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COVID-19 keeping Texas athletes, schedule makers on their toes

In this upside-down world, Longhorns could still make Big 12 football title game but basketball teams are day-to-day

Texas fans cheer during the Longhorns' win over Baylor at Royal-Memorial Stadium on Oct. 24. The Horns finished the season in third place in the Big 12 race and are Plan B for the conference championship game.

Vaccine is now being distributed, even in Austin, and the end of the pandemic appears in sight. But COVID-19 is still wreaking havoc in college athletics, including at Texas.

The Longhorns' men’s and women’s basketball games had to be scrapped over the weekend because of positive tests and contact tracing, as has the women's team's next game, Thursday's Big 12 opener against Kansas.

On the flip side, in football, UT is now in the odd position of possibly advancing to Saturday's Big 12 championship game if there’s a sudden breakout at Oklahoma or Iowa State.

The football championship scenario sounds too wild to be true, but that’s 2020.

A Big 12 spokesman confirmed that Texas is the league’s third-place team, even though the Longhorns (6-3, 5-3 Big 12) did not play their regular-season finale. Last Saturday’s game against winless Kansas was canceled because of an outbreak at UT. 

A total of 51 people within UT’s program either tested positive or went into isolation because of contact tracing. The Longhorns had to shut down all football activities last week as a result.

Even so, Texas has the edge over Oklahoma State (7-3, 6-3) in the standings, the league said. According to the Big 12’s unbalanced tiebreaker rules, the decision is based on how many league losses each team has. Both Texas and Oklahoma State have three league losses, but Texas won the head-to-head matchup Oct. 31 — so the Horns get the edge.

Texas players celebrate the Oct. 31 win over Oklahoma State in Stillwater with an OSU seat cushion that had been thrown to the field by Cowboys fans after the game.

If Oklahoma or Iowa State cannot meet the Big 12 minimum threshold of 53 healthy players for this week’s championship game, Texas would be summoned as a replacement team. 

As of now, there are no known major COVID-19 issues in the Sooners' or Cyclones' program.

While all this sounds ridiculous on a certain level, look at the Pac-12. Washington had to bow out of the league's title game Monday because of COVID-19 issues. Oregon was promoted in Washington's place to face No. 13 USC. 

“We’d drive up on there on Friday if they asked us,” one UT source said.

Theoretically, if Texas couldn’t find 53 players, then Oklahoma State would go to Arlington. The Big 12 would keep going down the standings until it had two teams to stage a championship game, mostly for TV revenue purposes. 

The Longhorns are losing players, but not for COVID reasons. Junior defensive end Joseph Ossai announced Monday that he was forgoing all remaining eligibility to start getting ready for the NFL draft. He became the fifth team captain to opt out for draft prep. 

“2020 has been a trying year for everyone,” Ossai said in a statement. “As a team we have endured many challenges both on and off the field, but I couldn’t be prouder to be a Texas Longhorn.”

Offensive lineman Derek Kerstetter, another captain, suffered a season-ending injury against Kansas State. That leaves quarterback Sam Ehlinger as the only captain out of seven still planning to play in a bowl game. 

Meanwhile, Texas men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart and his players were frustrated that Sunday's high-profile matchup against No. 2 Baylor was postponed. The Bears were unable to meet the minimum basketball threshold of six healthy players due to Big 12 protocols.

Texas’ next scheduled game is Wednesday against Sam Houston State. That team played LSU on Monday. LSU coach Will Wade was held out because he tested positive.

The Longhorns (5-1) moved up to No. 11 in this week’s Associated Press men's Top 25 poll. It’s the program’s highest ranking since the 2014-15 season.

“It would have been naïve to think you could go through the whole season and not deal with any type of disruption,” Smart said Monday. “These are just the times that we're in right now.”

The Big 12 has built extra time into the regular season for scheduling chaos. As it stands now, Texas’ final regular-season game is Feb. 27 at Texas Tech; the Big 12 Tournament is not scheduled to begin until March 10. 

It’s possible that all disrupted games could be moved to the open week of Feb. 28-March 6. Or the league could skip those games. It’s all unknown at this point.

“Everybody treats these cancellations as such a negative. And it is negative from the standpoint of not being able to play,” Smart said. “But overall, this is what the system is designed to do is to try to keep teams from spreading COVID to other teams. So from that standpoint, the cancellation is a good thing in terms of health and safety. And I think it's important for us to not lose sight of that.”

The women’s team missed out on a huge national TV window when it had to cancel Sunday’s game against Tennessee. Coach Vic Schaefer’s Longhorns (4-1) could not put six healthy players on the court because of positives and contact tracing. 

Texas women's basketball coach Vic Schaefer talks to his team during last week's home win over Idaho. The Longhorns' nonconference matchup with Tennessee on Sunday was postponed because of UT's COVID-19 issues, and Thursday's matchup against Kansas is off as well.

Officially, the game was postponed, but it’s unclear when a nonconference game can be rescheduled with league play on the horizon. On Monday, the Horns moved up one spot to No. 22 in the women's AP Top 25. 

By midafternoon Monday, the Big 12 had announced that Thursday's Texas-Kansas women's game also was postponed. The women's next scheduled game will be next Monday at Kansas State.

Schaefer’s team shares a building with Smart’s. Cooley Pavilion’s locker rooms and team common areas are divided, but there is only one weight room. Team trainers and doctors have heightened concern for communal spread affecting both teams. 

The NCAA had already announced that the entire men’s tournament would probably be held in Indianapolis, using perhaps multiple gyms around the city. On Monday, the NCAA announced that the entire women’s tournament is likely to be staged in the San Antonio area.

The NCAA desperately wants to reach March and stage its tournaments because they are the single biggest revenue driver it has. Most of the money generated by the College Football Playoff goes straight to the conferences and teams, bypassing the NCAA altogether.

So health concerns, financial ramifications and competitive issues are all in play, even though the pandemic began in March. Vaccines are coming, but COVID-19 isn’t done with sports just yet.

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.