LOUDONVILLE — College basketball remains on the table.
Siena and MAAC officials — and NCAA ones, too, no doubt — want to keep it that way.
How to make the 2020-21 season happen, though, remains a riddle without a clear solution with nine weeks to go until formal preseason practices are allowed to start for the Saints and other Division I programs amid an ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re short on details, in terms of how things are going to evolve,” MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor said Monday afternoon during a phone interview. “But we’re planning on, and fully committing to, basketball getting up and running — as is the NCAA.”
The MAAC announced Monday what was widely expected for its fall sports, which is that there won’t be any this year as colleges continue to grapple with how to safely re-open their campuses. The conference and its member schools, which includes Siena, joined a growing list of institutions to make that decision ahead of this fall semester.
“It definitely was something that we kind of saw coming,” Siena women’s soccer rising redshirt junior Sophia Dimkopoulos said during a conference call with reporters. “But it’s sad. It’s tough.”
The MAAC Council of Presidents finalized that decision Monday morning. In a press release issued through the conference, the league announced that “a decision on whether fall sport competition would be feasible in the spring will be determined by the presidents at a later date,” but that athletes will be allowed to train during the fall semester and that the league’s presidents “pledged full advocacy on behalf of our student-athletes to work with the NCAA in the pursuit of any waivers that preserve lost opportunities because of these COVID-19 disruptions.”
The MAAC moved deliberately in, at the very least, postponing its fall seasons in sports such as cross country, soccer and volleyball. The conference’s late-June announcement was to delay its fall sports competitions to starting no earlier than Sept. 11 and that no athletes would be allowed on campus through July for offseason workouts. A couple weeks later, the decision was made to cancel all non-conference competition in soccer and volleyball, and that basketball programs couldn’t conduct any of the summer “minicamps” that had been proposed.
“What we’ve always tried to do since this started back in March is take these things in increments, and try to make the best reaction we can to what’s in front of us for now, and the next 30 days, the next 40 days,” said Siena athletic director John D’Argenio, whose men’s basketball program appeared poised to win its MAAC tournament before its season was abruptly halted when that tournament was called off. “We don’t want to try to get too far out in front because we don’t want to make a decision now that we might regret living with down the road.”
While practices are allowed to start Sept. 29 for basketball, competition is slated to start Nov. 10. Ensor isn’t sure if those dates will be able to hold. Even if they do, it’s possible programs will need to rework their non-conference schedules to feature more games against opponents from within the same region.
“I think you’ll probably see a modified non-conference [season]. I think we’re headed in that direction, anyways. Some events are already being touched by this,” Ensor said. “I think it’s likely we’re going to have some impact, and that it may lead to a modified non-conference season.”
Ensor said his expectation remains that college basketball will be played during the 2020-21 academic year, even if the COVID-19 pandemic causes those November and December schedules for programs to be rethought.
For Siena, that rethinking could involve where it plays its men’s basketball home games this upcoming season. D’Argenio said his department and Times Union Center officials have been in close contact regarding how it could socially distance fans at games played in the downtown Albany arena. There are plans, and contingency plans, being considered, but D’Argenio noted that Siena needs to be able to decide “is it even economically feasible” to play at Times Union Center with a reduced crowd for the program that had an average home attendance of 6,228 last season.
If the math doesn’t work out? Or if state regulations don’t allow for such a large indoor gathering this winter?
Playing men’s basketball games at the school’s on-campus Alumni Recreation Center, which had a maximum seating capacity of 2,148 last season, are a possibility.
“If, for some reason, we weren’t allowed to have fans or we couldn’t have enough fans in the building to take care of what we needed to financially, then I do think coming on campus could be an option,” D’Argenio said. “Could be our only option when it gets right down to it.
“But it’s certainly in the mix. I mean, obviously, ideally, we want to be in the arena. We want to be able to at least take care of all of our season ticket-holders. The way we’re looking at social-distancing, we should be able to do that, we just wouldn’t be able to do any individual game-day sales.”
As a school, the next step for Siena is to begin welcoming students back to campus that will need to quarantine upon their arrival. D’Argenio said international students and students from states on New York’s travel advisory list will begin to arrive on campus Aug. 3 in order to be ready for the school’s Aug. 24 start date.
At the league level, Ensor said a working group is close to being established to focus on what D’Argenio termed the “basketball question” that awaits the MAAC.
It’s too early to say.
The outlook, though, doesn’t look particularly rosy, especially after a Monday that saw multiple Major League Baseball games called off because of a coronavirus outbreak within one of the league’s teams. Beyond the sports world, the United States has recorded at least 30,000 new confirmed cases of coronavirus each day for more than a month, and Ensor said the MAAC’s announcement Monday regarding fall sports had as much to do with the continued uncertainty related to how long the coronavirus will affect everyday life in the country as anything else.
“It was really driven by the national infection rates,” Ensor said. “It became apparent to us that we just don’t have a full handle on what’s going on nationally, and that it’s best to err on the side of safety.”