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All Illinois coach Brad Underwood wants for Christmas is a healthy team and no forfeits

Illini players will get to visit their families after Wednesday night’s “Braggin’ Rights” game against Missouri in St. Louis. But with COVID-19 cases surging, it’s no simple matter.

Illinois’ Brad Underwood has a plate piled high with uncertainty, as all coaches do.
Illinois’ Brad Underwood has a plate piled high with uncertainty, as all coaches do.
Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

You know what’s nice? Being able to send your college athletes home for the holidays. Illinois basketball coach Brad Underwood — like others in his line of work around the country — couldn’t do that last season.

Pandemic precautions wouldn’t allow it.

COVID-19 concerns made it unthinkable.

This season, things are, um, different. Illini players will get to visit their families after the ‘‘Braggin’ Rights’’ game Wednesday against Missouri in St. Louis. At least, that was the plan as of Tuesday morning. But with COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surging — and an omicron variant spreading faster than the juiciest locker-room gossip — it’s no simple matter at all.

‘‘Obviously,’’ Underwood said, ‘‘we all get concerned with guys going home for Christmas.’’

It’s happening in the very week the NFL moved two games to Tuesday and the NHL put its season on pause and just as women’s and men’s college basketball push toward 100 games canceled or postponed because of coronavirus protocols.

Illinois-Missouri is expected to go off as planned, but similarly appealing December nonconference matchups — Memphis-Tennessee, Ohio State-Kentucky, UCLA-North Carolina — were canceled. Duke, Alabama, Seton Hall and Colorado State are among the ranked teams that have had games wiped off the slate, not to be rescheduled. DePaul, to highlight one already hard-hit program, has canceled three consecutive games and must absorb two Big East forfeits that will count as losses in the conference standings.

As of the start of the school year, the Big Ten announced that sports teams that are unable to play conference games because of COVID-19 will be hit with forfeits. If you’re Underwood and your 8-3 team has navigated through an early-season flu bug and the ongoing absence of point guard Andre Curbelo — yet of late seems to be coming around in a big way — you’re bound to be a little stressed out about that. Asked about that Tuesday, he concurred without a moment’s hesitation.

‘‘There’s no doubt about that,’’ he said. ‘‘The thing that really scares me is games forfeited. We have time to make those up. . . .

‘‘We’ve got very little information coming at us. That’s where the professional leagues are way ahead of us. We have so many conferences, and who knows if [the Big Ten] will do anything or not do anything [to adapt its policy]? I don’t know. But I know this: I’m really concerned about games being forfeited when we actually have time to make some of those games up.’’

Broadly speaking, Underwood supports teams being allowed to play as long as they can put enough healthy players on the court. The Illini got through a couple of games when a few players — not to mention Underwood himself — were sick (not with COVID-19).

‘‘Our guys are vaxxed, so we’re headed down the right path with that,’’ he said. ‘‘But I had the flu, and we had other guys with it who were out. To me, this is the same thing. Hey, play the games and let’s go.’’

First things first, though. There’s a three-game losing streak against Mizzou to end. Then come the perils of holiday travel during a pandemic. After that? Only a fool would take sports’ coming weeks and months for granted. It’s no simple matter at all.

JUST SAYIN’

Photo by Steve Greenberg

What do you do when one kid brings home a Missouri flag and another kid brings home an Illinois flag?

You fly ’em both, of course, because you support them equally. No, not the Tigers and the Illini. The college kids.

Yes, this is happening in my very own front yard.

No, I don’t give a raccoon’s asphalt which team wins Wednesday.

• DePaul athletic director DeWayne Peevy is no fan of a Big East forfeit policy that put the Blue Demons in an 0-2 hole despite a highly encouraging 9-1 start under first-year coach Tony Stubblefield.

Peevy said vaccinations were mandated for all students, faculty and staff, and all players are experiencing ‘‘mild or no symptoms.’’

‘‘The [policy] was put in place and was supported during a different phase of the pandemic,’’ Peevy said, ‘‘and we will do everything possible to rescind the two losses on our record. Because we did everything possible to play this week, even if it meant dressing the minimum five players.’’

• All Ryan Day has done at Ohio State is improve J.T. Barrett’s play, turn one-year starter Dwayne Haskins into a first-round draft pick and unleash Georgia transfer Justin Fields on a helpless Big Ten. And Day did it while calling offensive plays or — even when he didn’t — driving the Buckeyes’ offensive strategy. And he not only maintained what Urban Meyer had built but arguably improved on it while (and this can’t be argued) classing up the joint.

Of course the Bears should speak with Day about being their next coach.

They might as well connect with Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, too, considering Harbaugh is the rare bird who already has made the transition from college (Stanford) to the NFL (49ers) successfully. And what about Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald? Come on, you know we’re bound by law to throw his name out there.