For the head coaches at UAlbany and Siena, the goal is the same each conference weekend this Division I college basketball season: Earn a sweep.
“Now,” Siena men’s head coach Carmen Maciariello said, “that’s a lot harder to do than to say.”
Both the America East Conference and the MAAC are using scheduling formats that generally call on their teams to play same-site weekend series against one opponent, with Siena’s MAAC games mostly set for Fridays and Saturday, and UAlbany’s America East games generally taking place on Saturdays and Sundays.
The America East’s first round of conference play takes place this weekend and the MAAC’s was last week. While the MAAC’s women’s series produced four sweeps that included the Siena women losing twice to Fairfield, the league’s men’s series produced three splits and one sweep.
That weekend, Maciariello assigned each of his players — still finishing up the Saints’ second pause of in-person activities, a span of inactivity that ended Tuesday — a team or two to study since they themselves weren’t playing, and one of the main takeaways from what they watched was how different some of the Friday games were from the Saturday ones between the same teams.
In their first matchup, Rider trounced Manhattan 82-64; the next day, Manhattan secured a 10-point win. In another series, Iona drubbed Fairfield 70-42 . . . and, then, the Stags collected a 15-point win.
Will Brown, the UAlbany men’s coach, said he’s paid extra attention to leagues using the back-to-back model, and remarked earlier this week about the wild swings from Game 1 to Game 2 in some instances. The vast majority of Division I college basketball programs generally don’t play on back-to-back days, and Brown said the challenge of the scheduling model several conferences are using as a this-season-only measure to mitigate the novel coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the campaign is as much of a mental challenge for teams as it is a physical one.
“It becomes a chess match,” Brown said.
For starters, there is trying to figure out how to handle the minutes of star players and how deep a rotation is needed. UAlbany women’s head coach Colleen Mullen’s team hasn’t played back-to-back games yet, but did start its season with three games in five days — and she noted with concern how her team has three players averaging more than 30 minutes per game, including particularly heavy workloads for Kyara Frames (37.3) and Ellen Hahne (36).
“If that’s how we’re going to play,” Mullen said, “it could cause a problem on that second day.”
The Siena women’s basketball team, which needed to pause in-person activities on Tuesday because of a positive COVID-19 test result, seemed to run into that problem in its series against Fairfield. After playing a competitive first game against Fairfield in which three Siena starters played at least 35 minutes, the Saints lost by 32 points the next night in a game that head coach Ali Jaques described as “extremely frustrating” because she knew her players — whose preseason was shut down for two weeks for the team’s first pause — weren’t physically ready to play at their best on two consecutive nights.
Mullen said she planned to change up her practices this week to reduce the “pounding on their legs” for her players ahead of their games at UMBC, while Brown stressed that “rest and recovery” will be crucial between games.
But obtaining sweeps is the goal, and a team cannot do that without winning that first game. With that reality, Brown seemed to suggest it’s likely he’ll use his true rotation in Game 1 of a series, then figure out how he needs to expand it for his Sunday games.
“I think on Sunday, both teams will probably be a little bit tired compared to Saturday,” said Brown, whose team debuts Saturday against a 4-1 UMBC team. “So maybe you have to play [Sunday] a couple guys a few less minutes, [and] give two, three other guys more of an opportunity.”
Beyond the physical challenges associated with playing games on back-to-back days, teams also have a short turnaround from Game 1 in order to make adjustments and implement their altered game plans — which also need to take into account, as Brown pointed out, how the opposing team will likely adjust — before Game 2 tips off.
That’s a challenge, certainly, for coaches and players — but perhaps most challenging for coaches will be making sure their players are ready to compete in a fresh second game that starts back at 0-0 regardless of how lopsided the first game between teams turned out.
“No matter if you win by 20, lose by five, whatever it may be — you have to be able to go out and execute, and you can’t be comfortable with your last night’s game,” said Maciariello, whose team’s first league games are Dec. 26-27 against Canisius.
At the Division I level, the Ivy League — which is sitting out this season — regularly plays on back-to-back days, while local Division III teams such as RPI, Skidmore and Union in the Liberty League — also not playing this season because of concerns related to the pandemic — play conference games on consecutive days.
While most Division I programs aren’t used to playing consistently on back-to-back days, including the ones at UAlbany and Siena, they’re eager to experience a unique season if it means they get to have one.
“It’s going to be fun,” Brown said. “It’s a new challenge, [but] 2020 has been an unbelievable challenge, so I think figuring out a [back-to-back] format will be a whole lot easier than trying to figure out this pandemic.”