Michigan State might have to jump through hoops to get games played

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
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A little more than a quarter way through the Big Ten season, it might be a bit premature to start thinking about which teams are NCAA Tournament teams and those that might be on the bubble.

At just 2-4 in conference play, however, it’s fair to start wondering where Michigan State might land, a prospect that became even more difficult last week as the Spartans were forced to postpone a pair of games because of positive COVID-19 tests within the program.

More:Joshua Langford is latest Michigan State player sidelined after positive COVID test

For a team that needs to start piling up victories, potentially losing opportunities is not ideal. But that’s exactly the position Michigan State is in. As much as the Big Ten will try to get every game played, there are no guarantees.

“The goal is to still get every team to be able to play 20 Big Ten games,” said Kevin Pauga, associate athletic director at Michigan State and a key member of the conference’s team on scheduling across all sports. “For all conferences, they want to get as many games in as they can. But I think we've already realistically seen that the chances that every one of these games gets played for all these conferences was always very low. So you're trying to maximize games played and you're trying to be as fair as possible in that process.

More:MSU mailbag: Spartans missing NCAA Tournament, once unimaginable, now is possible

“Truly, right now, from Michigan State perspective, Michigan State is day-to-day and just trying to figure out what each day looks like before rushing into any decisions, because the fast decision is likely not the best decision in this circumstance.”

This circumstance, of course, is trying to play college sports — any sport, really — in the middle of a pandemic. But that’s where things stand, and the Spartans are now right in the middle of a process that can cause Pauga and his colleagues to be jumping through multiple hoops to get games played.

Michigan State's Mady Sissoko tested positive for COVID-19.

Michigan State was thrust into the spot last week when freshman Mady Sissoko tested positive for COVID on Jan. 10 followed by sophomore Steven Izzo’s positive test on Jan. 11. On Wednesday afternoon, just before the Spartans were set to depart for Iowa City for a Thursday game at Iowa, senior Joshua Langford tested positive, leading to the postponement of the Iowa game as well as Sunday’s scheduled home game with Indiana.

More:Michigan State-Indiana basketball game postponed because of COVID-19 issues

The Michigan State-Indiana game was one of 28 Division I basketball games this past weekend that were either postponed or canceled. Of the 14 Big Ten teams, only Minnesota hasn’t lost a game in either non-conference or conference action.

The Spartans aren’t scheduled to play again until Saturday at home against Illinois, and barring any more positive tests, there’s a chance they’ll be able to move forward.

But what about the Iowa and Indiana games? It’s a challenge not typical to scheduling and one that the conference has already been trying to handle. Penn State hadn't played a game in 2021 until Sunday, losing to Purdue 80-72 after having four straight Big Ten games called off.

More:MSU men's, women's basketball teams postpone upcoming games amid positive COVID tests

At Nebraska on Sunday, the Cornhuskers announced that coach Fred Hoiberg and seven players had tested positive. Nebraska's games against Minnesota at home Wednesday and against Iowa on the road Jan. 24 have been postponed. Nebraska already has had games against Illinois and Maryland canceled because of COVID-19 issues.

Last week, the Big Ten announced the rescheduling of two of Penn State’s games that required moving some other conference games to accommodate the changes. It typifies what’s most important right now.

“Flexibility and control,” Pauga said.

Control is limited at this point, so flexibility is about all teams and the conference can promise. When the Big Ten announced its schedule back in November, it provides two different sets of “bye weeks” for each team — two weeks at the end of January and two at the end of the season.

“Those gaps were placed very strategically,” Pauga said. “And you saw what was already able to be used with those gaps next week to be able to start playing some catchup with Penn State, in particular. There was some movement of games and there was some planning as it came to that, but you can only plan so much. You can only anticipate so much. So it was all about maximizing common options. It was all about trying to take a principled approach by saying, ‘We don't know which games are going to get postponed, but trying to have as many windows as possible that that can take care of as many games as possible.’”

Of course, the Spartans’ first “bye” week is this week. With three players in isolation, there’s no chance of a game getting rescheduled in that time frame.

That leaves Michigan State with its only other opening in the final week of the regular season. The only other option at this point for the Spartans is adding three-game weeks, though that all depends on other teams and whether they’re being forced to shut down.

“It’s why everybody was so intentional in how they built their schedule,” Pauga said. “Because everybody knew — we talked about this back in the fall — everybody knew that this was coming. So it's not like this is a big surprise that here we are and all of a sudden things are going sideways. It's going as we expected, it's just that we don't know where those curveballs are coming from in real time.”

Which makes rescheduling difficult. There’s no telling if Michigan State will be out of the woods by the end of the week and there’s no way to predict if other teams on their schedule will have issues down the road.

“I don't even want to try and speculate as to what happens,” Pauga said, “other than I think all of us are just trying to maximize the usage of the next several weeks the best we can and do it in a way that prioritizes health and safety of everybody involved.”

In the meantime, as Michigan State continues group workouts this week with hopes of playing on Saturday, the Big Ten will continue to try and move things around as best as it can to get every team as close as it can to a full, 20-game conference schedule

“We don't know what we don't know,” Pauga said, “which is why we've just tried to plan for as much control and flexibility as we can so that we can be reactive. Because this is not a circumstance where you can be as proactive as you'd normally like.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

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