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Bubbles, buy games and bid worries: Inside the frenzy to save college basketball’s nonconference season




Last week’s announcement that college basketball will start on Nov. 25 brought a sense of relief to the sport. We are going to have a 2020-21 season, it won’t be delayed too long and it will include all the usual staples of a season: nonconference games and holiday tournaments, conference play and conference tournaments and then an NCAA tournament.

But it also sent commissioners, athletic directors and coaches into a frenzy.

Aside from preparing for a season amid various pandemic-related protocols, teams and conferences around the country also need to rebuild the season’s schedules. Canceling contracts, moving multi-team events, expanding or changing conference play, creating a bubble-like environment — everything has been on the table.

“Everyone’s scrambling” has been a consistent refrain from people throughout college basketball, as has a specific four-letter obscenity that precedes “show.”

Despite the excitement, plenty of questions remain on how the season will ultimately happen. After speaking to more than 60 sources around men’s college basketball over the past few days, here’s our best feel for the state of play.

Is everyone playing nonconference games?

Had this question been posed in early September, the answer would have undoubtedly been more emphatic … and negative. Around that time, there was a serious industry belief that the ACC wasn’t planning to play nonconference games. Had the ACC bailed on nonconference, there’s a good chance other leagues would have followed. But as it stands, nearly every conference is planning for nonconference games. I reached out to at least one source in all 32 leagues, and I would be surprised if more than one or two conferences opt out of nonconference as a whole.

The Ivy League remains a prime candidate to sit out nonconference. It announced in the summer it would not have any competition until after the first semester, and the schools in the league that have gone to exclusively remote learning are unlikely to bring back students or student-athletes until January. There’s a substantial chance the Ivy goes conference-only, and doesn’t start until mid-to-late January.

Despite originally announcing there would be no sports until Jan. 1, the Pac-12 seems on course to move up football, which would open the door for basketball to play nonconference games.

Sources in several leagues did say there will be autonomy for individual schools to make their own decisions within the framework of the conference’s plan. So if one or two schools in a certain league are having issues because of costs or coronavirus protocols, it won’t mean the entire league opts out.

“We absolutely need nonconference,” one conference official told ESPN. “We’ve believed all along that our teams need a mix of conference and nonconference. We not only need nonconference, but the right games due to the potential smaller sample size of nonconference [games this season].”

Early-season tourneys: You can’t play if you can’t travel or test

Basketball Travelers Inc., a company that organizes summer tours for men’s and women’s programs and also runs in-season tournaments, sent a survey to coaches earlier this month, hoping to gauge interest in a potential bubble-type event. It received over 130 responses, and the biggest challenge that emerged from the results was that only one-third of surveyed coaches were certain they would be able to travel outside of their region and/or fly to game locations.

“That’s what forced us to start thinking more regionally,” said Jason Sarkies, direct of tours & tournaments for Basketball Travelers. “That caught our attention.”

A number of coaches, mostly in mid- and low-major conferences, confirmed similar information to ESPN, saying their university leadership has told them not to plan to fly anywhere or travel a long distance.

Another challenge is the gap in testing protocols between bigger and smaller schools, owing to the disparity in resources between the two. Multiple sources told ESPN they expect the NCAA to release testing standards to which every conference must adhere. And even if the NCAA doesn’t act there, if teams from two different conferences play in a nonconference game, it stands to reason they will have to abide by the standards of the stricter conference.

“Why would you leave yourself vulnerable there?” a source said. “Forget about Quad 1 or making sure you play 27 games, health and safety is the top priority. That’s not just lip service.”

Money, it should be emphasized, is a huge factor. The sheer cost of testing is difficult for smaller schools, and they also don’t have the money to enter some of these bubble-type environments — where prices for entry have gone as high as $90,000 per school. Then there’s the quarantine factor — some states are requiring residents to quarantine for up to two weeks after traveling to certain higher-risk states.

Combine all that, and it’s made it awfully difficult for low- and mid-major schools to get games on the books the past few days.

“We’re probably not going to [be able to schedule] any high-majors,” one SoCon head coach said.

As a result, with potentially limited opportunities for mid-majors to get statement wins against high-major programs, it could be difficult for any typical “one-bid” leagues to get an at-large bid come March.

