College athletics directors and conference commissioners have not had much time this school year to laze in successes, like the simple fact of making it through an entire football season.

For AAC commissioner Mike Aresco, scheduling and subsequent rescheduling of basketball games and planning for conference tournaments was on his radar long before American football darling Cincinnati lost on a last-second field goal to Georgia in the Peach Bowl on Jan. 1, a game Aresco said proved the Bearcats’ worth.

“They should have won,” he said, because they led for most of the contest.

American men’s basketball teams paused from postponing games in recent days because of COVID-19 testing and contact tracing include East Carolina, SMU and South Florida. ECU has had five total games postponed — four men’s contests and one women’s game — since Dec. 29.

“Because of the nature of the sport, being indoors, and the fact the pandemic has been accelerating the last month or two, it has been a real challenge,” Aresco said during a phone interview last weekend. “We have lost some games and trying to reschedule them, but there are far more basketball games than in football. ... We had a pretty regular (football) schedule of you play on the weekends, with an occasional Thursday or Friday game, but mainly Saturdays, and we had a pretty set schedule of calls and meetings with our medical advisory group. We’ve had to revise that a little bit and it’s a little more complicated (for basketball)."

Aresco added that figuring out the best way to test basketball players and keep them safe at the conference tourney venue in Fort Worth, Texas, is extremely important. The AAC designated Forth Worth as the site for both its women’s tournament (March 8-11) and men’s event March 11-14.

The AAC men’s tournament was canceled last year before it started and before the NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments also were both canceled, a massive financial hit to the NCAA and conference revenue distribution channels.

“We’re going to have a lot of protocols in place for our men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, which are both in Fort Worth and that helps us,” Aresco said. “It’s all in one place with a great arena and great people and we should get tremendous cooperation. We’ll have a very strict protocol for that.”

After Thursday’s announcement by the Pirates they were pausing all team-related activities, ECU men’s coach Joe Dooley said his main focus is daily stresses and schedules while keeping in mind the annual goal for all teams is to make the NCAA tournament.


East Carolina’s game Dec. 30 at Wichita State was postponed, then ECU played Jan. 2 and Jan. 9 and has since had three straight games postponed. One of the postponements was from a positive test and contact tracing at Cincinnati, and then the Pirates had to pause their activities because of multiple positive cases within their program.

“I’m not speculating on anything,” Dooley said of the end to this season. “You can’t tell day-to-day what’s going to go on or to worry about those type of deals. If they decide to have a conference tournament, we’ll show up and play. My guess is the end goal of all this is to get to the NCAA tournament, so how do you preserve the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament, and probably the most prevalent thought process is I don’t know where our conference tournament would come into that or not come into that. I think we’re all right now just sort of treading water trying to make sure we can protect our programs and our kids. When you can play, you can play. When you can’t, adjust and try to help them.”

ECU also announced Thursday it identified a cluster of 10 positive COVID-19 cases within the Pirate baseball program. The university on Friday identified a cluster of five COVID-19 cases within ECU’s men’s basketball program.

The NCAA men’s tournament this year is scheduled to be held entirely in the Indianapolis area, while the women’s committee also is working on details for its event and finalizing one site to host.

As people nationwide are divided into tiers to be eligible for a COVID vaccine, Aresco also said he doesn’t envision the availability of a vaccine altering testing protocols in athletics for this school year because of the age of players.

“Realistically we don’t think the vaccine is going to help us this winter or spring season, because the age group you’re taking about is not in the high-priority group for the vaccine,” he said. “The point is, we’re going to have to work through it and be really careful, and we are with our contact tracing and quarantines.”

The college football season officially ended Monday night when No. 1 Alabama rolled to a 52-24 victory over Ohio State in the national championship game. Cincinnati finished 9-1 and No. 8 in the final AP poll as the only ranked team from the American. Tulsa and Memphis each received Top 25 votes.

ECU (3-6, 3-5 American) ended its season with consecutive league wins and was very fortunate in that once its season began Sept. 26, it played its entire nine-game schedule without an interruption.

“Some of the teams that were more successful were the ones that handled the whole COVID thing better and had fewer opt-outs and fewer disruptions,” Aresco said. “It was an unusual year and teams that might have done better didn’t for various reasons. I think the league showed we have real depth. ECU is a perfect example because Mike Houston is a great coach and they clearly are getting better, but it’s not going to be immediate because the league is so good. There are a lot of good teams, and Cincinnati, of course, carried on the tradition of us sending our best team to a New Year’s Day game.”

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.