The Michigan Postponement

Feb 8, 2021

(Free article.)

The difficulty of writing anything during the age of Covid: it will change by next Monday. The points I'm making right now will likely be changed by another "{Big Ten school} has decided to pause all basketball activities" announced tomorrow or the next day. It's why I didn't really take issue with the Big Ten changing their own rules to allow Ohio State to get into the football championship game. Circumstances changed, rules were changed.

So as long as you know that reading this in a week probably won't make much sense, we'll be good here. This is the Big Ten basketball world as we know it on Monday evening, February 8th. Let's start with the data.

There have been five "pauses" during Big Ten play. They are:

Penn State - games postponed were vs. Wisconsin on 1/3, at Ohio State on 1/6, vs. Michigan on 1/9, and vs. Rutgers on 1/12.

Nebraska - games postponed were vs. Illinois on 1/13, at Maryland on 1/16, vs. Minnesota on 1/20, at Iowa on 1/24, and vs. Penn State on 1/30.

Michigan State - games postponed were 1/14 at Iowa, 1/17 vs. Indiana, and 1/23 vs. Illinois.

Michigan - games postponed so far are 1/27 at Penn State, 1/30 vs. Indiana, 2/3 at Northwestern, 2/6 at Michigan State, and 2/11 vs. Illinois.

Purdue - games postponed: 1/5 vs. Nebraska (this one was announced as "both schools have decided to postpone". Both then both returned to play on 1/8 and 1/10).

The other nine Big Ten teams have all seen at least one game postponed. But all of those postponements source back to these five pauses. One of those (Penn State/Wisconsin) was announced as "both schools have decided to postpone", but Penn State went on a full pause immediately after that so that one goes in the Penn State column.

Of those other nine teams, here are the postponements:

Illinois - at Nebraska, at Michigan State, at Michigan
Iowa - vs. Michigan State, vs. Nebraska
Indiana - at Michigan State, at Michigan
Maryland - vs. Nebraska
Minnesota - at Nebraska
Northwestern - vs. Michigan
Ohio State - vs. Penn State
Rutgers - at Penn State
Wisconsin - at Penn State

As you can see, the heaviest burden here is Illinois. Actually, let me rephrase that. The heaviest burden of the teams who haven't had to pause is carried by Illinois. The heaviest burden overall is Nebraska - they lost five games to their own pause and a sixth game with the Purdue pause. So if every game is to be made up (more discussion on that in a bit), Nebraska has to somehow make up six games. The lightest burden is Wisconsin. They've had one game put on pause (Penn State) and they've already made it up.

Of the other games to be made up by the schools who had to pause, three fall to Illinois, two each to Iowa and Indiana, and everyone else has one game paused. The next Illinois game isn't until Tuesday, February 16th. And the final date for Big Ten games is currently Sunday, March 7th (the Illini have a game scheduled at Ohio State on Saturday, March 6th). So if there are no games made up between now and next Tuesday vs. Northwestern, that leaves eight games to be played across 19 days.

Perhaps a better way so say that is to look at the first of those eight games (Northwestern) and the last of those games (at Ohio State) and then look at the space for the six games in between. They obviously won't play the day after Northwestern (2/17) nor the day before Ohio State (3/5), so that leaves the time period between 2/18 and 3/4 for the six remaining games. 15 days, six games. A game every 2.5 days, basically (if it's even possible to re-do the entire Big Ten schedule to accommodate that). I'm not going to dig into every Big Ten schedule and find a way to move other games around, but it would basically be something like games on Tuesday the 16th, Thursday the 18th, Sunday the 21st, Tuesday the 23rd, Friday the 26th, Monday the 1st, Wednesday the 3rd, and Saturday the 6th. Why? Because other schools had Covid problems.

Watching these 10 days go by without a makeup game (and with a canceled Michigan game) has to drive Brad Underwood insane. It's quite possible that we see this scenario play out: 10 days without a single game and then 8 games in 19 days. Most of that is the difficulty finding an open spot in Nebraska or Michigan State's schedule, but still, this is the second ten day pause in three weeks for Illinois. To have no games made up during those weeks and then three makeup games shoe-horned in the final three weeks would be quite maddening for Illini fans.

Which means we should probably talk about Michigan postponing this one. Here are the facts.

On January 23rd, Michigan paused all athletics for 14 days (until 11:59 pm last night). No practice, no team meetings - a two-week stay-at-home order. The reason: some in the Michigan Athletics department had tested positive for the B117 variant of Coronavirus. Here's what the Michigan press release said:

The mandate follows positive test results for the SAR-CoV-2 B.1.1.7 variant virus infections from several individuals linked to the U-M Athletic Department through its diligent testing regiment. The B.1.1.7 variant is thought to be approximately 50 percent more transmissible than the standard form of the virus, leading to faster spread of the virus, potentially increased numbers of cases, and additional hospitalizations and deaths. Therefore, a pause of all athletic activities and a closure of all U-M athletic facilities are being taken to strengthen the public health intervention. Team members (student-athletes, coaches, and team staff) must immediately isolate/quarantine effective Jan. 23 until further notice and up to 14 days (Feb. 7).

