, and we're going the other direction and we continue to go the other direction. I honestly believe, we've got 24 games on our schedule right now, we'd be hard-pressed to play half of those games."
According to UM, the Griz had to readjust their non-conference schedule eight times due to a variety of changes. When asked if it felt like moving forward with the season felt forced, DeCuire's response exemplified the thin line coaches and programs must walk when dealing with the discussion of whether or not a season should be happening.
"I do feel like we're forcing it, there's no question about that and there's a lot of reasons behind that," DeCuire said. "A lot of people are going to question what's best for the student-athlete. There's the physical health but there's also the mental health, and a lot of these young men and women have built their life around basketball and from 18 to 24 have played a lot of basketball in their life. And to go from March to November without competing against someone other than your teammate is a long time, and I think that that is part of what led into making the season exempt, is the mental health of the student-athlete. And look how many student-athletes we lost in the last few months due to the pandemic. I'm not talking lost to coronavirus, there have been a lot of other things that have played into dysfunction for these young athletes, and so sometimes getting them on the floor with an official and a whistle is important to their mental health because it's what they identify with, and it's unfortunate that we're in that state."
He continued: "I know for my team that we've had a number of guys that have been out of character because basketball has not really been there. We worked out and practiced, but the uncertainty of basketball has played a role in this. Even the guys who are gone that have moved on that are playing internationally, there's some guys that have had this impact them negatively because basketball hasn't been what they're used to it being, so we're walking a thin line right now to take it away for two seasons really and hope that they survive it or try to get through it. I don't know what the best answer is. I think that changes on a daily basis."
Montana is scheduled to open the season with six road games starting with USC. The Griz begin conference play at Southern Utah for a pair of games on Dec. 3 and 5, followed by non-conference matchups with Georgia (Dec. 8), Washington (Dec. 16) and Arizona (Dec. 22).
That travel is another cause for concern and questions in terms of flying to larger populated areas and proper protocols when traveling, such as masks and avoiding contact with the public. But outside of that, DeCuire noted it has been an issue in Missoula, let alone leaving for other cities.
"The reality is it's just been hard to manage here in this college town in terms of places you may or may not go or should or should not go and COVID's being passed around pretty easily in some of those locations," DeCuire said. "So I think you get to a point where a lot of these young men feel like they might get it anyway and a lot of them have had it. There's a part of me that doesn't want to travel. I wish we could charter everywhere like some of these teams are going to be doing. I wish our conference could afford to have an emergency helicopter ready to transport people, or a plane, that can transport a positive case that's on the road that can't get back. I wish we had all of those things available to us that would make more sense of it but they're not, and so there's just a lot of ways for this to be positive or negative, and I think we just have to work and make this as positive and safe as possible for these guys."
DeCuire also touched on topics about the pressure the NCAA and conferences are under for the NCAA Tournament to happen for financial reasons and the trickle-down effect if a second tournament is affected or canceled.
"Without those dollars, there may be some athletic programs that shut down," DeCuire said. "There's a lot of pressure on a lot of people to make something happen, and right now college basketball's the only sport that has the ability to bring in money with the exception of a small portion of football teams that have crowds, and even those don't have enough people at their games to probably offset the money that they're spending to do what they do.
"It's a lot of pressure on one sport to save a lot of athletic budgets, and it's a hard position to be in because you wonder why you make your decisions. But that's why I always go back to what the student-athletes want, and I think the most important thing that the NCAA did do is give all of these students an opportunity to opt out without it being held against them and then also giving them this year as an exempt season so they can have it back so that they're making the decision as to whether they want to be out there or not. Whether they feel that way or not, that's up to the staff to make them feel comfortable with the decision they made and feel like it's a decision that they made. I think that what you're seeing is a lot of these young men and women want to be out there on the floor, and I think they're all the best decision-makers when it comes to these types of things, but hopefully they're all out there because they want to be out there, not because they feel like they have to be."
Questions still need to be answered in terms of positive tests and protocols. DeCuire said the Big Sky has worked on some protocols in hoping to avoid situations such as positive tests on the road and getting those affected back safely. But, even with protocols in place, DeCuire said there's still plenty to iron out.
"I've called 30 head coaches and asked all of them what they will do and what their protocol is. Out of those 30, five of them have a plan," he said. "Most are waiting on conference, administration, NCAA to get back and tell us what the deal is, and everyone is sitting back saying you got to communicate with that county's health department, the CDC and go by their policies, and so a lot of those policies in a lot of those places is you're stuck."
To work around that, DeCuire said he heard from coaches that are working with rental car agencies that will allow the team to rent a van and put a COVID positive in the van and have someone on the team's staff drive. Anything longer than a 10-hour drive, the travelers would stop and rest, but that is one conference policy out there.
He added: "For us, we've got some people that have already been positive that wouldn't be at-risk in terms of COVID traveling with a positive. We're in a situation where we probably have fewer potential positives than a lot of teams in the country, so we've got some things mapped out that we're working on, and we're still asking more questions and trying to get a little more specific answers before we jump on our first flight."
Reports of a possible vaccine making its way to the public in the future have also been at the forefront, but DeCuire said he has been steering away from asking when his team, or athletes in general, might be administered the vaccine if and when it arrives.
"I'm one to believe there's a lot of people out there who need that vaccine before us," DeCuire said. "I think that we're sending a bad message as a country if athletes get that vaccine before people that are saving lives and people that are being asked to educate young kids in rooms they don't want to be in. If front-line workers and teachers don't get it first, then I think there's a major issue with what's going on out there."
On the court as they prep for the season, DeCuire noted that the Griz have changed days off from past years, shortened practices, and held players out due to injury worries more often than not while getting prepared. At this point last year, DeCuire said the team had two closed-door scrimmages under its belt as well as the Maroon-Silver Scrimmage, so the Griz had a better of understanding of how they matched up against someone other than themselves.
So in terms of where the team would be in the past, DeCuire said they aren't quite there for a multitude of reasons.
"I don't know that there's one team in the country that was where they were last year, Nov. 17 or 18, whether it's quarantines, whether it's struggling to get guys in shape," DeCuire said. "We're in tough scenario right now. Our guys are anxious to play, they'd like to play against someone other than themselves. I think there's a lot of question in terms of where we are.
"Right now we just have a lot of question marks and trying to keep our guys healthy, the ones that are, and the ones that aren't just trying to get them there."
DeCuire said he's pleased to see how his team has gotten along with each other and is impressed with the talent available, it's just a matter of getting them game ready with the limited time on the floor due to injuries, injury precautions, shorter practices, etc. In a season where teams could be without a player or two at any given time, DeCuire likes the depth his team has if it came to that.
But with the first day of the season continuing to loom, many questions are still yet to be answered, leaving teams in a bind and in limbo to scramble and last-minute plan in this new era of college basketball.