When it came to figuring out what to do with its Division I basketball season, when there were no good answers, the NCAA still might have figured out how to pick the most wrong one.
Let’s move the season back two weeks, to a Nov. 25 tipoff, cut some games, make everyone scramble in so many directions, still have them play nonconference basketball in November and December, even as the COVID-19 pandemic was forecast to begin a second wave, which is now basically here, even as the conferences have wildly varying protocols, because of wildly varying budgets.
Maybe we have it wrong, though. We checked with a couple of administrators. No, they agree. So many variables, but it’s all a mess. A TV analyst who is plugged in as anybody: “This two-week quarantine for a positive test makes the season very iffy in my mind. I pray I’m wrong.” We texted a dozen D-I coaches, all levels, mostly head coaches but some assistants, offered them a little anonymous survey on the NCAA scheduling plan.
A) Should have gone with the normal plan. B) They came up with a good plan. C) Should have started in January and not worried about when the season ends. D) Should have gone with league-only play.
Got 10 responses back. We figured somebody would stick up for the status quo and choose B. Nope. Nobody.
Variations of C and D won in a landslide.
“League only. Too many variables with out of conference.”
“It’s ever-changing. My original vote was A. Now I would say C. Key is we should all be ready to adjust as we learn about virus and react to breakouts.”
“C has been my feeling all along. … Some programs have layers of [doctors] overseeing methods, and others have a single athletic trainer devising a plan and getting one team doctor to approve.”
This same head coach added: “Tourney must happen. March isn’t that far away. Can we really do it? I think the tourney should invest in a bubble experience in April or May.”
Another coach came closest to signing off on the plan: “At the time [it was announced] it was a good plan – it helped the mental challenges the players were and are facing by giving date to start practice and date for first game …”
“With the recent spikes and the inequity in testing believe it is time to hit pause and gear up for league-only with each league deciding on numbers of games that they can play. THE NCAA TOURNAMENT WILL BE PLAYED.”
Let’s assume the NCAA went along with having nonconference games for a number of reasons, not least being that TV partners want such programming. Also, mid-majors need such games for NCAA tournament consideration, and low majors to make budgets from buy games, even if the buy was lower this year.
We’ll pause for a moment to point out how nuts the scheduling of games turned out to be. ESPN came up with the savvy idea to take all the early-season tournaments they were playing, in Hawaii and all over the continent, and have each team go to Orlando. They wouldn’t even worry about having the same fields. Some schools couldn’t make it. St. John’s, for instance, was out because of New York quarantining restrictions. Temple was supposed to go to Hawaii, then switched to Orlando, then a trade was arranged, South Florida joining this Orlando grouping, while the Owls headed to Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, everybody able to take buses.
The Orlando concept blew up because of COVID details. A number of Power 5 schools weren’t willing to have players retested after 90 days of a positive, under the rationale that a positive test for antibodies is different than being positive. CDC guidelines on 90 days struck officials as arbitrary. Their teams were out. The whole concept fell apart.
That might sound kind of nuts, but that’s what’s been going on all over the landscape, negotiating such details, schedules hinging on the outcome. At one point, schools in Philadelphia weren’t sure the city would even allow them to have games without fans, so, a number were exploring playing in the suburbs, even in high school gyms. What difference does it make if there are no crowds? But it turns out, the city will allow games with limited crowds.
A coach at a school in a one-bid league talked about a game scheduled against a Power 5 school.
"Arrive Friday, they test us at the hotel,'' the coach said. “Saturday, arrive at the arena, test again. Small schools don’t have that $$$ to test daily.”
Games are being cancelled because of such things. Tournaments then get reformed on the fly. A Fort Myers tournament lost all its teams but could reform after the Orlando concept died. Suddenly, Kansas, Auburn, Gonzaga, and St. Joseph’s will be there. (Not a tournament, the Hawks will play Kansas and Auburn, not the Zags.)
"There’s no doubt the bubble is the answer,'' Jay Wright said recently on the Big East’s media Zoom call.
That got a lot of attention, but Villanova’s coach immediately provided his own asterisks, why that’s easier said than done, mentioning that athletes aren’t employees, and that there would have to be league bubbles for men’s and women’s hoops, which means considerable expense.
"C and D if safety was the initial priority,'' another head coach said, going for January start and conference-only play. “January would have given the decision-makers a little more time to see where this pandemic is going and to have a UNIFIED plan in place.”
If all this sounds like second-guessing, it really isn’t. We asked many of these same coaches back in June about their expectations for the season. Most of the Division I coaches thought then about playing in the spring, and maybe only conference-only.
A Division I coach said then: “I think we will play and can finish. If we choose to start at the right time."
Maybe there is no right answer – and polls have been known to be off a bit – but from the trenches, it is interesting that no coach picked the NCAA’s plan as hitting the mark. Then again, they didn’t get a vote.