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Coronavirus | Lower-tier schools hope they still get to play Ohio State men’s basketball team

Adam Jardy
ajardy@dispatch.com
Alabama A&M coach Dylan Howard, not happy with his team during a game at Cincinnati last season, is hoping the Bulldogs still get to play Ohio State this season and earn a $90,000 payday.

As a matter of principle, Dylan Howard likes to get his nonconference schedule set as far in advance as possible.

Howard, the men’s basketball coach at Alabama A&M, knows that his program, a member of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, has to strike a balance of finding games against high-major teams that will help fund his athletic department while also giving his team opportunities for national exposure and to spring the occasional upset.

So it was a relief late last December, when Howard was able to put the finishing touches on a 2020-21 season schedule that includes a Dec. 30 game against Ohio State in Value City Arena.

Now, he’s crossing his fingers and hoping that game actually takes place — for multiple reasons.

“It’s one of the ways we can generate income for the athletic program and for the school itself,” Howard told The Dispatch. “This is a very big game when it comes to finances, but also it’s a big game (because of) the fact that it’s a Big Ten school, a Power Five school, it’ll be on the Big Ten Network.”

But there are no guarantees during the coronavirus pandemic. Already the Big Ten has canceled fall sports, including football. Visitors to the 2020-21 men’s basketball schedule on Ohio State’s website are greeted with these words: “All dates and times subject to change.”

Howard is one of six coaches currently on Ohio State’s schedule facing the same grim reality. The Buckeyes released their nonconference schedule May 5, a list of 10 games (an ACC/Big Ten Challenge opponent is not yet known) that includes three games in the Battle 4 Atlantis and an annual appearance in the CBSSports Classic.

That left the Buckeyes with six nonconference home games, often classified as “buy” games in which Ohio State pays an opponent to travel to Columbus for the game.

To host Oakland, Niagara, Akron, Towson, Morehead State and Howard’s Bulldogs, Ohio State has signed contracts totaling $560,000. Akron, Oakland, Niagara and Morehead State all signed for $95,000, with Alabama A&M and Towson set to collect $90,000 apiece.

That is, if the games are played at all.

Recommendations on when the season should begin are expected to be released by the NCAA’s Division I council on or around Sept. 16, and the dates of Nov. 25 and Dec. 4 have emerged as favorites. Last season, Alabama A&M played its first five games of the season — all on the road — before Nov. 25. In all, the Bulldogs played eight of their 11 nonconference games on the road.

No Ohio State game contract makes specific reference to the pandemic, but should a game not be playable due to “unforeseen catastrophes or disasters beyond the control of either party,” neither school would be responsible for any subsequent financial loss. Visiting teams are slated to be paid within six months of the game taking place.

So for coaches like Howard, or Akron’s John Groce, there’s nothing to do but wait and hope.

“It’s a great opportunity for our program to grow,” Groce said of the game, which would match him against OSU’s Chris Holtmann, his former college teammate and assistant coach.

“It’ll be a great challenge and one that we’re looking forward to, if we can get to that point. All you know is you’ve got today, and we’ve got to try to make the best of today.”

Ohio State is taking the same approach, one in which Holtmann has his team preparing as if the season will start on time until an announcement is made otherwise.

How many nonconference games teams will play is subject to debate. Should the start of the season be delayed and teams are forced to juggle their schedules, Morehead State coach Preston Spradlin said it would create a new set of questions.

Schools such as his that carry most of the financial burden for their athletic departments as the main revenue sport could be negatively impacted, he said.

“What would an Ohio State want to do if their number of nonconference games is limited?” Spradlin said. “Would they want to use one of those available games to play Morehead State, or would they try to increase their RPI and play another Power Five opponent to try to fill in one of those game spots?

“We’re going to be ready to adapt, but those will be some of the first phone calls that we make are to schools like Ohio State that are on our schedule.”

None of the six schools on OSU’s schedule have officially released their own nonconference schedules because of the likelihood changes could be coming. According to Twitter account @TheD1Docket, which tracks college basketball schedules, only 18 teams have released theirs so far — a number that is roughly 200 fewer than at this time during a typical year.

Towson coach Pat Skerry is still trying to finalize his schedule, one that initially included games against Harvard and Pennsylvania. Those games are now off after the Ivy League announced it would play no sports until January, and the Tigers also lost two games as part of a now-canceled event in Florida.

“This is certainly the latest I’ve ever seen everyone be waiting to do it, but obviously there’s a reason for it,” he said. “To play a quality team like Ohio State is certainly a challenge. Hopefully, we’ll get to do it. Who knows?”

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy

Akron coach John Groce, incredulous over what he sees during a game at Louisville last season, is set to go up against Chris Holtmann, a former college teammate and assistant at OU. The Zips are scheduled to play at Ohio State on Nov. 19, but the pandemic could change that.