On Saturday afternoon during the Illinois-Wisconsin game, it was announced that the Illinois-Michigan game scheduled for Thursday, February 11th was postponed. The reason? Here's the full email that was sent to all Illinois media, written by Michigan SID Tom Wywrot:


ANN ARBOR, Michigan -- The University of Michigan and Illinois athletic departments and the Big Ten Conference announced today (Saturday, Feb. 6), U-M's game with Illinois on Thursday, Feb. 11, at Crisler Center has been postponed as part of the Wolverines return-to-play planning following the program's pause.

The Wolverines are expected to return their Big Ten regular season schedule on Sunday, Feb. 14 at Wisconsin (noon CT, CBS).

On Saturday, Jan. 23, Michigan Athletics followed a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) recommendation to pause athletic activities in all sports, including games, team and individual training sessions.

In addition to the Illinois game, the stoppage caused U-M to postpone four additional games -- at Penn State (Jan. 27), Indiana (Jan. 30), at Northwestern (Feb. 3) and Michigan State (Feb. 6).
Michigan and its postponed schools will begin working with the Big Ten to identify options for rescheduling opportunities.

"As part of the Wolverines return-to-play planning" is the reason. And that's important. This is not a game suspended due to positive Covid tests. At least, that's not what we were told. It's a game suspended due to Michigan's "return to play planning".

What does that mean? Let's go to the tweets from Matt Norlander after his discussion with Michigan assistant coach Phil Martelli:

"Michigan... will need to work its way back into basketball conditioning next week." As I wrote on Friday, I would probably feel pretty good about that as a Michigan fan. Two week layoff, #6 coming into town, a game that might decide the Big Ten title - I wouldn't hate it if that can got kicked down the road. Speaking purely from a fan perspective, that's red-hot Illinois coming into town to play rusty Michigan. Can we play it in two weeks, please?

Speaking from a conference perspective, it's hard to believe that Michigan can postpone a game without a Covid outbreak. Especially when their women's team is playing on Thursday.

Let's go through that. When tweeting some snark about this topic this morning, someone tweeted this to me:

So I called the Purdue women's basketball SID. And he informed me that yes, the game was still on. He also noted that it was just picked up to be broadcast on BTN that night. So let's go over what that means:

  • All Michigan athletics were paused until this morning.
  • Michigan women's basketball will have three days of practice and then play on Thursday.
  • Michigan's men's basketball can't play on Thursday because of their "return to play planning".

Because this makes things so much more difficult for Michigan (they'd have five games to make up the final three weeks; we'd have three), I just don't understand why this game wouldn't be played. If their women's team is cleared to play, that means there's not some school-wide "each team must have five practice days before returning to competition" mandate. It's simply their choice to not play the game.

Which opens up all kinds of questions. The Big Ten has rules on pausing team activities due to Covid outbreaks. What are the rules on "we won't be ready to play yet"? Is it perhaps something more than "we're not ready to play"? If the women's team can return to play and the men's team cannot, is it an outbreak on the men's team that's not being released?

Let me lay out a scenario there. On January 29th, six days into the stay-at-home order Michigan announced that 11 student athletes had tested positive that week. The Big Ten mandates that any athlete testing positive is out for 17 days (reduced from the 21 days during football season). So is it possible that Michigan's team could return to play after a two-week quarantine but one or two players might be sitting out because of the 17 day rule? If they were without a few key players, I'm guessing they wouldn't want to play the 1 vs. 2 conference matchup. But we don't know because (probably rightly-so) the schools often don't announce the names of the athletes testing positive due to medical privacy laws. I'm already uncomfortable with my speculation paragraph here so I'm moving on.

The issue, as I see it, is the makeup games. If you make up every game, you'll have a fair champion. If you don't, there will always be questions. Let me lay out an example that would make you, the Illinois fan, uncomfortable.

Say the Nebraska and Michigan State games can be made up but the Michigan game never is. And then say Illinois plays 19 conference games and Michigan plays 18. At the end of the season, with Michigan losing 3 of 5 at the end of the year, Illinois wins the Big Ten going 15-4 while Michigan ends up 14-4. Would we ever hear the end of "Illinois didn't play Michigan, and had they played and Michigan won, Michigan would have hung the banner and Illinois would have finished in 2nd". Good thing it was Michigan and not Illinois who backed out of the game.

My point is that with all of these makeup games yet to be determined, it's looking like it will be very difficult to get every team to play every game. So what kind of Big Ten champion will be crowned? You would hope it's one with #3 Michigan playing #6 Illinois, but that's been postponed and we don't have a makeup date.

