Because college basketball is trying to plow through a pandemic, the paths that teams are getting shoved on tend to differ in circumstance and length but never in frustration.
Arizona and Eastern Washington, having arranged a last-minute dance together Saturday at McKale Center, are already riding down two of the extremes.
Each team has played only one game over the first 10 days of the season: Four would-be Arizona opponents bailed out with COVID-19 issues, while Eastern Washington has struggled with its own COVID-19 issues, an opponent’s COVID-19 issues — and because of a false positive COVID-19 test.
Already, the Eagles have experienced pretty much all of the above.
“There’s so many things that can happen to you,” said EWU coach Shantay Legans, the former Cal and Fresno State point guard. “We’re trying to do everything the right way. But you don’t know all the variables. You don’t know where you’ve been. You don’t know who’s been there before you and you don’t know if they’ve cleaned it up correctly or anything like that.
“That’s always a tough pill to swallow for these kids.”
The Eagles learned things were not in their control even before the season began. With a positive test and related contact-tracing quarantines already taxing its roster, EWU was still packing up to open the season Nov. 25 at Oregon. It was a chance for the defending Big Sky champs to make an impression against a perennial Top 25 power.
But then a positive antigen test hit, leaving the Eagles without enough players to face the Ducks — and without enough time to confirm the test’s validity.
“Once that happened, we had to go (have the player) take a PCR test, and that doesn’t come back for 24 hours,” Legans said. “So you don’t have all the information and (when it comes back negative), it’s the 26th. The game’s already past. There’s nothing we can do.”
The Eagles got the player back in time to face Washington State on Nov. 28, but even then EWU still had just six scholarship players and a walk-on available to face the Cougars in Pullman.
Plus, the Eagles’ game prep wasn’t exactly ideal.
“It was such a ragtag thing,” Legans said. “One of our guys couldn’t practice because he had a headache so we had to go through the protocols and all that. Then the other guy was getting back (from the false positive) — he didn’t really practice for the game. So we really were only practicing with like five or six guys. And because you want to make sure everybody’s good, you can’t really go up and down.
“But the guys came out and played really hard. Just got tired at the end.”
The Eagles lost 71-68 to the Cougars despite playing just their six scholarship players.
Then, on Monday, EWU’s home opener was canceled when Montana Tech — already a replacement opponent for Northwest University — pulled out because of its own COVID-19 issues.
That’s when Legans’ wife, former EWU women’s basketball player Tatjana Sparavalo, stepped in. She noticed fellow Big Sky opponent Northern Colorado and Colorado had both pulled out of games at Arizona over the past week.
Colorado will likely reschedule UA as a Pac-12 game, but Northern Colorado left a wide-open vacancy for Saturday — and the Eagles had nothing to do this weekend, with plenty of time to hop on a flight out of Spokane.
“She’s been on everything — who’s playing, who’s not playing and cancellations,” Legans said. “When we saw Arizona had an opening, and one of the teams in our league had to quarantine and do all these other things, my wife said, ‘Hey, Arizona just canceled Colorado and Northern Colorado. You gotta give them a call.’ ”
Legans, an eight-year assistant coach at EWU before taking the program over in 2017, knew UA associate head coach Jack Murphy, the former NAU head coach.
So that’s who he called first. Their discussion led to talks with UA basketball operations director Ryan Reynolds, who had been focusing on finding nearby teams who presumably would be more likely to be willing to travel to McKale Center.
“They were willing come down here,” Reynolds said. “As soon as they said that, it worked out.”
While the Eagles may still be without starting point guard Ellis Magnusen, who is undergoing follow-up cardiac testing after his COVID-19 issue, they still should have just about everybody else Saturday from a team widely expected to repeat as Big Sky champs this season.
In fact, Eastern Washington might be the Wildcats’ toughest test of the entire nonconference season. The Eagles went 23-8 and won the Big Sky regular-season title last season, losing conference MVP Mason Peatling but no other starters this season.
So while the Wildcats are trying to replace their entire starting lineup with mostly inexperienced talent around transfers James Akinjo and Jordan Brown, the Eagles have experience, chemistry and a penchant for playing up-tempo basketball.
“I really like our team,” Legans said. “I think they play well together. We lost the MVP so there’s a lot of shots and rebounds to get. And I like the makeup of our team. We’ve got some scrappy guys, some guys who have been overlooked for a long time and they really work hard on their game.
“So I’m really excited for them to be able to have that opportunity.”
Especially this season, or whatever gets played of it.