As college football heads toward an uncertain fate due to safety concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic, the issues surrounding a 2020-21 college basketball season have also begun knocking on the door. Two conferences -- the Ivy League and the Pac-12 -- have suspended competition until at least Jan. 1, meaning the nonconference portion of the schedule has already been altered.
Are we heading for a conference-only season in men's and women's college basketball? Can college basketball work in a bubble format? What must be done to save the 2021 NCAA tournaments? Underpinning all of these questions is another fundamental one: Will the sport show the foresight, the leadership and the spirit of cooperation that has been notably lacking in college football's response to the crisis? ESPN college basketball writers considered these questions and others:
Which of the hurdles that derailed the 2020 college football season will have to be solved for men's and women's college basketball to be played in 2020-21?
One of the biggest hurdles will be what happens when college students return to campuses around the country this month. We've already seen a significant number of positive tests on the football side and a couple of basketball teams shutting down workouts due to positive tests -- and that's without the general student body on campus.
"We have all these protocols in place, but it doesn't matter," one ACC coach said. "We can't watch them 24 hours a day. How do you manage that? It's impossible. And then how do you manage it with 20,000 or 30,000 people on campus in the fall?"
Two other hurdles are money and testing. The power conferences obviously have more money than mid- and low-major leagues, which affects how many leagues can ultimately create a bubble and how often a league can test its players. Part of the reason nonconference games are low on the priority list is the disparity in testing protocols between the big and small conferences. But an elimination of nonconference games would also eliminate buy games and guarantee games, where high-major men's basketball programs pay low-major programs to come play on the road. The money earned from those games makes up a huge amount of the low-major programs' budgets.
"The amount of money for testing ... it separates the haves and the have-nots so much," UCLA women's basketball coach Cori Close said. "Outside of the Power 5 conferences, who has that kind of ability and resources?"
College basketball conferences also seem to understand the need to communicate consistently with each other -- and to their student-athletes -- in order to have a season. Because there are so many more leagues and so many more teams, it can't be an every-conference-for-itself approach. College football might have realized this too late.
The biggest hurdle, obviously, will be the virus itself. As one conference official noted, not much has changed between when the sport shut down on March 12 and today -- beside the risk of serious heart issues stemming from the coronavirus. -- Jeff Borzello
What is the current likelihood of the 2020-21 college basketball season starting on time in November?
Many power brokers and decision-makers in college basketball will say they're still planning for an on-time start to the season, and in fact, Dan Gavitt, the NCAA's senior vice president of basketball, said publicly earlier this month that that was still the goal. But the truth is, that's probably unrealistic, and most conferences and coaches are planning for a delayed start to the season, one that might not start until at least December and in a conference-only format. -- Jeff Borzello
The Pac-12 pushing its start date to Jan. 1 is significant because it also implies that the league hopes to know more about the spring football situation at that time. College basketball will not stand alone in the NCAA landscape. It's unlikely schools will give college basketball a green light if football remains sidelined. Early 2021 could be the stretch when all college sports return in Division I's version of what's happening in pro sports right now. But none of the stakeholders in the sport are preaching the necessity of an on-time start date. -- Myron Medcalf
UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma said he is expecting a January start at the earliest for everyone, and has stressed to his staff and team to just be patient about getting ready for the season, whenever it is.
"You can't get upset about anything, you can't be in a hurry," he said on Tuesday. "I mean, in a hurry to do what or in a hurry to go where? So we just take our time." -- Mechelle Voepel
Advocating for patience as Auriemma did is a common refrain from coaches this week, which says plenty about how likely they think a November start is. Some programs, Princeton as one example, face monumental challenges in gearing up for the season with campuses still shut down and all classes taking place online. But most players will likely have access to strength programs and training rooms, certainly in the Power 5 conferences, and would be able to reach game readiness relatively quickly. Yet even there, every day seemingly brings so many questions and new challenges that coaches sound like they will be surprised if anything goes according to plan.
"I have gotten to a point, honestly, whereas my grandma used to say, just give it up to Jesus," Utah coach Lynne Roberts said. "I've settled into thinking some things are more important, and safety and health are certainly that." -- Graham Hays
What's the latest date a college basketball season could start in time to complete championships during the 2020-21 academic year?
Last month, Gavitt told ESPN a conversation about moving the NCAA men's basketball tournament to an earlier or later date never gained steam during a stretch of virtual meetings with the selection committee. He called anything outside the traditional March/April window a "dramatic alternative."
