Rescheduling options for Iowa-Michigan State hoops; McCaffery wants to keep Big Ten Tournament

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

The Iowa men’s basketball team this week is getting its first taste of an in-season scheduling disruption because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Hawkeyes (ranked No. 5 by The Associated Press, No. 8 by the coaches) had their Thursday game against Michigan State postponed after three positive cases surfaced within the Spartans’ program. They’ve also had three different start times announced for their trip to Northwestern, with the final verdict locked in now at 11 a.m. Sunday at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

The nice thing: This game has transitioned from a Monday night contest on Big Ten Network to a Sunday national-network telecast on CBS that leads into NFL playoff coverage, with Ian Eagle and Bill Raftery on the call.

"I think it's a great opportunity for our program,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery acknowledged Friday. “We're very happy about it. It's unfortunate what's happened to Michigan State. We hope those guys get healthy. We obviously appreciate the opportunity to be on CBS.”

McCaffery said the Hawkeyes (11-2 overall, 5-1 Big Ten Conference) were not affected in their preparations for the Wildcats (6-5, 3-4), who they played Dec. 29 in Iowa City and defeated, 87-72.

“It’s not going to affect them,” McCaffery said. “Game’s postponed, on to the next.”

Fran McCaffery, right, and Tom Izzo chat before Iowa's 2018 home game against Michigan State. The Hawkeyes-Spartans matchup from Thursday was postponed due to Michigan State's rise in COVID-19 cases.

McCaffery and his veteran team is understanding of the fact that rescheduling games and unbalanced records have become a part of the 2020-21 basketball landscape.

Penn State, after going on pause, is 0-3 in Big Ten play. Some teams have already played seven conference games. The Nittany Lions are set to play four games in seven days (starting Sunday) after some vigorous reshuffling by the Big Ten office.

Nebraska on Monday announced its program was going on pause over COVID-19 cases. Two Huskers games have already been postponed, and it’s not yet clear whether the Jan. 24 game at Iowa will be affected.

What is clear is that a logjam is coming in the overall schedule, and there’s minimal flexibility built into the Big Ten regular season. The league touted “collapsible bye weeks” when it unveiled the 20-game schedule, but when you look at the dates … it's going to be tricky to get everyone to 20. Creativity and good luck with COVID-19 is needed before the NCAA’s Selection Sunday, which is slated for March 14. The NCAA also has set the Final Four for April 3 and 5, although the remaining tournament dates have yet to be announced.

McCaffery, in his 11th year at Iowa, would have preferred the NCAA remained more flexible on those dates so that teams have more time to complete their regular seasons. He was fine pushing the NCAA Tournament to May, if need be.

“All I've ever campaigned for is flexibility. We've got to be flexible,” McCaffery said. “We’ve got to be able to pivot. And in order to do that, you need time. That's why, in my opinion, that the NCAA Tournament and the Final Four should have been ‘to be announced.’ … We’ll get there eventually. And the key is to get there.

“I think we all want the same thing. You saw it in football. They didn't give themselves any time. And it was all kinds of discussion, ‘How does one team get into (the playoff) playing seven games and the other team had to play 12?’ Valid point.”

Some legitimate questions were raised Friday with McCaffery.

Should the Big Ten Tournament (scheduled for March 10-14 in Chicago) be scrapped if it means more flexibility in rescheduling regular-season games?

“I would squeeze them in,” McCaffery said, “and have the tournament.”

Then, what happens with the Iowa-Michigan State game? The Spartans also had Sunday’s game against Indiana postponed (which is how the CBS window opened for Iowa-Northwestern).

Big Ten assistant commissioner Kerry Kenny, the league’s point person on basketball scheduling, told the Register in a Friday interview that a makeup date won't be sought until there is an "all-clear" from the COVID-affected team. Once the Big Ten is told when the Spartans can return to the court, they'll get to work on seeking a new date for Iowa-Michigan State. 

Both teams will have some input on the date, and their preferences will be considered. Don't forget, a new date needs to work for the league's TV partners, who foot the rights-fee bill for millions of dollars that go into university coffers. Kenny stressed that the networks (CBS, ESPN, Fox and BTN) and coaches "have really been great about being flexible and knowing our overall goal is to play 140 conference games this year, if we possibly can."

Here’s one Iowa-Michigan State possibility: The Spartans have six open days before their regular-season finale March 7 vs. Michigan. And the Hawkeyes have six open days between games Feb. 21 vs. Penn State and Feb. 28 at Ohio State. If the Big Ten moves Michigan State’s Feb. 25 game vs. Ohio State to that final week (the Buckeyes have five open dates, from March 1-5), it could hold a Spartans-Hawkeyes game on Feb. 24 or 25 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Posed with that idea, Kenny said that the Big Ten hopes to avoid filling those last two weeks with new games, if possible ... in anticipation that there could be more pauses, more postponements.

“Every option is on the table. What you and I don’t know right now is by Monday, we could have another game that’s postponed that clears space (for Iowa-Michigan State) earlier in the schedule," Kenny said. "Our first goal with this is to find a date that doesn’t disrupt any other existing games. If we can’t find that, then we have to get creative.”

Indiana-Michigan State needs a date, too. Nebraska has two games that need making up. Penn State needs to make up two more. And there will be more pauses to come, probably.

“You may end up with limited options at some point,” McCaffery said. “And it might be something that you don't necessarily like that we would have to do, in order to get the games in. I can’t say on one hand, ‘We’ve got to get the games in,’ but (say), ‘I’m not going to do this.’ I don’t think you want to be that guy.”