Has the bottom dropped out of the buy game market?

The financial impact of the coronavirus is a factor for everybody right now in college sports, but it’s hitting low- and mid-major programs that rely on guarantee games and buy games especially hard. An average guarantee game earns a visitor about $75,000, with a number of schools paying six figures for a game. One MEAC coach told ESPN over the summer that his league’s schools raise anywhere from $200,000 to $600,000 in one nonconference season. But high-major schools simply don’t have that money right now, and while some have offered less for a buy game, the aforementioned problems of testing and travel can start popping up.

The contract portion of schedule-building can get into legalese, with “force majeure” (essentially, that the unforeseeable effects of the coronavirus negate any breach of contract) popping up in multiple conversations. As one event operator told ESPN, he’s looking at the teams that were scheduled for his events as free agents, and is not planning to enforce contracts under the circumstances. With most events having relocated or the dates specified in the contract moved, it would be difficult to hold teams to contracts anyway.

Michigan State assistant athletic director Kevin Pauga, who handles the Spartans’ scheduling, told ESPN the first clause in most game contracts is that the game has to follow NCAA rules and guidelines. With the season being moved to Nov. 25, every game scheduled from Nov. 10-24 would then fall outside of NCAA rules and guidelines and be theoretically easier to cancel.

The change to the maximum number of games has tied the hands of some high-major programs. Some leagues are playing 20 conference games, leaving just seven games to schedule in nonconference. A multi-team event (MTE) plus a conference challenge or two, and suddenly most of the high-major schools are almost at the limit.

The lack of crossover between mid-majors and high-majors could be the most noticeable aspect of nonconference play — which will have ramifications come March.

“That’s not going to be a perfect system. It’s taking an imperfect system and making it less perfect,” said Pauga, who also created the KPI, one of the metrics on the team sheets that are used as a tool in NCAA tournament consideration. “It’s not anybody’s fault. There’s so many moving parts to it.”

Don’t call them bubbles, they’re controlled environments

While bubbles have been highly effective for everything from the NBA and NHL to the MLS and WNBA to even The Basketball Tournament and Premier Lacrosse League, we won’t see them in college basketball. What we will see, however, are “controlled environments.” It was a phrase I first heard used by NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt on a webinar earlier this month, but it has popped up more often lately.

“The word bubble has been overused. We don’t have the money to do what the NBA does,” Mercer coach Greg Gary said. “That’s a true bubble.”

“We can’t create what the NBA has done, what the MLS did,” Sarkies said. “It’s just not conceivable, cost-wise.”

And as one source pointed out, it’s a lot easier to bubble professional athletes who are getting paid and subject to a collective bargaining agreement.

“You can’t do that with college kids,” he said.

With that said, the restrictions will be greater than at a traditional neutral site. Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Connecticut, is expected to host several events, and believes it is well-prepared for a controlled environment.

Dave Martinelli, Mohegan Sun’s chief marketing officer, said there are temperature scans at every entrance, mandatory masks and the facility has 100% ultraviolet coverage.

“From a team perspective, they can stay on their own hotel tower floor. They can leave those hotel rooms, come [to the] back of house, get to their meetings, get to the arena. They don’t have to walk through the casino if they don’t want to,” Martinelli said. “How strict do the teams really want to take it? If they want their teams completely quarantined and away from everyone else, we can accommodate that. It just depends on what that team wants to set up.”

Event operator Rhossi Carron has a proposal for a 20-team bubble-type event in Houston with an available window from Nov. 25-Dec. 21. His two host venues are the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Hilton Americas-Houston, which are connected via indoor skywalk. Moreover, the Hilton Americas-Houston will only be occupied by teams in the event during most of December.

“Teams can open with a two-to-three-game [multi-team event] before going into nonconference play based on the number of games needed,” Carron said. “The goal is to provide an environment where programs have everything needed on one campus to minimize travel and reduce risk of exposure to COVID-19.”




It’s a similar situation for the Holiday Hoopsgiving event in Atlanta, which includes Clemson, Alabama, LSU, South Florida, Mississippi State, Dayton, Memphis and Auburn. Event operator Chris Williams has the teams staying at the Omni Hotel, which is attached to State Farm Arena through the CNN Center — which is currently closed. Williams told ESPN he hopes to expand his one-day event with those eight teams to a weeklong bubble that would include eight teams playing four games.

