When Lancaster Bible College reported multiple COVID-19 cases within its program on Friday, James Madison was suddenly left without an opponent for the opening day of its brand new $140 million arena, the Atlantic Union Bank Center.
It likely won’t be the last time JMU, or any other college basketball program, has to reschedule a game or find a new team to play. But first-year Dukes coach Mark Byington has long expressed a strong preference to begin the season on Nov. 25, the first day Division I programs are allowed to take the court.
JMU might wind up adding a game to the schedule later in the year, but that’s certainly Plan B at this point. Since getting the call from Lancaster Bible on Friday morning, Byington has been working his contacts and scouring schedules for recent cancelations and came away fairly optimistic the Dukes could find a team to play on Wednesday.
“I was hoping we’d have it done by (Friday) afternoon,” Byington said. “I kind of thought in the morning we’d have it done in the afternoon. It might go until Saturday or Sunday. Or we might have to leave it open and look at another week.”
Here’s a breakdown of where JMU might go seeking a replacement:
DIVISION I MID-MAJORS
Coming through a database of Division I schedules, most Division I programs either already play on Nov. 25 or are scheduled to be in another part of the country just a day or two later. So the list of potential D-I opponents is limited, but not barren. It’s also constantly in flux as other teams have to put activities on pause.
That was the case Friday when JMU wasn’t the only mid-major to lose its opponent for Wednesday night. Bellarmine, a program transitioning from Division II to Division I was supposed to play at Chattanooga on opening day, but temporarily shut down due to positive tests.
The Mocs and Dukes were each expecting to open with a home game, but given the lack of fans, perhaps that wouldn’t be a hang up. It’s about a seven hour drive from Chattanooga to Harrisonburg, so travel on short notice shouldn’t be a huge issue.
JMU and Chattanooga agreed to a football series that sent the Dukes to visit the Mocs in 2019, so the athletic departments have a history of making deals. Among programs that have only recently seen the Nov. 25 date open up, Chattanooga seems like a reasonable possibility.
Beyond that it might be worth keeping an eye on the Big South. Hampton, Campbell and Presbyterian all have open calendars during the first few days of the season and are within a relatively short bus ride of Harrisonburg, but Campbell and Hampton each appear to have the maximum number of games on the schedule at this point.
The Pirates, however, may have some wiggle room. Hampton has 27 games on the schedule, the most allowed without participating in a multi-team event.
But JMU is hosting an MTE with Norfolk State and Radford. The Pirates already have a non-conference game against Norfolk State on the schedule. Suppose Hampton played JMU on Nov. 25 and its games against the Dukes and Spartans were both included in James Madison’s already established MTE (Multi-team events must simply include at least three teams with the teams involved playing at least two games against each other. They don’t have to be played in the same location, nor on concurrent dates).
The addition of Hampton to the JMU MTE would, in theory at least, allow the Pirates to schedule up to 29 games.
Byington told the Daily News-Record he had talked with both VMI and Longwood about possibly adding games to the slate. Both of those teams already have contests scheduled for Nov. 25, so if either comes to fruition it would likely be later in the season.
DIVISION I HIGH MAJORS
Nailing down a game with a high major opponent on such short notice is a long shot at best, and any such game would likely require JMU going on the road, then returning to play host to Norfolk State on Friday. Also, the vast majority of programs from the top seven conferences already have games on the docket.
There are a few exceptions. Central Florida, Cincinnati and Tulsa, all in the American Athletic Conference, have open dates. South Florida and Temple do as well, but each of those team are heading to the bubble at the Mohegan Sun later in the week and likely wouldn’t risk exposure from another program before entering that event.
Tulsa has two games in Kansas City later in the week, so while it’s possible the Hurricanes might sneak a game with the Dukes in first, it’s not necessarily a solid bet. UCF and Cincinnati might be possibilities, Cincy could even be a potential bus trip for the Dukes, but those schools seem to have deliberately left the date open, so perhaps they have reasons for not playing.
Two other possibilities are in the ACC. Miami was supposed to open the season against Stetson, but that game was rescheduled after the Hatters put their activities on pause. The Canes don’t have another game scheduled until Nov. 29.
Florida State is also open on Wednesday with its first game schedule for Friday against Garner-Webb.
The Dukes staff has connections to both programs. Miami director of basketball operations Lamont Franklin was a teammate of Byington’s at UNC Wilmington in the 1990s while JMU assistant Andrew Wilson played at Florida State for Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton.
JMU plays at Florida in December, so generally speaking making a trip to the Sunshine state is something the Dukes are willing to do, but putting a safe travel itinerary together in a matter of days might be a different story.
The Dukes have gone to this well before. Lancaster Bible College was originally on the schedule because they were willing to play, same goes for Carolina University, which is on the docket for Dec. 9. But there just aren’t a lot of NCAA Division II or III programs active at the moment, particularly within a short drive.
One exception is NAIA program West Virginia Tech, which has actually already begun its season. WV Tech is just across the state line in Beckley, about a two-hour and 45 minute drive from Harrisonburg. The Golden Bears have games scheduled for Nov. 24 and Nov. 28, but are open on Wednesday.
A hangup could be the differences in protocol between the NAIA and NCAA. The NAIA is requiring athlete COVID screening, but not necessarily testing before competition. JMUs opponents must adhere to a testing policy that matches its own.
Perhaps more likely is the Dukes look to the NCAA Division II ranks and there is one conference in particular that might be ready to play next week. Like many D-II leagues, the Peach Belt, with teams in North and South Carolina and Georgia, won’t hold sanctioned events until 2021.
But where the Peach Belt differs is that its teams were able to begin practice on Nov. 1 and individual teams were given autonomy to schedule games or exhibitions anytime after that. Some Peach Belt schools, Francis Marion and USC Aiken in particular, recruit heavily in Virginia and might be eager to get a Division I game in the state on the schedule. Aaron Coombs, the head coach at Georgia Southwestern is, like Byington, a UNCW alumnus.
Don’t be surprised if a Peach Belt program winds up taking Lancaster Bible’s place on short notice.