What the committee will consider, however, is offering flexibility in respect to automatic qualifiers, suggesting conferences will decide which team represents their leagues in the NCAA tournament. That might include eliminating conference tournaments and awarding a berth to the top team in a shortened season, Gavitt said. A lot could change in the coming months. But the leader of the sport is currently preaching a typical conclusion to the 2020-2021 season in a what will likely be a nontraditional year. -- Myron Medcalf
It seems likely the women's NCAA tournament, which is broadcast on the ESPN networks, will keep its traditional March/early April time frame, too. The WNBA draft takes place in mid-April, with the WNBA season typically starting in late May. So the idea of the women's tournament going much later than normal is not likely feasible. -- Mechelle Voepel
What are the obstacles in a conference-only format? Are commissioners and other college basketball stakeholders considering that option?
It's a legitimate -- and arguably the most likely -- option, yes. The aforementioned variations in testing protocols among different conferences has contributed to it growing as an option, as has the idea of keeping the season more regional, instead of schools traveling around the country for two months during the nonconference season.
One potential obstacle unique to a conference-only format would be how it affects the NCAA tournament selection process. A season without nonconference games would make the NET worthless, without any comparison points among different leagues. While that might help dominant mid-major teams that have a better raw efficiency margin against their conference foes, it would also eliminate chances at "Quadrant 1" wins for smaller leagues. While Big Ten teams would play 16 of 20 games against Quadrant 1 opponents, the Colonial Athletic Association would likely feature zero Quad 1 games. But as one conference official pointed out, differentiating among potential NCAA tournament teams is why there's a selection committee. -- Jeff Borzello
It seems most are counting on a conference-only format, although some coaches of powerhouse programs have discussed the idea of holding big nonconference matchups in a central location prior to conference play. The Power 5 schools would be more equipped to move forward and possibly play more games in that scenario, which might offer an even greater advantage when the tourney field is announced. Still, the automatic qualifier matters here. The leagues can decide how they distribute those tickets to the NCAA tournament, and that ensures the low majors and mid-majors will still get an invite to the party.
And the selection committee seems to be open to the idea of tossing out traditional criteria. It has even taken the step of contacting Google, which helped the NCAA create the NET, to consider the potential impact of a nontraditional 2020-2021 season. -- Myron Medcalf
This season is to be the first the women's NCAA tournament selection uses the NET, which began in men's basketball for the 2018-19 season. But lack of interconference play will hurt mid-major and smaller schools disproportionately no matter what measuring tool the selection committee is using. The Power 5 schools seem to get the benefit of the doubt from the selection committee even more on the women's side than the men's. If there is not much -- or any -- ability for teams to make a nonconference splash taking down a more powerful foe, they'll end up with the common but sometimes disheartening double-digit seed. -- Mechelle Voepel
What are the scheduling options other than eliminating the nonconference portion of the schedule?
As one conference official put it, if the goal is to minimize the number of sites, the season will have to be as regional as possible. So while The Athletic's plan for 44 mini-bubbles might be unrealistic, it was on the right track. Most of the ideas mentioned to ESPN over the past week include the overarching theme of keeping everything regional and isolated.
One option floated was to split a conference into three groups, put the groups in mini-bubbles for a weekend, play a round-robin format and then do it again two weeks later. Several sources mentioned ideas focused on mini-bubbles and teams playing several games in the same weekend. Another idea mentioned was to have two large bubbles per conference, one in December and one in January, in order to get a full conference season in. It's unclear if any of these ideas will work, but the emphasis on keeping things regional and isolated is of utmost importance -- as well as not testing the limits of amateurism. -- Jeff Borzello
Auriemma believes 2020 CFB cancellation to be inevitable
Geno Auriemma details the toughest challenges in trying to prepare for this year's basketball season, and he explains how it will be affected by what college football decides to do.
The bubble concept is certainly gaining momentum, per multiple sources. One strength that's been conveyed in recent weeks is the ability of college basketball's elite programs to fly on private charters and minimize their traveling parties. One top-10 coach said his team could fly with fewer than 20 people to a game against Duke or Michigan State or another top program and meet those schools for a game anywhere in the country. He also said those top schools could use those planes to assist mid-major or low-major nonconference opponents who lack the same financial resources.
Others have discussed a schedule that focuses less on the regular season and instead puts all of its might behind an expanded 128-team NCAA tournament.