So while they’re not the airtight bubbles we saw all summer, they will be “controlled environments.”

What is happening with the Champions Classic and the other big events?

It’s fair to say the early-season events that dominate the November and December schedule will all be in different locations than we’re used to seeing.

Per conference and team sources, ESPN is moving at least eight of its events to the ESPN Wide World of Sports property at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, an attempt to build on the success of the NBA being hosted there. The Champions Classic, Charleston Classic, Myrtle Beach Invitational, NIT Season Tip-Off, Wooden Legacy, Orlando Invitational, Jimmy V Classic and Diamond Head Classic, all of which are run by ESPN Events, are moving to Orlando.

The events will start on Nov. 25 and run for the first two weeks of the season. Specific dates for the events are undetermined for now, but the Champions Classic is more likely to occur during the second week of the proposed two-week window. There will be events overlapping during those two weeks, with up to three games going on at once.

There also have been discussions about “crossover” games, with teams playing against one another outside of their scheduled event or scheduled game. Baylor and Gonzaga, two teams who were scheduled to play this season, will both be in Orlando and are candidates for such an arrangement.

Though ESPN’s events are expected to include all of the teams originally slated, and no new teams are currently being recruited to fill vacancies, it is possible that issues (including the Pac-12’s scheduling uncertainty) could force ESPN and other event operators to revisit that thinking.

The aforementioned Mohegan Sun will host the Men’s and Women’s Hall of Fame Tip-Off, Legends Classic, Empire Classic, Gotham Classic and Hall of Fame Invitational, sources told ESPN. The first three events are expected to take place beginning Nov. 25, while the Gotham Classic and Hall of Fame Invitational don’t have set dates just yet. Event operators have also been in contact with nearly 100 schools this week to gauge interest on “bubbling up” for a few games in December, although Mohegan Sun also needs to balance MMA and boxing agreements.

The Maui Invitational is moving to Asheville, North Carolina, at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center from Nov. 30-Dec. 2, sources told ESPN. It will be held at the Cherokee Center’s ExploreAsheville.com Arena, where the Southern Conference tournament was played in March. That field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

“We’re a tourism-based community, we fit that vibe of what an early-season tournament would look like,” Harrah’s Cherokee Center general manager Chris Corl told ESPN earlier this month. “Our goal is to bring business to town. As long as we can cover costs, we’ll do whatever it takes.”

The Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas is canceled … kind of. The field is expected to relocate to the Sanford Pentagon in South Dakota, sources told ESPN, although the event will technically have no affiliation to Atlantis, an Atlantis spokesperson told ESPN. There’s a pretty big question mark around this field, though, as Duke hasn’t committed to going to South Dakota and could be replaced. Ohio State, Memphis, Creighton, West Virginia, Texas A&M, Utah and Wichita State round out the field.

It also looks like most of the conference vs. conference challenges are going to proceed as scheduled, at campus sites. The biggest of the group, the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, is expected to move to Dec. 8-9, sources told ESPN.

What are some of the other plans popping up for nonconference?

Through conversations over the past month, I’ve heard about more than 20 different bubble-style proposals for nonconference play. In addition to the aforementioned events, there are expected to be large events in Las Vegas and Indianapolis. Las Vegas could play host to a nonconference event involving teams from the Big Sky, West Coast Conference, WAC, Big West and Mountain West — and potentially the Pac-12, Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill told ESPN’s Myron Medcalf.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal last week that it says could accommodate up to 24 teams in Indianapolis, also the site of the 2021 Final Four. Sports Corp. president Ryan Vaughn told the Associated Press “it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.” Sports Corp. is helping the city of Indianapolis prepare for the Final Four, so a dry run of a bubble-type environment makes sense.

Basketball Travelers was planning events in two different locations that could accommodate up to 64 men’s and women’s teams, while The George Washington University has proposed a bubble-type event at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the nation’s capital.

Louisville, Kentucky, Duke creating bubble-type environments?