Here is where I remind you that the calculus will change six more times. We're not immune to our own Covid pause. Michigan appears to be bending the rules of postponement here but it's possible they have five players out on a 17-day sit and would have had to play some walkons if the game was still on. Because of privacy rules, we don't even know which teams caused the Wisconsin-Penn State and Purdue-Nebraska postponements, so it's impossible to know the exact reason for Michigan saying "no game". That cloak absolutely needs to be there for privacy laws but the cynical mind can't help but think that the cloak would also allow for "we have a better chance of winning the conference if we play that game in two weeks" to be a reason for not playing.

So it's not something we're ever going to know, most likely. All we know for sure is that it is not the Big Ten canceling the Michigan/Illinois game and there's no UM policy that prevents a game from being played that day because their women's team is playing after an identical pause. Beyond that, all we know is that Michigan has postponed the game "as part of the Wolverines return-to-play planning".

From the fan perspective, this is a tough one to swallow. It seems like there should be rules in place that would prevent a non-Covid postponement because Michigan, and I quote, "needs to work its way back into basketball conditioning". I don't see why a conference wouldn't step in and say "sorry, we have a mountain of games to make up - you're going to have to play this one or forfeit". But that's me, the guy who wants his team to hang a conference title banner this year.

When asked about this, I'm certain I know what Brad Underwood's answer will be. Something like "all we can do is play the games on the schedule". It will be the answer he almost has to give. Those decisions are beyond his scope, so he just gets his team ready to play whatever game is on the schedule. He can't really challenge the conference.

I'm just a blogger though, so I'll give it a shot. It sure feels like Michigan is getting some preferential treatment here, right?

Edit: I publish this, I grab my phone, and I see that I received an email a half-hour ago saying that the Nebraska game has been rescheduled. So no 10-day layoff (yippee!). Illinois will now travel to Nebraska this Friday night to make up for the January 13th postponement. Illinois will also travel to Michigan State on February 23rd to make up for the January 23rd postponement. And then the Nebraska home game originally scheduled for February 24th now moves to the final week of the season with the "date to be announced soon". Why would it be listed as "date to be announced soon"? Because they're still trying to find a date that week to make up the... (wait for it)... Michigan game.


thegoah on February 8, 2021 @ 07:19 PM

So will you be making a last minute trip to Lincoln or will you be delaying due to “return to blog planning?”

illinizeeman on February 8, 2021 @ 08:23 PM

I never need a reason to despise Michigan, but this helps.

IBFan on February 8, 2021 @ 08:23 PM

I don’t really care what Michigan does or doesn’t do in regards to their schedule. If we do play them I want it to be at full strength, no excuses.

AA13 Row 6 Seat 2 on February 9, 2021 @ 10:55 AM

Agree. This game will likely be Tuesday, March 3rd or, even better for FX1/B1G Network, if both teams have double bye pretty much in hand, Tuesday March 10th when only other games are mid major conference tournaments/teams that are out of major conference tournaments playing in their conference tournaments.

Football54 on February 8, 2021 @ 08:36 PM

Gonna come out and say that Michigan is just a buch of babies. What kind of team can move up a spot in the AP without having played games for 2 weeks. Ridiculous. Go out there and just get your butts handed to you and move on.

OCIllini on February 8, 2021 @ 10:56 PM

Ditto to illinizeeman and Football54's comments. If Michigan is cleared to play and chooses not to does this differ from a forfeiture?

uilaw71 on February 9, 2021 @ 07:53 AM

According to Coach Howard, MMB had no cases among its players:

'A great day': Howard elated after Michigan basketball returns to practice

Refugee from Illinois on February 9, 2021 @ 08:05 AM

Is there a way we can talk them into playing us, and help them not be scared? Maybe we offer not to bring Kofi or something?

If we are real nice about it maybe we can kind of slowly coax them out.

skibdaddy on February 9, 2021 @ 11:35 AM

The double standards here are astounding! I distinctly recall our football team playing and losing 2 winnable games without key players who got Covid (possibly from our conference opponent Wisconsin).

But I agree... let them get their practice legs under them... so we can stomp them anyway. I hope this is just extra motivation and a bigger chip on the shoulder for our boys!

tvillini on February 9, 2021 @ 12:20 PM

Let me lay out a scenario there. On January 29th, six days into the stay-at-home order Michigan announced that 11 student athletes had tested positive that week.

I think this is the sentence when in my head I heard, "There is. No. Carol. In HR!"

Douglascountyillinifan on February 9, 2021 @ 12:26 PM

I wonder if the meatchicken women would have been so heroic about returning to play after 3 days if their opponent had been Maryland rather than a Purdue squad that is so bad that we beat them? Weasels. Every last one of them.

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