Mid-size pop-up game pits USF and Loyola Chicago at community college in Salt Lake City

By JOHN MARSHALL

This college basketball season looks like an extension of the previous one, with the coronavirus leaving in its wake breaks, cancellations and postponements.

A basketball beacon has risen from its ashes: two of the country’s top mid-majors face off in a junior varsity gym.

Struggling to find opponents amid the coronavirus chaos, USF and Loyola Chicago decided to meet in the middle. The Dons and Ramblers are set to play in Salt Lake City on Thursday, an unexpected high-profile non-conference midfield game that left San Francisco coach Todd Golden so giddy he appealed for support from a rival.

“We would love for all @BYUMBB fans in the Salt Lake area to come and support @USFDonsMBB on Thursday at 12:00 pm local time !!” Golden tweeted Wednesday. “A win for the @USFDonsMBB would be GREAT for the Cougs and @WCChoops !! You can even wear blue !!

The college basketball season started off so well, a sense of normalcy returned to hardwood.

Omicron’s ubiquity sent him back on a familiar and unhappy path. Start and stop returned.

Dozens of teams have been forced to take coronavirus breaks. More than 620 men’s and women’s matches have been postponed or canceled, some within an hour of prediction time.

Planning has become a logistical nightmare. Replacement and reprogrammed sets are replaced and reprogrammed.

UCLA coach Mick Cronin, whose team hasn’t played since Dec. 11, joked that he would play against the Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA just to make it into a game.

The Ramblers and the Donations were not spared.

Loyola Chicago hasn’t played since defeating Vanderbilt on December 10, thanks to a mix of opposing coronavirus breaks and his own before Christmas. The Ramblers saw their sixth game of the season canceled when the State of Illinois had to withdraw from Wednesday’s game due to COVID-19 protocols.

USF hasn’t been hit as hard, but West Coast Conference games against Saint Mary’s and No. 4 Gonzaga were postponed last week.

The race to find a game brought them to Salt Lake City.

Barring other issues, San Francisco and Loyola Chicago will meet at the Salt Lake Community College-Bruin Arena Lifetime Activity Center. The 5,000-seat gymnasium is home to Bruins basketball and the Salt Lake City Stars, the G League branch of Utah Jazz.

Fans, even those of BYU, will be in for a treat.

USF (13-1) opened the season with 10 straight wins and have their best non-conference record since opening the 1976-77 season with 26 straight wins. The Dons duo of Jamaree Bouyea and Khalil Shabazz constitute one of the most dynamic back zones in the country, accumulating nearly 29 points per game.

Loyola Chicago (9-2) has become a household name with her unlikely run to the 2018 Final Four with chaplain / fan favorite, Sister Jean. The Ramblers have a new coach at Drew Valentine this season, but they still knock down the Goliaths.

Loyola Chicago has beaten Arizona State, DePaul and Vanderbilt so far, the first time he’s had multiple regular-season wins against Power 5 teams since 1991-92.

The chance of the hoops brought on by a pandemic brings them together in a game that would not have happened otherwise.

“I probably won’t know we’re playing a game officially until the message is released,” Ramblers goaltender Lucas Williamson told reporters this week. “So I don’t want to spoil it. I’m not going to sit here and say we’re going to play the game, but we’re going to prepare like we’re playing.

College basketball fans everywhere are hoping they will.


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