"At this point, everything is being considered," one non-Power 5 conference commissioner said. "At least with basketball, time is our ally. Also, basketball is a long season compared to other sports so we have a bigger window to work with to consider creative scheduling." -- Myron Medcalf
Colorado women's coach JR Payne insisted she is planning for a full schedule despite the Pac-12's delay, and indicated schools might be able to fill out schedules with regional games. That makes a lot of sense for schools in the East, Midwest and South, where there are plenty of potential opponents within easy driving range of each other. It's more problematic for someone like Payne, unless she wants to play a whole bunch of games against Air Force, Colorado State, Denver and Northern Colorado, the only other Division I programs in the state.
"It's all so fluid, sort of as everything is right now it's day to day," Payne said. "Those are things, to be honest, that we haven't even talked about yet within our conference." -- Graham Hays
Can college basketball really play its season(s) in a bubble like several pro leagues have?
This might be the billion-dollar question for the college basketball season. From big leagues such as the NBA, NHL, MLS and WNBA to smaller operations like the Premier Lacrosse League, National Women's Soccer League and The Basketball Tournament (TBT), bubbles have worked. Meanwhile, the biggest American sports league without a bubble -- Major League Baseball -- has had a number of issues.
So therein lies the question: Can college basketball play in a bubble? In short, the answer is probably no. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott made that pretty clear when his league canceled all sports until at least Jan. 1. "Unlike professional sports, college sports cannot operate in a bubble," Scott said.
Bubbles have worked because leagues are willing to spend big money to make them happen, including facilities, hotels, testing, etc. Moreover, when the option for players is to make their sizable salary in a bubble or not have a season and make next to nothing, it's easier to be convinced to stay in a bubble. The biggest difference between professional athletes and college athletes is that the latter receive no direct compensation. Can a league really tell players (including nonscholarship players) that they need to stay in a bubble for several months?
Despite these issues, it's not an option that's entirely off the table. As mentioned earlier, the idea of temporary or mini-bubbles has been considered by a number of conferences. One conference official mentioned the possibility of sending every team in the conference to a campus that has gone 100% virtual/online for the school year. That school would have to be big enough to house every student-athlete, and have the athletic infrastructure to host a season.
If a bubble were to happen, the best time for it to occur would be between fall and spring semesters, when other students aren't on campus. With a number of schools ending their fall semesters earlier, though, it would allow for a six-week stretch, at a minimum, for a pseudo-season to occur. Money, of course, would still be an issue. Bubbles and constant testing aren't cheap, although a conference-only schedule could put leagues in charge of testing, limiting the financial stress on individual programs. -- Jeff Borzello
One sports lawyer told ESPN that collegiate power brokers will be hesitant to back the concept due to concerns about lawsuits. "The biggest obstacle is that you can't do it with college kids," she told ESPN. "The NCAA has spent a [bunch] of money on lawyers arguing that they are students first and athletes second. The bubble only works when both sides can negotiate terms and protections."
Another sports law attorney, however, believes it might be feasible.
"If the players voluntarily agree to enter a so-called bubble I do not know that any legal hurdles would exist with respect to the bubble itself," he said. "I also expect that similar to football, schools would offer an option to the athletes to opt out and not compete."
We can't compare this to the NBA or MLS or the WNBA -- the players in those leagues all have unions. It's unclear how the NCAA and the conferences would solidify a plan with the approval of athletes who don't have representation.
It's also important to consider the financial toll.
The NBA reportedly spent more than $150 million on its bubble. How much money will be left to spend by an NCAA that lost hundreds of millions of dollars after canceling the 2020 tournament? How many leagues that will miss tens of millions of dollars in TV money without football and fans in the stands will have enough cash to make a major contribution to a sport that, for most universities, generates a fraction of the money they make off football?
It's fair to wonder if the loss of football encourages financially strapped schools to push harder for college basketball, or question if the costs around a season might be prohibitive. Even if a bubble concept is approved, the financial investment could ultimately sink the idea. -- Myron Medcalf
In the mid-2000s, NCAA women's basketball went to a "pod" system with eight teams at eight sites to start the tournament, instead of four teams at 16 sites. It lasted three years and didn't provide the attendance boost the NCAA was hoping for, so it was abandoned.
But with the desire to limit travel and perhaps to create bubble scenarios for the NCAA tournament, maybe the women will go back to the bigger pods. -- Mechelle Voepel
What is the NCAA saying about its cash-cow men's basketball tournament in March? Should we expect major changes to format schedule/other details?
Having an NCAA tournament is the No. 1 goal of the decision-makers in college basketball. They simply can't miss two years in a row of the revenue that the tournament provides. The NCAA will have to figure out a number of things, though. When will the event happen? As mentioned previously, the NCAA's goal, and the TV networks' goal, is going to be to have it in March as usual -- but that could end up being nearly impossible if the season ultimately starts in late December or early January. So it could be pushed back to April or even May.
