USA TODAY Sports’ Scott Gleeson breaks down the latest men’s basketball coaches poll.
During a recent conversation with an athletics director about the fragile state of the college football season, a fairly startling possibility was raised.
“We may play more football games than basketball games before it’s over,” said this athletics director, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic.
It wasn’t a joke.
College basketball will begin Wednesday, but nobody in the sport could argue that it’s ready.
Just as college football decided, fractured as it was, to push through and play this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the sport of college basketball has also decided to move ahead and accept whatever disruptions may occur. The reasons for that are clear. After canceling the NCAA tournament in 2020, there simply must be one in 2021 so that the NCAA can collect $850 million from its television contract and distribute most of that money to schools that are already struggling financially.
But while the NCAA announced last week that it will hold every round of tournament games in a single metropolitan area — likely Indianapolis — to cut down on travel and other variables, plans for the regular season have been particularly ill-conceived. In fact, every hour seems to reveal another failure as opening week games are being canceled across the country and teams are traveling to multi-team tournaments in places like South Dakota and Connecticut — some on commercial flights — and having either players or coaches test positive for COVID-19 upon arrival.
It portends what another athletics director called “one choppy (expletive),” with teams likely to be constantly starting up and shutting down for several days at a time due to a positive test and the subsequent contact tracing.
It will help if the CDC reduces quarantine guidelines from 14 days to seven or 10, as a CDC official suggested to the Wall Street Journal could occur. But because of the small rosters relative to football and the close contact inherent in practice, any positive tests are going to be a massive problem, potentially causing teams to miss four or five games.
As Alabama coach Nate Oats told reporters Tuesday, “It’s going to be really hard to have a season if everyone in the country decides they’re going to shut down for two weeks with one positive.”
Given that college basketball conferences basically decided not to pursue costly plans to put teams in bubbles, nobody’s really sure what the right approach would be. One power conference coach told USA TODAY Sports it was probably the right thing to play, another said if it were up to him he’d just as soon take a pass on the whole season until the pandemic is over.
There are concerns about officials, who are basically independent contractors, traveling all over the place from game to game and what happens if they test positive. Administrators are worried about the mental health aspect of putting players in quarantine, potentially multiple times. Even compared to the mess that was getting college football season launched, trying to play non-conference games this week as the case numbers rise nationally seems haphazard and reckless.
The totality of college basketball’s response to the pandemic was to push the start of the season back a couple weeks so that campuses would clear out for Thanksgiving. But the number of games canceled this week is so head-spinning, it’s obvious that the plan hasn’t really worked.
COLLEGE BASKETBALL: COVID-19 hampers season’s start, causing scheduling headaches
Baylor returns guard Jared Butler (12) and guard Davion Mitchell (45) in this year’s quest for a NCAA national title, shown during a game last season at West Virginia. (Photo: Ben Queen, USA TODAY Sports)
The only person who is really making sense these days is Hall of Famer Rick Pitino, who has returned from his overseas exile to coach Iona. In various interviews and social media posts, he has implored the powers that be to push the season back to a start in March, compressing it into two months and then playing the NCAA tournament in May.
With vaccines on the way and the winter peak past, it would offer the potential of a season with far fewer disruptions. But so far, there’s been no traction at all to that idea. The NCAA, and presumably the television networks, want to play the tournament in March. Unless there’s a complete calamity, that’s almost certainly what will happen.
And in a way, you can understand what they’re thinking. Technically, you don’t need to have much of an actual season to play the tournament and collect that big check. It may be completely illegitimate if you’ve got a bunch of teams that have only been able to play 13 or 14 games, but the NCAA will find a way to invite 68 teams to play in its tournament. The NCAA will build a bracket and millions of people will watch. That’s the NCAA’s only real responsibility.
The rest of it is largely up to the conferences and the schools, who are going to accept the new normal and do their best to run through the tape.
We all know their plan to get there consists of little more than hope. It’s a complete mess, and there’s no indication that will change over the next couple months. In a sane world, the season would not start Wednesday. But it’s going to anyway because the NCAA only cares about the tournament and the rest of the sport is managed by disparate groups that struggle to get on the same page about anything, much less a complex issue like a pandemic.
Best of luck to them. They go into this season knowing how badly they will need it.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.