EDINBURG — The NCAA Division I Council met Wednesday in Indianapolis to adopt wide-sweeping changes for the year ahead in college athletics amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, many of which will have profound effects on the men’s and women’s college basketball seasons.
Among the NCAA’s most newsworthy announcements regarding the upcoming season, the organization picked Nov. 25 — a target date recommended by the NCAA’s Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee— as its regular-season start date, which would return the UTRGV Vaqueros men’s and women’s basketball teams to the court competitively for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis in early March when both squads had their seasons cut short.
“We got some good information, and at the end of the day, a path forward which is what we’re really excited about,” UTRGV Vice President and Athletic Director Chasse Conque said. “There’s a lot to dive into and a lot to digest, but nonetheless, we’re excited for our student-athletes and now we know a few more pieces of the puzzle so we’re looking forward to preparation for basketball and for our fall sports in the spring.”
“We saw several different dates, and I would say over the last couple of weeks, we noticed that dates between Nov. 21 and 25 were starting to pick up some traction. We’ve heard everything from the 21st to the 23rd to the 25th, so it was really anyone’s guess on where we would land,” Conque added. “Some of the rationale behind it had a lot to do with the college campuses, the way that institutions are built with students on campus, that (start date) puts us right there at the beginning of Thanksgiving break and Thanksgiving week with games starting on the 25th. I think you’ll see a lot of campuses get a little bit quieter and as we talk about creating, which we already have in place, a soft bubble for our student-athletes which is just helpful in the (COVID-19) mitigation process.”
“Six months ago today, we’re flying back from Las Vegas. The men’s team didn’t even get to play their tournament, we left early and the rest is history,” UTRGV women’s head basketball coach Lane Lord said. “It’s been a tough time, it really has. Today’s announcement was just awesome. We’re so ecstatic.”
UTRGV welcomed back many student-athletes and some additional students and staff to campus in late August and early September.
The Vaqueros men’s and women’s basketball squads resumed offseason strength and conditioning workouts, as well as limited practices, in recent weeks, and both programs seem to be adapting well to the university’s new health and safety measures and COVID-19 mitigation guidelines.
“The most important thing for us, our administration and UTRGV Health is to make sure everybody is safe,” Lord said. “That’s our number one priority as an athletic department.”
“It’s been fine. It’s been an adjustment, obviously, but like we tell our guys, we’re trying to be as safe as possible,” UTRGV men’s head basketball coach Lew Hill said. “We’re trying to follow all the protocols and the rules, and we’ve just been telling them that this is a year that we’re always going to be making changes, so there’s no use in complaining about it. Either you want to play or you don’t, right?
“All our guys want to play, so they’re doing the best they can to follow the rules.”
Among several other changes adopted by the NCAA Division I Council was a rule trimming eligibility requirements for the NCAA Tournament by 50% — now teams will only have to compete in a minimum of 13 regular-season games to qualify for selection amid a season sure to be dotted with uncertainty.
Additionally, schools will be limited to a maximum of 27 games, effectively trimming the regular season by four regular-season contests, while preseason scrimmages and exhibitions will be eliminated, and the in-person recruiting moratorium for all DI men’s and women’s basketball programs will be extended until Jan. 1.
“There will be a lot of shuffling that will happen, and we will lose a few games,” Conque said. “How we travel and the NCAA’s protocols that (it) will continue to provide as far as testing, we will adhere to all those guidelines as we have to this point. To be honest with you, we’ve been even more conservative or have done more, I think, to protect our student-athletes and obviously the (UTRGV) School of Medicine has been super supportive of those initiatives, so there will be some reshuffling and I think a lot of that will shake out here in the next couple of weeks.”
While the Vaqueros play in the Western Athletic Conference, a geographically diverse league spread across three time zones, both the men’s and women’s basketball teams will play very regionalized and Texas-centric, non-conference schedules which, in essence, divide their seasons into two distinct halves.
“We really want to stay close in the non-conference and stay in and around the Texas area so we can just be more on the bus, ride the bus,” Hill said. “Then once we get into conference (play), we’ll be flying all over the place, so we want to stay as close as possible around here. Go to the game, get back home and try to stay as safe as possible. We’re excited.”
“We may play four games in a week just to cram everything in before finals and the Christmas break and before conference (play) starts,” Lord said. “We’re going to make it happen. We’ve been talking to coaches for a month, and everybody is kind of scrambling and shifting.”
Two major benefits on that front, however, are uniquely new to the 2020-21 season.
For the first time in its brief history in the WAC, UTRGV will gain an in-state conference opponent in Tarleton State, which joined the league in July 2020, and an in-conference bus opponent.
“It feels good. Obviously (Tarleton State men’s basketball head coach) Billy Gillespie is going to do a good job up there,” Hill said. “He’s a good head coach. But just to be able to ride up and ride back (on a bus) after the game is really nice.”
Furthermore, rather than being in immediate jeopardy of being canceled in its debut season, the UTRGV women’s basketball team’s proposed four-team hoops tournament in South Padre may actually be in a position to expand now before even tipping off for the first time.
Due to the frenetic rescheduling going on at program’s across the country, Conque and Lord said the South Padre Island Tournament could expand to include as many as eight DI women’s college basketball teams and move to a three-day schedule instead of two days to accommodate Texas schools looking to find last-second, non-conference opponents in December.
“The original four teams that we had — Weber State, North Texas, Prairie View A&M and ourselves — are all in. But with all this shuffling of the schedules, there may be an opportunity for us to add a couple of teams,” Lord said. “(We) may extend (the tournament) to another day, but we’ll see how that all unfolds in the next week.”