On a day when COVID-19 knocked out the third of Arizona’s first four games, a Pac-12 opener against Colorado, the Wildcats scrambled to at least restore their nonconference schedule.
Arizona added a Dec. 12 game against New Mexico State to effectively replace its canceled Nov. 29 game with UTEP. That gets the Wildcats back to a seven-game nonconference schedule — except that their next game, against Northern Colorado on Saturday, also appears doubtful.
In what might surprise exactly nobody at this point, the Bears have already canceled two games since announcing on Nov. 25 that their men’s basketball program has paused activity due to COVID-19 issues.
A Northern Colorado spokesman said Tuesday that Saturday’s game at Arizona was still scheduled to be played as of that point, and UA basketball operations director Ryan Reynolds said he has not been told the game is off.
However, Northern Colorado has not said if it paused its program on Nov. 25 or just announced it then. If the team paused activity on Nov. 25, a game Saturday would only be 10 days later, shorter than a 14-day quarantine period.
Then again, as the Wildcats have learned over the first week of the season, no game is assured to happen anyway.
COVID-19 issues with opponents have cost the Wildcats their Nov. 25 opener against NAU, the Nov. 29 game with UTEP and Wednesday’s game with Colorado.
The NAU game was moved to Dec. 7, NMSU replaced UTEP and the Colorado-UA game is expected to be rescheduled, though Arizona might not have room to play it until after Christmas.
The Buffaloes began having COVID-19 issues last week, when starting wing D’Shawn Schwartz tested positive and missed their first two games. Contact tracing related to Schwartz’s positive test sidelined another two reserves, point guard Keeshawn Barthelemy and forward Tristan da Silva for a game on Friday at Kansas State.
On Monday morning, CU coach Tad Boyle said it was “so far, so good” to play Wednesday at Arizona but that the team was scheduled to test twice that day and once again on Tuesday before leaving for Tucson.
By Tuesday morning, the Pac-12 announced that the UA-CU game had been called off because the Buffaloes did not have enough scholarship players available, meaning there were additional tests or tracing issues.
While the Pac-12 issued a cancellation policy Tuesday saying that teams can elect to play without the minimum of seven scholarship players, Boyle told the Boulder Daily Camera that CU needed to be cautious since it was a second positive test.
“We’ll deal with it as the days unfold and hopefully have some direction from there,” Boyle said. “We’re listening to our doctors and medical advisors and heeding their advice.”
Northern Colorado may be in a similar bind, and if Saturday’s Arizona-Northern Colorado game is also postponed or canceled, that would leave the Wildcats at least a nine-day gap between their 74-55 opening win over Grambling and a second game.
It would also leave yet another hole in Arizona’s nonconference schedule, which is why Reynolds and UTEP have kept their communication lines open even though the Wildcats no longer need to play the Miners as of now.
“Every game is very fluid situation,” Reynolds said. “You’ve kind of got to keep all your options on the table and with our location, there’s only so many teams that can drive to us. So UTEP, NAU, Grand Canyon, New Mexico State — in most cases, those are going to be the first calls, just because they don’t have to fly.”
Even though Arizona and New Mexico State were not originally scheduled to play this season, the matchup appeared increasingly destined to happen.
The Wildcats have been losing games and the Aggies are looking for them — while being holed up in Phoenix because of New Mexico’s COVID-19-related restrictions.
While living at the Arizona Grand Resort for at least five weeks, the Aggies have created what coach Chris Jans called their own “bubble” within the hotel, complete with a basketball court inside a ballroom.
Meanwhile, they have been scouring the landscape for games.
“We make calls to see (other teams) are thinking,” Jans said last week. “It’s a constant jigsaw puzzle. It’s a very difficult puzzle more than most years. It’s not a daily meeting; it’s ongoing.
“Sometimes I feel like a kid in a candy store — (I’ll ask staffers) ‘we got anything new?’ ”
Reynolds said he has been talking to NMSU for two or three months, even before they moved to Phoenix, and the Dec. 12 date was open because Arizona and Illinois agreed to postpone a game for that day to next season.
Overall, Arizona has been aiming to maintain seven nonconference and 20 conference games this season.
“For us, the goal is to try to play as many of the nonconference games as we can before Christmas,” Reynolds said.
If there’s any silver lining for the Wildcats, it’s that the schedule disruption is giving more time for forward Ira Lee to return from his concussion and for the NCAA to make a determination on Kerr Kriisa’s eligibility status.
An hour after announcing the Arizona-Colorado cancellation, the Pac-12 issued updated protocols and cancellation policies for men’s basketball games. Nonconference opponents must test at least four times a week, including once the day of a game, while the NCAA minimum is three.
In addition, the Pac-12 said games may be canceled if local transmission rates are considered unsafe by local health officials, or if officials determine there is insufficient hospital capacity for a surge.
At Stanford, a new Santa Clara County order is prohibiting games or practices through at least Dec. 21, meaning the Dec. 19 UA game at Stanford is likely to be moved or postponed.