For each of the league’s basketball teams, that was the benchmark — “the goal” — to reach that MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor stated multiple times during Monday’s conference call with reporters.
That’s how many games a Division I basketball team needs to play to be eligible for the 2020-21 season’s NCAA tournament, and simply meeting that low mark — teams normally play more than twice that number of games — has seemingly become more important with each day that the season’s Nov. 25 start draws closer and the coronavirus pandemic worsens in the United States.
“I think everyone recognizes that, this year, it’s all about the conference, more than ever,” Ensor said during a conference call, during which several of the league’s coaches painted a relatively grim picture regarding the likelihood of a successful 2020-21 season.
As the number of coronavirus cases rises in the United States, several of the MAAC’s men’s basketball programs currently are not practicing because of pandemic-related pauses, while some others only recently started back up. Rider and Marist are among Siena’s conference rivals that are currently not practicing, and Rider head coach Kevin Baggett said he is “not confident at all” his team will be ready to play when the non-conference season starts, while Dunne described, in part, his aim for the 2020-21 season as “hopefully getting some games in.”
In all, at least four MAAC programs — Rider, Marist, Niagara and Quinnipiac — are currently not practicing, while Canisius and Monmouth recently resumed. Siena head coach Carmen Maciariello, whose team was picked last week to repeat as league champions, said the plight of the Saints’ rivals isn’t lost on his group.
“It’s just a reminder to our guys that it could happen to us any second,” Maciariello said.
More than in most seasons, Maciariello said the focus rests on “just trying to make sure we accomplish something every single day” since the next day’s practice isn’t guaranteed. Monmouth head coach King Rice echoed that sentiment, and said his team — which resumed practicing Sunday — spent extra time scrimmaging on its first day back in the gym “just to let them have fun playing basketball” after the game was temporarily taken away from them.
At the moment, the MAAC has a format for league play, but doesn’t have a firm schedule. The league announced last week it had scrapped its original remodeled schedule that included men’s teams playing on Tuesdays and Fridays, and women’s teams playing on Wednesdays and Saturdays when conference play starts in December in favor of a schedule with both men’s and women’s teams playing Fridays and Saturdays. In the MAAC’s new format, two schools will play each other on back-to-back days at one site, with the men playing at one school and the women playing at the other.
In all, each program’s conference schedule will still include 10 home games and 10 away games, but teams playing their league schedules — which Ensor said will “probably” be released by Friday — as they’re designed seems unlikely.
“Nothing’s set in stone this year,” Ensor said.
Non-conference games, Ensor said, should be viewed “as akin to preseason games.” During the conference season that’s set to start Dec. 11, Ensor said it’s possible the league could switch matchups for teams if multiple teams find themselves without an opponent on the same weekend because of pandemic-related reasons. Plus, Ensor said, it’s possible MAAC schools could play each other in games scheduled on the fly that don’t count toward the league’s standings, but help them reach that 13-game total.
“The goal here,” Ensor said, “is to get 13 Division I games in the regular season.”
Is that a realistic goal?
Right now, that’s hard to say — but the MAAC and its schools are trying to reach it.
“It’s been a challenging year for everybody,” said Fairfield men’s basketball head coach Jay Young, whose program experienced “some pauses,” but is currently practicing. “I wish the teams in the league the best of luck moving forward, but, certainly, what is paramount is the safety and health of our players during this season.”