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How college basketball conference games in a bubble could keep the NCAA Tournament from being canceled again

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The biggest mistake made by the people who run college football made in preparation for this season is how they assumed for too long everything would just work itself out. Many seemed to believe COVID-19 would somehow disappear in time for kickoff, like some politicians inaccurately predicted, while one of the sport’s most prominent coaches, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney, insisted the games would start on time with Death Valley jam-packed even though no respected medical official agreed with him.

“I have zero doubt we are going to play,” Swinney said in April. “This is America, man. This is the greatest country on the planet. We will rise up and kick this in the teeth. September is a long time away, man.”

Well, now September is just three weeks away. America hasn’t kicked anything in the teeth (other than itself). And college football is … wobbly.

At best.

The Big Ten, Pac-12MAC and Mountain West have already pulled the plug on football in the fall. More conferences might do the same soon. So, surprise, surprise, the wishful-thinking approach college football took did not work, which is why the people who make decisions in college basketball should learn from college football’s mistakes, give up on assuming the season will begin on time with non-league games, and start making realistic plans to achieve what should be the lone goal — to have and complete a 2021 NCAA Tournament.

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That’s the only thing that matters.

The NCAA Tournament annually generates more than $900 million in ad revenue. So having that event on television in March, by literally any means necessary, should be the primary goal. Given that reality, all of the conversations should be centered around devising a plan to ensure it happens. And the approach that makes the most sense is an approach that leads to the creation of conference bubbles that provide enough results for the NCAA Tournament selection committee to produce a bracket.

There’s no good argument against it.

What we know — thanks to the NBA, WNBA, NHL, MLS, NWSL and TBT — is that team sports can be played in the United States inside of a bubble. They’ve worked remarkably well. What’s less clear, though, is whether team sports can work outside of a bubble. Major League Baseball, needless to say, has been a roller coaster. The Cardinals, with 10 players testing positive for COVID-19, have only played five games while others have played 18. In response, MLB is reportedly considering a bubble for its postseason.

Put simply, college basketball shouldn’t follow MLB’s bumpy path.

It should learn from it.

So every conference should be instructed to start making plans for a bubble with the idea that Selection Sunday will be March 7, 2021 — a week earlier than currently scheduled. (I’ll explain why momentarily). If some conferences decide not to participate (because of the cost of a bubble or other reasons), that’s fine. We’ll see you next season. If some schools within conferences that participate decide not to participate, that’s fine. We’ll see you next season. If some players on teams from conferences that participate decide not to participate, that’s fine. We understand.

Anybody who is cleared to play and wants to play can play.

I assume the overwhelming majority would.

And here’s how the season could be structured:

Start conference bubbles in January

The locations of the bubbles and dates on which games are played could be left up to each individual conference and its television partners with the only stipulation being that conference tournaments must be completed by the afternoon of March 7 in advance of the Selection Show that same day. How the leagues get there is up to them. Again, the dates and number of games are flexible. But one idea would be for teams to train on their campuses in late December-early January, then travel to their respective bubbles on Jan. 10. Upon arrival, everybody is tested. Then everybody quarantines. Test. Test. Test. Then games start on Jan. 20 with teams playing, on average, every other day. They would then complete a 20-game league schedule by the weekend of Feb. 27-28. The conference tournaments would be held the following week.

Selection Sunday a week early

The reason Selection Sunday would need to be a week earlier than currently scheduled — on March 7 instead of March 14 — is because the NCAA Tournament would also be conducted in a bubble, and, ideally, you’d like to have an extra week built into the schedule for teams to travel to a new bubble and quarantine. 

Big Dance in a bubble

There are obviously many ways to go about an NCAA Tournament bubble. But my preferred idea would be to cut the bracket to 64 schools and have four 16-team regionals in four separate bubbles. Every team in the NCAA Tournament would travel to their new bubble on March 8. Upon arrival, everybody is tested. Then everybody quarantines. Test. Test. Test. Then the NCAA Tournament starts to unfold like this:

  • March 18/19: First Round
  • March 20/21: Second Round
  • March 25/26: Sweet 16
  • March 27/28: Elite Eight

Once the Final Four is set, the participants travel to a new bubble in, say, Indianapolis. Upon arrival, everybody is tested. Then everybody quarantines for a few days. Test. Test. Test. And then the Final Four could be played as currently scheduled — with the national semifinals on April 3 and title game on April 5.

Then the NCAA deposits a $900 million check.

And everybody is happy.


I realize some will dismiss this framework for a college basketball season instinctively — in part because it would take student-athletes off campus, in some cases, for more than two months. To that, I say, perhaps that’s a good thing! We keep hearing, more and more, that COVID-19 will run rampant on college campuses once students return. So university presidents, in search of cover, could reasonably argue that taking student-athletes away from campuses is actually a good thing for student-athletes. And considering most regular students will be learning remotely anyway, there’s no sensible reason student-athletes can’t also learn remotely while playing the sport they’re on scholarship to play. I mean, what’s the difference between a college basketball player taking virtual classes from an apartment two miles from campus or a hotel 200 (or even 2,000) miles from campus?

Answer: Nothing.

So the idea that there can’t be a season with players off campus is ridiculous. And the idea that a season in a bubble isn’t possible is reserved for small-thinkers. The time to think big and get creative has arrived.

Bottom line, it’s crucial that college basketball not make the same mistake college football made in assuming a season outside of a bubble will be allowed to start and actually work. I mean, it might. Time will tell. But a contingency plan rooted in the idea of conference bubbles needs to be in the works.

I’ve provided the framework.

Tinker with it how you like. I’m flexible on the specifics.

But it’s a must that something along these lines is planned and deemed executable in the coming months. Otherwise, college basketball could find itself in the same less-than-ideal spot where college football now sits, fighting to do something outside of a bubble too many medical officials don’t believe will work.

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EltasZone Sportswriters, Sports Analysts, Opinion columnists, editorials and op-eds. Analysis from The Zone Team
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