LAS CRUCES, NEW MEXICO (KTSM) – Official practices for college basketball programs around the nation began on Oct. 14, but not for schools in the Land of Enchantment like New Mexico and New Mexico State.
Current COVID-19 guidelines in New Mexico make it impossible for the Aggies and Lobos to work out in groups larger than five people, unless they get approval from the state to do so.
Under New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s COVID guidelines, the Aggies and Lobos won’t be able to begin full practices, or play games, until they have formal plans for returning to play safely approved by the state.
The robust plans required by the state of New Mexico must include quite a few details, including a minimum of three weekly PCR tests for the duration of the season. Currently, NMSU is following NCAA rules and testing its basketball teams once per week; the NCAA mandates that all schools test three times per week once games can begin on Nov. 25.
The Aggie women’s basketball team has not had a single positive test since the school began testing in May; the men’s team has had just one since Aug. 3.
NMSU athletic director Mario Moccia told KTSM on Wednesday that the athletic department’s plan was submitted to the state government and they are currently waiting to hear back for approval. No timeline has been set for the approval process.
“We are working together with UNM to get our plans approved, because we need to start basketball practices as quickly as we can,” Moccia said. “We’re willing to do whatever is required of us.”
There’s also another aspect of the restrictions that are out of NMSU’s control. Per the governor, Doña Ana County (and all counties in the state) must have a 14-day average daily case count of less than eight per 100,000 and a test positivity rate of under 5 percent. If the numbers exceed those marks, then the Aggies cannot participate in full practices, regardless of the plans they submit to the state.
Currently, Doña Ana County has 25 cases per 100,000 & a test positivity rate of 9.2 percent, meaning the Aggies would be out of luck even if the state approves its plan.
New Mexico’s season-opening football game at Colorado State this Saturday was canceled for the same reason, and their home opener on Halloween vs. San Jose State is in jeopardy.
However, there is a potential work-around. Moccia told KTSM on Wednesday that the governor’s office has suggested an NBA-type bubble for Aggie and Lobo athletics, that if approved, could allow a path to practice and play.
“You’d move the men’s and women’s basketball teams on campus. The vast majority of them live off campus,” Moccia said. “You’d restrict them from their new residence to just the Pan American Center, the weight facility and the training facility. All of their classes would be online and all of their meals would be brought to them. So in effect, you’d be keeping them in a very tight group away from everybody.”
The NBA famously did not have a single case of COVID-19 when it played the remainder of its season at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., over the summer. Moccia made it a point to underscore the importance of mental health for the school’s athletes, should a bubble be deemed a possibility.
Costs of the potential bubble, as well as the increased number of PCR tests is still unknown, according to Moccia.
KTSM reached out to Gov. Lujan Grisham’s office for comment with regards to the possibility of a bubble for collegiate athletics in New Mexico. The governor’s office replied on Wednesday with its own statement.
“While a bubble concept has been discussed, it would not be acceptable in current COVID-19 conditions,” the governor’s statement read. “That being said, a bubble could be possible and potentially recommended if COVID-19 conditions improve and such activities were able to be held safely. Everything depends first on protecting the health and safety of New Mexicans.”
The state and the universities have been working together throughout the pandemic to find the best way possible for collegiate athletics to continue safely.
Currently though, the record number of COVID-19 cases in New Mexico – 827 on Wednesday, including 172 in Doña Ana County, with 950 deaths statewide to date during the pandemic – make it too much of a risk to play, according to state officials.
Moccia asked residents in the Las Cruces area on Wednesday to do their part to reduce the number of cases in the county to allow for a better quality of life across the board, with hopes of NMSU sports returning soon.
“I want everyone around the state and county to be healthy,” Moccia said. “We need those numbers to be at a certain amount so our county can go green, so we can participate. So whatever anyone can do to restrict the spread, I would make a personal plea to do what is necessary.”