Men's basketball: Should the Big Ten play a conference tournament? It's a tricky question

Adam Jardy
Buckeye Xtra

Everything that the NCAA has done this college basketball season has been done with one goal in mind. All teams that have opted to play through the COVID-19 pandemic have done so in order to take part in a complete, accurately seeded NCAA Tournament in March.

So if that’s the ultimate goal, after last season’s cancellation cost the NCAA some $600 million, it further calls into question the conference tournaments that lead into March Madness.

With players asked to restrict their social lives, isolate as much as possible and do everything in their power to prevent catching the coronavirus, does it make sense for a conference to assemble all of its teams in one city to play a tournament, knowing an outbreak could jeopardize multiple NCAA Tournament appearances?

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It’s an open question in the Big Ten and across the sport as teams weigh the risks of competing for the big prize against the desire to play as many games as possible.

“I think the plan right now is to play and I think every coach would be in agreement with that,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said last week. “But depending on the virus and depending on where teams are at, very few teams are locks to be an NCAA Tournament team (right now). As we get closer, depending on the virus and the health of each team, could it change? I think it’s possible.”

Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann, middle center, said decisions about whether to play in conference tournaments ultimately rest with players, and they typically accept every opportunity to play.

In the 14-team Big Ten, four teams — Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State — already have endured COVID-related shutdowns. Ohio State has been relatively unscathed, losing only Musa Jallow for one game due to contact tracing. With less than six weeks until Selection Sunday, the league has more than a dozen games it needs to reschedule as teams return from shutdowns.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey on Monday dismissed the notion of using the week of the conference tournament to play makeup games, saying, “I think we’ll have the Big Ten tournament. You’re just going to have to squeeze them in, I think.”

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Multiple national media reports have indicated the Big Ten will move its men's tournament from Chicago to Indianapolis, which will host the NCAA Tournament beginning the following week. Teams that would participate in both would be expected to remain in the city for the duration, and strict masking and social distancing measures will be in place to try and minimize the risk of the virus knocking out an entire team.

It can’t completely eliminate the chance, though, and that means top-flight teams who are tournament locks will be taking a chance by playing in a conference tournament.

“If you’re a (team like No. 2) Baylor, is it worth it knowing the risk you inherit every time you travel?” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “Not that the risk doesn’t exist here but every time you take a step outside of the box, so to speak, you increase the odds. There’s just a lot of unknowns right now and we have to keep all options available and navigate through it as those situations present themselves.”

Baylor and guard MaCio Teague have been near the top of the national polls all season and are a lock to make the NCAA Tournament; does it make sense to risk playing in a Big 12 tournament the week before?

Financially, the Big Ten tournament doesn’t impact the league’s bottom line a lot. Though exact contract details for the event haven’t been disclosed, the league sold its television rights to ESPN, Fox Sports and CBS as part of a $2.64 billion contract in 2017 that includes the conference tournament.

Television deals account for between 80-90% of the league’s revenue, the rest of which comes from the NCAA Tournament, football bowl games and championship events and combine to about $10 million per school.

Breaking it down per team, revenue from participating in the Big Ten tournament is likely in the low seven figures. Given the smaller inventory of football games, those likely hold more value to a network partner than basketball.

So yes, not holding the tournament would cost the Big Ten financially, but it wouldn’t be nearly as costly as the loss of the NCAA Tournament.

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“This year is a lot different,” Indiana coach Archie Miller said Monday. “(If) teams having some setbacks or what it may be with COVID protocols and whatnot jeopardize your standing in the NCAA Tournament, I think there is some concern. I think from our league's perspective, it's a go.

“I also think there are some teams here who have gone through some things the last couple of weeks and say this could really be something that could derail us as we have an opportunity to approach (the) postseason.”

Holtmann has repeatedly referenced decisions about this season ultimately being player-driven. The Buckeyes want to play, they’re willing to put up with the risks of having a season amid a pandemic, and the staff has done its part to get them ready on the court. That will remain the case, he said, but it’s an ongoing conversation.

“When you present playing or not playing to your players in the Big Ten tournament, what are they probably going to choose? They’re probably going to choose to play,” Holtmann said. “If we don’t feel like that’s smart, then we’ll reconsider, but as of right now I think we’ll be on board with playing.”

For now, anyway.

ajardy@dispatch.com

@AdamJardy