College Basketball in 2021: A Whirlwind of What-Ifs and What-Abouts

Like the bars, restaurants, gyms, and other public places in America, this blog has been empty for several months. That’s partly been by design. You, my readers, probably have a lot going on. I hope that you have been healthy, safe, and happy since our relationship cut off in mid-March. I haven’t felt the urge or necessity to interrupt you during our prolonged stretch without college basketball.

Looking back at the season that was (and was not) didn’t feel right. Besides a little fun with our March Madness moments bracket on Twitter, the flood of old games and nostalgia didn’t exactly hit home for me either. Looking forward to next year or to an NBA Draft that had no date both seemed ineffective as well.

So things remained quiet around here. We let the cancellation of March Madness sting and then heal, awaiting the triumphant return of college hoops this fall. As a second and now third wave of novel coronavirus cases surged in America, now even that is in doubt.

Other college basketball blogs, writers, websites, and podcasts are currently buzzing with the news of plans for the upcoming season. If it’s been a few hours since Jon Rothstein or Matt Norlander have tweeted about some team’s schedule or the creation or dissolution of a multi-team event somewhere, just give it a few minutes, more news is certain to trickle in.

Because unlike the professional sports leagues, which have total autonomy over their schedules and protocols, college sports has no choice but to slither and bubble with news here, changes there, and constant uncertainty. The NCAA’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic can’t even be described as poor — it’s been nonexistent.

Football has some independence from the NCAA itself, since the highest regarded national champion in that sport is crowned by a separate entity and not the NCAA. So while the NCAA sets rules and regulations for how football teams and coaches interact, the financial gain for the NCAA to intervene in football matters just isn’t as strong as when they have a chance to deal with their biggest cash cow — March Madness.

So as football teams and conferences across the country made their decisions to play, not play, announce COVID cases, ignore protocols, or totally change things on the fly, the NCAA never intervened. With basketball on the horizon, it is ludicrous that the NCAA has remained laissez-faire. Things can change wildly in these uncertain times (fill in that spot on your “Concerned Sports Blog Bingo Card”), but it is patently absurd that college basketball begins in less than a month and we have no idea if there will be an NCAA Tournament, how many teams will be invited, and how those teams will be chosen.

Assuming there will be an attempt to hold an NCAA Tournament next spring, the teams vying for spots in said tournament have every right to know how to qualify for that tournament. Beyond that, for the health and safety of the players, coaches, staffers, and college communities involved, there should be a more defined nationwide plan for how scheduling, travel, and testing should be handled.

Instead, the scheduling (and inevitable rescheduling) of college basketball games this winter has become the Wild West. Games are added and cancelled on a daily basis. Teams are scrambling to put themselves in a position to succeed on the basketball court this fall, while making questionable plans to remain safe off the court.

For example, the Big East announced the first half of its conference schedule this past Wednesday. It is unquestionably odd that they chose to release half of the schedule with a “We’ll wait and see” for the back half. The half they did release seems totally unaware of the pandemic around us. The schedule covers a 12 day period in December and features teams playing as many as five games.

The Big East has Marquette play Creighton in Omaha on December 14, Seton Hall in Milwaukee on the 17th, Xavier in Cincinnati on the 20th, and then Villanova back in Milwaukee on the 23rd. That is aggressive to say the least.

Assume a Marquette player comes in contact with COVID-19 on the flight to Omaha on December 13. That player would likely not even test positive, based on what we know about transmission, until after he’s played a game, flown home, practiced, spent time with his team, and played another game.

Contrast that with the smaller conferences, who have planned much smarter, and the Big East’s plan seems downright dangerous. The America East (among other mid-major leagues) will be borrowing from the Ivy League’s typical schedule in many ways. Teams will play two-game series each weekend, on Saturdays and Sundays.

This allows teams to test in the week leading up and minimize how many opposing teams they come in contact with. From the Monday following a game to the Saturday of their next series, teams would interact only the team they play that upcoming weekend in an 13 day period. To simplify that explanation, let’s say Vermont travels to Stony Brook for a weekend series, then plays Albany at home the next weekend, and travels to UMBC the following weekend. From the day after the Sunday game at Stony Brook until the Saturday game at UMBC, a 13 day period, Vermont won’t travel and will only interact with one opponent. That’s undeniably safer than puddle jumping around for multiple games per week.

