The Loyola men’s basketball team left Nashville Dec. 10 riding high. They had just notched an impressive win on the road against a Power-6 school, had a strong night from the floor making 17 three-pointers and graduate guard Lucas Williamson had reached 1,000 points in his career. Little did the players know then that they would not take the floor again for 27 days.
Loyola Athletics announced Dec. 17 that the team’s next two games against Norfolk State University Dec. 19 at home, and Davidson College Dec. 22 away, had both been canceled due to multiple positive COVID-19 tests within Loyola’s program. The Ramblers wouldn’t play again until after the new year.
At this time, college basketball games across the country were being canceled or postponed due to COVID-19. Cancellations still continue, although every week fewer and fewer games are being postponed.
Associate Athletics Director Bill Behrns explained that under new rules the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) has put in place, games are canceled when teams cannot field eight players and one coach for a given game.
“It all kind of depends on the contact tracing and what you’ve got with that,” Behrns said. “Some teams obviously have some players that are out with injuries which can impact the amount of available players they have.”
Loyola Athletics announced Dec. 31 that the Rambler’s game scheduled for Jan. 2 against Southern Illinois University (SIU) would be postponed due to COVID-19 concerns within the SIU program. Behrns explained that Loyola quickly moved to add a new game to the schedule, this time against St. Xavier University, a Division II Chicago school.
“We went through our normal shootaround that morning, our guys ate a pre-game meal and everything,” Behrns said. “It was about 10:30, the game was supposed to be at 1:00, we got a call from St. Xavier that they had multiple positive cases so they were unable to play.”
Shortly after, it was announced that the game against SIU had been rescheduled for Jan. 27.
On the other side of the country, Todd Golden was struggling with the same issues plaguing Loyola’s scheduling. Golden is the head coach of the San Francisco Dons, a team who — with a 13-1 record at the time — is one of the best programs in the rapidly emerging West Coast Conference (WCC).
The Dons had their first two WCC games postponed due to COVID-19 concerns, and on the evening of Jan. 2 — in the wake of the last-minute cancellation of the St. Xavier game — Golden sent a text to Ramblers head coach Drew Valentine.
“That put the wheels in motion with coach Valentine and coach Golden with trying to make this happen and trying to work out logistics,” Behrns said. “They were going back and forth with texts, I know coach Golden reached out at one point to Sean Dwyer, who is an individual on our staff who handles scheduling, as well to see about playing.”
Valentine and Golden both knew that they wanted their teams to go head-to-head, but they needed to figure out how they were going to make it happen. They had yet to figure out where and when they were going to play the game, how they were going to broadcast a game on such short notice and how they were going to prepare their players.
They agreed the game should be held on a neutral site, and Behrns said that Phoenix, Denver and Salt Lake City were the cities the teams were focusing on. At one point it was floated that the game be held in Vivint Arena, where the NBA’s Utah Jazz play.
One of the Rambler’s assistant coaches, Patrick Wallace, reached out to his friend Kyle Taylor, the head coach of the basketball team at Salt Lake Community College (SLCC). In the Bruin Arena, SLCC had a sizable facility that would be suitable for the game; the Jazz’s G-League team, the Salt Lake City Stars, call the building home. Taylor told Wallace that they would be willing to host the game.
They’d found their venue. On Jan. 4 it was officially announced that Loyola would take on San Francisco in Salt Lake City two days later. A day later the team was on a plane to Utah.
“If we would’ve had a little more time to plan it and everything we might have been able to get it on an actual TV network,” Behrns said. “It was so hard to get production crews and announcers and all that stuff for an actual on the air broadcast, which is why we were relegated to just streaming it only.”
Despite this, with help from the WCC Network, a broadcast crew and commentators were pulled together on Jan. 5 and the game was streamed on the WCC’s website. The game and its unique scheduling got a lot of coverage in the national media.
After arriving in Utah, the Ramblers only had a little over a day to put together a game plan and practice for a very worthy opponent in San Francisco. Behrns explained that the team and coaching staff had some experience preparing on such short notice after playing in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament earlier this season.
“There you at least know you’re playing one of two teams, in this situation we didn’t know who we were playing until a day or two before the game,” he said. “It definitely was a lot of hours for our coaching staff to put together that scout and break down the film on San Francisco, and they put together a game plan.”
Behrns explained that the Ramblers staff had some previous experiences last season where, due to unforeseen circumstances, games had to be put together on the fly, he said this was put to use while putting together this game.
“The one thing the whole COVID situation has taught everyone is to be able to adjust and adapt on the fly and that’s definitely what you have to do and certainly last week was a perfect example of that,” he said.
Despite a slow start, The Ramblers were able to best the Dons 79-74. Early on a Thursday afternoon, in Salt Lake City of all places, the two programs came together to boost each other’s resumes after a break from play that seemed like it would never end.