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For Minnesotan on Harvard's football team, future is suddenly murky

When Eric Wilson left the field Nov. 23, 2019, after his Harvard football team had lost a double-overtime game to rival Yale in the season finale, he had no way of knowing that it might be his final game for the Crimson.

The first human cases of COVID-19 were still weeks away from being detected. The full-on pandemic caused by the virus was months away from triggering the cancellation of U.S. sports from preps to colleges to pros.

Wilson, who grew up in suburban Minnetrista and played high school football at Benilde-St. Margaret’s, earned second-team Ivy League honors as an offensive lineman as a junior in 2019. He imagined building on that year as a senior – culminating in a rematch with Yale, this time on Harvard’s campus almost a year to the day after the heartbreaking loss.

Instead, Wilson was among the first group of athletes to experience for certain the cold reality that the impact of COVID-19 is far from over. Amid the backdrop of major U.S. pro leagues busying themselves with plans to resume play this summer even as coronavirus cases surge nationally, the Ivy League on Wednesday became the first Division I conference to postpone all sports competition until at least January – a decision that impacts a number of fall and winter sports, with football at the forefront.

“A lot of us as players expected to not have a season,” Wilson said in a phone interview Thursday from his home in Minnetrista, where he has been since March after Harvard moved spring classes online. “But to definitively hear it … confirmed what we were all worried about and made things pretty sketchy for the future.”

Indeed, as is often the case in these times, even a dose of clarity tends to bring on a flurry of other questions and decisions. Wilson is one of several Minnesota natives on Ivy League rosters across a number of sports.

The Ivy League’s announcement left the door open for fall sports to potentially be played in the spring, though Princeton football coach Bob Surace told The New York Times that a virus vaccine and better treatments for those with the illness would need to be in place for that to be considered.

Wilson said some players are considering their enrollment options for fall – a semester in which classes will be conducted online-only, Harvard recently announced. Another option possibly in play for Wilson: graduating in the spring and playing another season as a grad transfer at a different school in 2021.

Or maybe Nov. 23, 2019 was the end of Wilson’s college football career.

“I would do anything to have another season with my current class, but with so much uncertainty with what’s going on it’s hard to know what’s the right decision,” Wilson said.

That said, football is hardly the only factor in a complicated decision.

“We as football players – I don’t want to speak for us in total – but I went there because of the history of football program but also be challenged academically,” Wilson said. “We don’t go to Harvard Lite. You go there facing the same challenges of other students.”

Players have essentially been told that the future is unclear – which Wilson actually appreciates within the context of other options. If other conferences end up following the Ivy League’s lead – which is what happened in March when it was at the forefront of canceling it postseason basketball tournament – it will have been better to know ahead of time, he said.

“There’s so much uncertainty with other conferences and programs,” Wilson said. “I honestly feel bad for kids who are training hard and moving into dorms on other campuses and still could have their seasons canceled.”

Wilson has applied that sort of perspective to his overall framing of the last four months. While describing himself as not usually “super optimistic,” Wilson said he has challenged himself to think positively, keep in touch with teammates, cherish added family time, make the most of his remote coursework in psychology and train as best he can.

“I think James Lee, one of my teammates, put it best. He was just saying that we can get upset and think about all these possible solutions, but you can’t forget there’s a pandemic going on right now,” Wilson said. “I’ve had a few classmates directly affected, with their parents passing. In that moment you gain a sense of the bigger picture.”

Will increasingly depleted Nets cost Wolves a first-round pick?

Outside of chatter that flared up briefly a week ago about a second “bubble” for the eight teams not invited to Orlando, there hasn’t been a lot of NBA news lately that is relevant to the Timberwolves.

Minnesota was 19-45 when the NBA shut down March 11 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with only playoff-contending teams invited to the planned bubble restart in Florida the Wolves have largely been relegated to future planning.

Part of that planning involves the NBA draft — now slated for mid-October — and at least in one regard there is some intrigue for Wolves fans about what happens in Orlando.

As part of the flurry of deadline deals made in February, the Wolves will get Brooklyn’s first-round pick if the Nets make the playoffs. That seemed like close to a foregone conclusion when the season shut down; the Nets were the No. 7 seed in the East and were six games ahead of No. 9 Washington with 18 games left to play for both teams. Basketball Reference pegged the Nets with a 95% chance to make the postseason.

Since then, however, two major things have happened:

*The NBA announced its restart plans, which neither skipped straight to the playoffs nor kept a strict 1-8 seeding to make the playoffs in each conference . Instead, the restart plan called for each team to play eight games to conclude the regular season.

If the No. 9 seed in a conference is within 3.5 games of the No. 8 seed after those games are played, the two teams will have a play-in to determine who makes the playoffs. That play-in is tilted toward the No. 8 seed; the teams would play a maximum of two games, with the No. 8 seed needing to win just once while the No. 9 seed needed to win twice to claim the final spot.

Confusing? Yeah, a little. But it probably wouldn’t matter that much and the Nets would still be set to cruise into the playoffs. Except …

*The Nets’ roster has been completely decimated. Kyrie Irving opted out of the restart because of injury. Kevin Durant was already injured all year. But the Nets traveled to the Orlando bubble this week also without starters Spencer Dinwiddie and Taurean Prince, who each tested positive for the virus and will sit out the restart. DeAndre Jordan and Wilson Chandler previously opted out because of coronavirus.

The health of players is FAR more important than draft picks, and Dinwiddie in particular has been experiencing significant symptoms related to the virus.

But in basketball terms, all those absences will leave the Nets very depleted. Irving and Dinwiddie combined to average 48 points per game this season and were easily the Nets’ top two scorers.

Will that be enough for the Wizards — the only East team outside the top 8 to be invited to Orlando — to knock the Nets out of the playoffs?

Well … probably not. First, they’d have to jump the No. 8-seeded Magic, who are a half-game behind the Nets. And then they’d have to make up three games in the standings spanning just eight total games played for each team — with every game against teams with a better record than the Wizards, who at 24-40 are the worst of the 22 teams in the bubble. And they’d have to do it while dealing with their own roster depletion, with star Bradley Beal recently opting out of the restart (and joining the already injured John Wall).

And even if they managed to do all those things, the Wizards would then have to win a play-in series against the Nets — needing to win, in all likelihood, twice while the Nets needed to win just once.

Plus, even if you think the Nets have a strong incentive to try to tank and miss the playoffs at this point and keep their draft pick … well, what incentive do the Wizards have to try to make the playoffs, only to hurt their draft position while setting up for a lopsided first-round loss to the Bucks?

Long story short: It seems like the Wolves are still in good shape to grab that Nets pick, even if the ground is a little shakier than it once was. Still, if you need something to look forward to: Pay attention on Aug. 2, in Game 2 of the restart, when the Wizards face the Nets.

The pick would still convey as a lottery-protected first-rounder in 2021 if the Nets somehow don’t make the playoffs, but it figures to be a relatively high pick this year if the Nets make the playoffs on the fringe whereas it could be a much lower first-round pick in 2021 once the Nets are at full strength with Durant, Irving and co.

If you’re a Wolves fan, you’re a Nets fan starting in a few weeks.

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