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Pac-12 basketball teams have a serious opponent this season: the coronavirus

Oregon coach Dana Altman talks to the team before a game against Stanford.
Oregon coach Dana Altman talks to the team before a game against Stanford in Eugene, Ore. on March 7.
(Thomas Boyd / Associated Press)

Historic Pauley Pavilion will be punchless. Old barns like Oregon State’s Gill Coliseum will sit silent. Fancy new venues like Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena will feel extra sterile.

College basketball in 2020 has carried a cursed vibe since its famed postseason event was canceled in March, but schools are going to give it a go before the calendar turns, with the first games scheduled for Nov. 25. A start does not guarantee a finish, of course, and whatever contests are staged will happen without fans — the sport’s essential workers when it comes to creating the trademark frenzied atmospheres.

“It will be different, there’s no doubt,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said during a virtual Pac-12 media day Thursday. “College basketball is a home-court sport. The percentages bear that out. You realize the energy that you have to have as the road team to compete. I wish I had Dillon Brooks back, because he provided his own energy, and I think the team’s going to have to generate that. The energy has to come from within.”

How tough is it to win on the road in the Pac-12? The Utah Utes beat Kentucky on a neutral floor last season but then proceeded to go winless away from home against their league peers. Will Utah have a better shot to steal wins on the road this year? Absolutely. But even then, there’s a loss for the players.

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The UCLA men’s basketball team was picked to win the Pac-12 in the preseason media poll, edging Arizona State and Oregon in the closest vote ever.

“I’m sympathetic toward our guys,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “Having fans is a huge part of college basketball, so if you take a page out of the NBA, if you watched the bubble, you know the Lakers created a lot of magic and energy on their bench, as did the Miami Heat. It’s going to separate the contenders from the pretenders when you step into a gym where there’s not a lot of fanfare and see who’s ready to lace them up and compete.”

The Pac-12 plans to begin a 20-game conference slate Dec. 2 with each team playing twice in December before the season ramps up on its normal bi-weekly schedule around the new year. Nonconference match-ups have been hard to schedule due to the pandemic, with many schools still scrambling to find opponents that can help them prepare for league play while padding their NCAA tournament resumes.

With coronavirus case numbers growing fast during flu season, every game that’s played this season will feel like an accomplishment.

“We are super optimistic and focusing on keeping each other safe, following the protocols and avoiding any situations that would pause our season,” Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said. “That’s what we’ve been talking about as much as Xs and O’s.”

The Week 1 football cancellations of Utah-Arizona and California-Washington have the basketball programs’ attention.

“One case can shut everybody down,” Utah forward Timmy Allen said.

After USC’s uneven defensive debut, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando is confident he’ll have the defense on that track soon.

“Months ago I told our guys that everybody they came in contact with, I want you to assume that they have the virus,” Krystkowiak said. “I feel like our guys have done a tremendous job isolating themselves and avoiding parties. You always speak in your program that it’s bigger than you and your decisions are going to have an impact on our program and man is this ever a shining example of that.”

Krystkowiak is hopeful that keeping his players safe and their season on track will be an easier task than for football teams due to the sheer numbers.

“We’ve got a smaller group that I feel comfortable we can work with, a little more manageable,” he said. “When we talk about football, you can’t teach a linebacker to play another position. I think in basketball it’s a little more fluid. We’re trying to establish some simplicity in some things, because you’re a few Covid cases away from maybe not having your two point guards or whatever the case may be.”


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