If someone tests positive, reschedule a weekend series for an open space later in the year (which they have saved). This is one of the advantages football has with its one-game-per-week schedule. Moving one game is a lot easier than derailing a series of pre-set dates. Ask Major League Baseball.

The NBA is also reportedly considering series of games between the same teams for its upcoming truncated 2020-21 season. This minimizes exposure and travel. It’s essentially creating a “baby bubble” every weekend. There’s no good reason college basketball conferences shouldn’t be doing the same.

Instead, with the NCAA nowhere to be found, college basketball programs are flying around like decapitated chickens.

Half the schools will be just happy to complete a season, recoup any level of revenue and graduate their seniors. Half will be desperately trying to reach the NCAA Tournament, scheduling games on a whim, and doing what they can to increase their KenPom and NET rankings. A handful will think they have a chance to win a national championship, under the assumption a championship will occur. Who knows what percentage will then value the health of their players and communities over one more win?

With the NCAA quiet, it’s almost hard to blame some of these teams. Basketball coaches are hired to win basketball games. Athletic directors are hired to build successful programs, both on the court and on the bottom line. University presidents should have their school’s best interest in mind. The NCAA should….well, I’m not sure what anyone could say what they do around here anymore anyway.

College basketball might be able to exist in 2021. I know the dozen paragraphs above don’t make it seem like I believe that, yet I genuinely do. I love this sport. I want it to happen, but not at any cost. If the safety of any of the 4,000+ college basketball players or thousands of coaches and staff members is jeopardized in a significant way, it’s harder to find joy in the games. If that happened because the NCAA, conferences, and schools were negligent or even just short-sighted, that’s a nearly impossible pill to swallow.

So if we’re going to have college basketball, do it with as air-tight a plan as you can. The weekend series plan is smart. Some conferences have intimated the possibility of a “bubble” set-up. That includes the Big East, which I heavily maligned above. The Big East suggested the unannounced second half of the schedule could happen in a bubble. Matt Norlander of CBS Sports reported it could happen in a variety of places:

Why wait? Why not do that in December? Many schools are virtual or built in an extended winter break that begins as early as Thanksgiving. Work with your sponsors, TV providers, and a host to bubble your teams, play a double round robin. Have a Rivalry Day. Host a mini-tournament. Do whatever is necessary to make your games safe and enjoyable for players and fans.

Speaking of fans, a brief aside to say quite simply: DO NOT HAVE FANS AT YOUR COLLEGE BASKETBALL GAMES. Football is slowly building up it’s capacity. Football happens outdoors. Everything we know about the spread of COVID-19 suggests it is far more contagious in an indoor setting. Even in a large basketball arena, the ventilation is far from an outdoor experience. Fifty spectators at a March 10 Vermont basketball game contracted the virus. Three of them died. Those fifty surely infected hundreds more.

This, by the way, is not a strawman argument. Louisville is planning on 3,000 fans at the KFC Yum! Center this season! That’s 14 percent, not counting employees, players, coaches, and administrators*. I assume that other schools will follow suit or increase that number or percentage.

*A sidebar to ask a pertinent question: what the hell are the referees going to do? With no centralized referee union or assignments, it’s going to be chaos. Roger Ayers began last season officiating 21 games in 21 locations in 21 days. Keith Kimble refereed 106 Division I men’s college basketball regular season games last year. I can’t think of a scenario more poised for super-spreading.

If I allow my optimistic side (yes, it exists) to take over for a moment, let’s say there will be an NCAA Tournament and a hope to have fans attend. Why not build a bubble system for each region of the bracket? To include fans, why not plan to host games in large scale football stadiums like the NCAA has for the Final Four. Four of the domes or roofed structures in Atlanta, Dallas, Minnesota, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles could serve as region hosts, 16 teams are tested and housed in nearby hotels, with losing teams leaving as each round advances. Don’t want to extend a bubble system for that long? Instead of waiting for weekends to play the games, have games every two days for eight days, settling the first four rounds through the Elite Eight, then consolidate for the Final Four. I’m just a guy spitballing on my couch right now, but I fear that I’m showing more creativity than the NCAA will.

Baseball was lucky to get back on track and have a World Series. The NBA took every possible precaution and finished its season with smashing success. The NFL has survived thus far, testing its players every single day and rescheduling games as needed.

If college basketball isn’t as careful as it can possibly be, we risk losing another NCAA Tournament. With the NCAA floundering atop the sport, that fear is not unfounded.

******

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack

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