What will be the format and how many teams will play in it? One thing to consider, as TBT did, is the possibility of having teams on standby in case a team has to leave the tournament due to positive COVID-19 tests. TBT ended up bringing four replacement teams in addition to the 24 that were in the field, and needed to use all of them -- one of which was forced to drop out of the field because of positive COVID-19 tests.
In addition to the aforementioned issues around selection criteria, what about the number of sites? It might make sense to bring everyone to one location -- or two locations, like the NHL -- and create a bubble. The 2021 Final Four is scheduled for Indianapolis, and that could be one location, while cities such as Dallas, New Orleans and Atlanta that have major hotels directly connected to big venues could be viable options.
The NCAA will undoubtedly want to get these questions answered, though, because a second year without its $1 billion cash cow is not on the table. -- Jeff Borzello
Are college basketball stakeholders concerned about the NCAA tournaments overlapping with a spring college football season? What are the implications of that possibility?
Overlapping television windows is certainly a talking point for conferences right now, as fulfilling TV contracts is a factor when trying to come up with different scenarios for a conference season. But it doesn't seem like it's a huge concern, as one conference official noted, because it's like everything else related to the pandemic -- you just might have to get creative.
First, if college football is planning for a spring season and college basketball is hoping to start in January, there might not be much overlap. And right now, the Big Ten and Pac-12 are the only Power 5 conferences set to play football in the spring. We would have to imagine that college football is going to stick to Saturdays for games, maybe Thursdays, so college basketball would just have to play a few more Monday and Friday games, certainly more Sunday games.
If we reach the NCAA tournament and college football has been able to get started without an issue, I have no doubt the TV networks, the conferences and the NCAA would come together to figure out how to make their two biggest money-makers coexist on television. All entities would want to make it work. -- Jeff Borzello
How might players who are eligible for NBA/WNBA drafts be affected if college basketball's season starts and ends late?
Football is likely to have a bigger problem with the draft than basketball, if football ultimately plays in the spring. The NBA isn't due to start next season until December, at the earliest, which could push everything back -- including the NBA draft. Even if the draft is pushed back a month, that would allow time for draft prospects to have a college basketball season, have team and agency draft workouts and attend the draft combine. The uncertainty of the draft process this summer saw many borderline prospects opt to return to college, which could lead to a loaded 2021 draft. -- Jeff Borzello
Will players skip a shortened season?
If conferences attempt to play shortened seasons and the NCAA doesn't find some mechanism to accommodate that reality with extended eligibility, players with redshirt options will face a dilemma. Participate in a season that might last only two months and burn a year of eligibility, or sit out a shortened 2020-21 season to preserve eligibility for (they hope) a return to normalcy in the 2021-22 season?
This is especially true in women's basketball, where with a few exceptions, even elite players exhaust their eligibility before moving on to the WNBA. The Pac-12 made this more than a hypothetical exercise when it canceled competition through the end of the calendar year.
Colorado's Payne said after the announcement that she still hopes to play a full schedule, even beginning in January, but most Pac-12 women's basketball coaches seem resigned to either a conference-only model or at least a severely truncated schedule. If other conferences hold fast to a full season, Pac-12 players would have a choice to make.
"It's obviously something that I've thought about, and I don't know how it's going to go," Utah's Roberts said. "I think any coach would be not being honest ... if you have a great young player, you don't want them to play a nine-game season and then lose that year. Or any of your players."
Some players wouldn't want to stick around for an extra year. Some coaches wouldn't have room for those players even if they did want to extend their college stays -- a potential backlog that would only add to the recruiting headaches caused by the pandemic. But for others, a few more months of waiting might prove a fair trade for a full season of basketball. -- Graham Hays
Is there any chance fans are allowed in the stands for basketball in 2020-21?
It doesn't appear very likely and it also doesn't appear to be the No. 1 concern for college basketball decision-makers. It's all about having an NCAA tournament, and whatever the sport needs to do in order to have an NCAA tournament is the priority.
The men's tournament brings in nearly $1 billion worth of revenue, and the financial boost it provides to its member schools is significant. The NCAA distributes tournament money to its conferences in "units," with each one being worth roughly $280,000, a number that rises by a couple of thousand each year. And that amount if paid out annually over six years, so even teams that are one-and-done earn around $1.7 million per season for their conferences. Having fans in the stands is lower on the priority list.
"It's $100 million vs. $1 billion," one league official told ESPN. -- Jeff Borzello