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Rapid COVID-19 testing deemed ‘game-changer’ for Pac-12, but when will actual games resume?
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Rapid COVID-19 testing deemed ‘game-changer’ for Pac-12, but when will actual games resume?

Basketball season could start before Jan. 1, per Larry Scott; football kickoff remains murky

Larry Scott Commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference

On Aug. 11, when the Pac-12 Conference announced it was postponing all sports for the rest of 2020, testing capacity across the league was cited as a major deterrent. The conference simply did not have the capability to test players and coaches for COVID-19 as frequently as needed to conduct full practices or play games.

That concern has been alleviated thanks to an agreement with a diagnostic testing company that Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott hailed as a potential “game-changer.”

The conference announced Thursday afternoon that it has entered into an agreement with Quidel Corp., a San Diego-based company that has gained FDA approval for a rapid COVID-19 antigen test.

The Sofia SARS Antigen FIA rapid test can produce results within 15 minutes. The tests and the machines used to process them are expected to be delivered to every campus across the league by the end of this month. That would enable student-athletes, coaches and staffers to be tested daily, or every other day, greatly reducing the possibility of asymptomatic spread.

What that means for the return of football, basketball and other sports remains unclear, but it could open the door for games to be played before 2021.

“No doubt today is very good news and a major step forward,” Scott said during a video news conference. “But hope has never been a strategy for the Pac-12.

“It’s a dynamic situation, one step at a time. It’s why I won’t commit today to when we’re going to be returning to play because there are additional issues we need to work through.”

Those issues include getting governmental clearance for half the league’s institutions to participate in full-contact practices — the four California schools (Cal, Stanford, UCLA, USC) and the two in Oregon (Oregon, Oregon State).

As Scott noted, those schools “couldn’t start training camp tomorrow.”

“Some of this is still outside our control,” Scott said. “We’re only going to go about this in a way we feel comfortable ... and not cut it too fine.”

Still, Scott said he was “hopeful” sports could resume sooner than later and indicated the previously proposed best-case scenario of Jan. 1 could shift to an earlier date.

Let’s look at some of the possibilities for football and basketball in light of Thursday’s announcement:

Aligning with the Big Ten

The Pac-12 originally was supposed to open the football season last Saturday. Arizona was to have faced Hawaii in Tucson.

On July 10, following the lead of the Big Ten, the Pac-12 removed nonconference opponents from its fall sports calendar. Three weeks later, the league announced an all-conference slate that was to have started Sept. 26.

Less than two weeks later, the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced they were postponing the fall season. Meanwhile, the other three members of the so-called Power Five — the ACC, Big 12 and SEC — pushed forward with plans to play.

The first college football game of the season, between Austin Peay and Central Arkansas, took place Saturday. Two games were on tap Thursday evening, with several more slated for this Saturday. The ACC and Big 12 are set to kick off next week.

Big Ten and Pac-12 officials have been discussing the possibility of playing a shortened season in winter and/or spring. Scott declined to speculate about a possible restart date but did note two key factors: (1) the need for a six-week ramp-up before the start of games; and (2) a desire to align with the Big Ten, the Pac-12’s longtime Rose Bowl partner.

First-year Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren has faced pressure from players, their parents, fans and even President Trump to reconsider the possibility of playing football this fall.

A report circulated this week that the Big Ten was eyeing Oct. 10, but Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos told the Lincoln Journal Star that “there’s nothing to that.”

Big Ten teams would have to start practicing Saturday to satisfy the six-week timeline for conditioning and training camp.

Scott said both leagues have working groups that are discussing “post-Jan. 1 scheduling scenarios.”

“This is uncharted territory. We’re just trying to put one foot in front of the other,” Scott said. “But I have said to Kevin that it’s a high priority for the Pac-12 to align our seasons and ... have some of the traditional postseason opportunities that the Pac-12 and Big Ten have enjoyed over many decades.”

Starting a season on or around Jan. 1 — as opposed to late February or early March — would provide more time to recover for players returning in fall 2021. It also would give would-be pros time to prepare for the NFL draft, which is slated for April 29-May 1.

The tests supplied by Quidel would make it a lot easier for teams to hold training camp before the end of the year. They currently are allowed 12-hour workweeks, including five hours of noncontact field drills.

Eliminating the gap between collecting samples and getting results — which could be 24 hours or longer, depending on testing capabilities — is “going to help us find our way back to sports,” said Dr. Doug Aukerman, senior associate athletic director of sports medicine at Oregon State.

'Pathway' to hoops in 2020

It caught many by surprise — even some of the league’s own coaches — when the Pac-12 included basketball, a winter sport, in its postponement announcement.

Since then, the NCAA, which has a degree of control over basketball that it lacks over football, has considered start dates between Nov. 10 and Dec. 4.

Scott said he was hopeful the NCAA would agree on a later date — Nov. 25 and Dec. 4 seem to be the leading contenders — and would be open to walking back the original no-games-until-January declaration.

“We’re hopeful today’s news and what’s coming from the NCAA will provide us a pathway to start before Jan. 1,” Scott said.

The testing breakthrough coming “eight weeks earlier than we originally anticipated does allow us to revisit some of our decisions,” Scott added. “When we made our decision (to postpone), it was a Nov. (10) start. We knew we could not be ready for that.”

However, Scott said the Pac-12 remained against the “bubble” concept the NBA and WNBA have created, playing games for weeks on end at a neutral site that features tight controls and testing.

So it’s unclear if Arizona would be able to participate in a modified NIT Season Tip-Off if it were combined with other multiteam events and moved to a single location.

One industry source told the Star that the same Disney site the NBA is using in Orlando, Florida, is also a likely site for tournaments run by ESPN Events.

But Scott seemed open to the idea of minibubbles or pods in which multiple teams would meet at one site for two to four games over a long weekend to cut down on travel and potential exposure.

“The idea of student-athletes being in a bubble doesn’t resonate well with our university leaders,” Scott said.

“Having said that, there are scenario-planning committees that are looking at all types of smart scheduling options ... where you minimize airplane travel (and) play multiple games in one place. Daily testing with immediate results opens up possibilities for us.”

Scott said the Pac-12 would explore making the Quidel testing available to nonconference foes.

“We have to hold opposing teams to this same standard,” he said.

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