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Volume 23 No. 25
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College basketball puts pieces together for season

An expanded NCAA tournament field. Large-scale, nonconference events that put teams and players in the bubble. Conference-only scheduling. All of these concepts are on the table for consideration in what will certainly be a new-look college basketball season in 2020-21 because of the pandemic.

 

College basketball leaders are unpacking ideas, seeing what fits and what doesn’t, as they determine what a season will look like and whether nonconference games, including some played in bubbles, are conceivable, especially after most conferences opted to play only league games in football. 

“The more recent chatter seems to be more optimistic than not” about being able to play some nonconference events, said Greg Procino, vice president of basketball operations at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and a leading event operator in college basketball. “If you would have asked me two or three weeks ago, the answer probably would have been very different.”

There’s even been some unofficial conversations among basketball insiders about expanding the NCAA Tournament field from 68 to 96, with 64 teams playing in the first round and 32 receiving a bye.

March Madness took arguably the most damaging blow from the pandemic six months ago when the entire men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were shut down. Hundreds of millions in revenue were lost and college athletes saw their careers end in the most unceremonious of ways.

Now, the game’s leadership is trying to craft a season that will lead them back to March Madness, crossing one threshold at a time. Here is a rundown of important next steps and other compelling factors as the new-look college basketball season takes shape:

Calendar

It’s almost impossible to proceed without knowing when the season starts and the NCAA’s basketball oversight committee is working on that now. Reports last week indicated that Nov. 25, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, is being proposed as the start date for the season. That’s two weeks later than the season’s original start date. 

Launching the season around Thanksgiving could make sense because the student body at many schools plans to go home for the holidays and not return to campus until after the new year. That gives basketball teams roughly six weeks to get in as many games as possible between semesters.

“Scheduling is incredibly difficult as it is and now we’re trying to schedule a complete season in a month or two,” said Brooks Downing, whose agency, BD Global Sports, stages college basketball events in the U.S. and abroad. “It’s really an emotional roller coaster because of how things change so quickly.”

The committee must submit the new start date to the Division I Council for approval and a vote by the council is expected next week.

Conferences

As the season comes into focus, conferences must decide if they want their schools to play a conference-only schedule or if they’ll permit them to play in multiteam events in order to get in more nonconference games. 

Out-of-league games are important for the schools outside of the Power Five because it gives them a chance to pick up quality wins. But others, like Syracuse AD John Wildhack, have said that as many conference games as possible need to be played in December because of the potential for the season to be interrupted. “Maybe we use a regional bubble as an opportunity to get as many conference games in the books as possible,” he said.

More and more event organizers are talking to schools about playing in a bubble environment, like the NBA, in terms of testing and isolating the players and coaches.

Just like with football, universities will need their administration, medical and legal experts aligned. “It’s just layers upon layers of things that need to go right, just like with football,” Procino said.

The bubble

At least three operators, including ESPN Events and the Hall of Fame, have clear plans to put multiple teams, maybe as many as 16 to 20, at each site, in a controlled environment with heavy testing. 

ESPN Events would go to its facilities at its Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, where the NBA has staged its playoffs. The Hall’s Procino has been working on an event at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn. A Houston promoter, Rhossi Carron, proposed to bring as many as 20 teams to a single site in December, which would enable those schools to play a full nonconference schedule in about three weeks.

Other organizers, such as Chicago-based Intersport, say they have the capability to hold events in bubble-like environments. Mark Starsiak, Intersport’s vice president of sports properties, said the NBA’s success in the bubble serves as motivation, but “we’re all still doing our due diligence on this,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a minute before everyone is ready to pull the trigger on this. It’s a lot to figure out.”

Expanded NCAA Tournament field

There’s not yet an official proposal to expand the 2021 tournament to 96 teams, but several basketball insiders say it makes sense, especially if the nonconference schedules are limited. Fewer nonconference games make it more difficult to compare teams from different leagues.

“I think a 96-team field is coming,” said Dan Shell, who oversees the college division at Oak View Group. “I think there’s momentum for it anyway.”

The complications are substantial. Expanding the men’s tournament means expanding the women’s, too. In a one-year scenario, there probably wouldn’t be a lift in rights fees from CBS and Turner. The NCAA might also need more venues for more games. There’s also the question of whether additional testing might be required, barring an available vaccine at that time.

“There are a lot of spinning plates right now,” Procino said, “whether you’re the NCAA or a TV partner or whatever. Everyone is just trying to figure out where they fit.”