Prior to the NCAA’s start date announcement on Sept. 16, three mid-major programs had been proactive in attempting to create bubbles: Mercer, Winthrop and East Tennessee State. Since the announcement, the trend has become more prevalent.

Winthrop was hoping for 20 teams to come to its campus in December, while East Tennessee State and Mercer have been flexible, referring to such an event as more of a contingency plan.

East Tennessee State coach Jason Shay said earlier this month ETSU was looking at a 10-day window to play five games in its bubble-style event. The teams would stay in dorms, although there is also a hotel attached to the on-campus dome the school would be using to host games.

Mercer has a medical school on campus, which would help with testing for its proposed event.

“We’re not trying to make money,” Gary said. “It’s targeted to whoever wants to play.”

On Friday, a tweet from Chris Mack may have jump-started another trend. The Louisville head coach tweeted out a promotion soliciting interest for a nonconference bubble at Louisville from Nov. 25-Dec. 5 for eight to 12 teams. The teams would stay for free at a local hotel, sources told ESPN, while testing costs would be split evenly among the teams participating. While the field will comprise several local teams that bus to Louisville, there will also be programs from outside the area.

Duke is also planning its own multi-team event, while Kentucky is expected to reschedule its Bluegrass Showcase, which was to take place over a 10-day period, as a more self-contained event. The Wildcats’ event includes Richmond, Detroit and Hartford. Other schools are in the planning stages of similar campus events.

So what about conference play?

There will be tweaks to conference schedules. So far, the MAAC is the only conference to publicly announce its scheduling model for the season — and it features 22 league games. There’s an expectation, or a hope at the very least, that other leagues will expand conference play to lessen the pressure on finding nonconference games.

“I’m hoping they will give us some extra league games so we won’t be scrambling around to find a bunch of games soon,” one mid-major head coach said. “I don’t want to be trying to find nine games.”

While there was originally talk of some of the biggest conferences bubbling up for conference play, that has dissipated in recent weeks. What we could see is multiple smaller pods being used to play more games over a shorter time span. One conference has floated the idea of splitting the league into three groups, putting them into mini-bubbles for a weekend, playing a round-robin format and then doing it again two weeks later.

“We are considering a bubble, but it’s one of a number of considerations right now,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said on a recent Zoom call. “I don’t think it’s an option that we’re leaning toward.”

What’s next?

Patience.

“It’s an evolving target. We’re scheduling in real time. We’re not going to have schedules by Monday. It’s going to take some time. You’re likely going to start practice before you have a finalized schedule,” Pauga said. “Schedules that get released are going to be a starting point. The 27 games we release, I hope that’s what we play. But realistically, there are going to be adjustments.”

Pauga recently created a program, FAKTOR, that should help with building schedules in a condensed time frame. He says it’s “analytics meets matchmaking for scheduling,” and it provides a constantly updated database of schools in need of games. Although it has only been live for less than two weeks, more than 200 users have entered their schedules or scheduling needs since the NCAA announced its Nov. 25 start date.

First, though, leagues will need to provide a framework for conference play. The MAAC laid out its 22-game conference schedule over 11 weeks, leaving two weeks of nonconference games between Nov. 25-Dec. 6 and then a two-day nonconference window on Dec. 22-23. MAAC schools now know they can schedule nonconference games in those two windows, and the rest is already figured out.

Coaches around the country are hoping their conferences follow suit — and quickly.

“In the next week, no more than two weeks, we gotta start having some answers,” one mid-major coach said. “Just so we can start planning.”

“I’m more aggravated with the league giving us zero direction,” one high-major coach said.

Testing is the elephant in the room for the season, though. While there is plenty of optimism for faster, cheaper testing, it’s imperative that it’s wildly available if the season is going to start on Nov. 25. If it’s not, we’re likely to see the stop-start season college football has endured so far.

“A lot of the plans that are being put together are based on the assumption that testing will still get better and daily testing will be viable,” one source said. “If not, it seems tough to pull any of this off. Football is one game a week, so you have a couple days to get results. In basketball, you’re playing two games in three days, three games in a week. If you can’t do it daily, it seems tough.”

While there are just over two months until the start of the season, very little is set in stone right now.




Said one event operator: “Everything is fluid.”

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