NCAA exploring ‘bubble’ plan for college basketball

Adam Jardy
The first day of the Big Ten tournament Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis had been held in March before the event became a casualty of the coronavirus shutdown.

College basketball is officially on the clock.

Five months after the NCAA Tournament was canceled and teams were sent home in response to the coronavirus pandemic, men’s basketball is now inching its way back to the forefront of the college conversation.

With football sidelined in the Big Ten and in many other conference, the focus is beginning to turn to the second-biggest revenue-producer in college athletics and the viability of trying to forge ahead with its own season.

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Less than three months before the scheduled start to the basketball season, how is NCAA leadership preaching confidence that there will be a season and an NCAA Tournament?

It turns out that, instead of worrying about being on the right side of the bubble come Selection Sunday, schools are now more concerned about being inside a few.

Having watched the success of The Basketball Tournament in Columbus and then the NBA and WNBA, in addition to the struggles of major league baseball and college football, the conversations that have been ongoing since March are pointing toward the 2020-21 season being held in “bubbles.”

“If we have to do a bubble model and that’s the only way we can do it, then we’ll figure it out,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said Thursday.

That’s a conclusion CBS Sports analyst Gary Parrish came to earlier in the week when he published a column advocating the creation of bubble environments across the country to safely allow the sport to resume.

The specifics of the concept can be argued, but the overall idea — place teams in one location, test frequently, play multiple games in a short period of time and then repeat as necessary — may represent the best chance of conducting a season.

And with that, the best chance of cashing a check north of $900 million in advertising revenues that comes with the NCAA Tournament.

“I feel fairly confident that there will be something that qualifies as a 2020-21 college basketball season, not because our country is necessarily going to be in a place good enough to conduct one, but the people in charge are actively right now devising plans to do it,” Parrish told The Dispatch. “We don’t know if you can play basketball outside of a bubble, but we do know you can play it inside of a bubble.”

With fears of COVID-19 spreading through campus, many universities are relying heavily upon online courses until the country has a better handle on the situation. Spending weeks at a time inside a bubble while removed from campus would not be dissimilar from what a typical student is likely to experience this academic year.

Participation wouldn’t be mandatory, for schools or for individuals. Throughout the pandemic and the planned return to play, scholarships will be honored should athletes decide to opt out of playing.

ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg, a former coach at Virginia Tech, said that asking players to self-quarantine, self-police and abide by the conditions necessary to create an effective bubble is doable.

“For the people who say you can’t have a bubble in college athletics, it’s so comical to me it’s ridiculous,” he said. “You can control the environment of your student-athletes if they want to play. We’re going to find out which teams have good culture and which teams have peer pressure. You’re going to find out which teams are good teammates by how they abide by the protocols.”

Even with the rough concept of a bubble, the outlook isn’t all sunshine for the sport.

On Thursday, Dr. Carlos Del Rio, a member of the NCAA’s coronavirus advisory committee, compared the situation regarding fall sports to being on the Titanic and trying to decide when to let the band play. Moreover, while most major conferences present a united front, the lack of transparency regarding medical information from conference to conference and within the NCAA has complicated the decision-making process for athletes who might want to opt out of the entire season.

“If (the advisory committee) is saying that it’s irresponsible to go forward, especially in a sport that begins in the fall and is going to go through the winter during the regular flu season with this pandemic going on, that needs to be said publicly” by the NCAA, said Jay Bilas, ESPN analyst and among college basketball’s most outspoken ambassadors.

“I think it’s profoundly wrong that information isn’t being coordinated in a cooperative manner and shared publicly,” Bilas added. “I think that is a profound failure, and clearly they’re not doing that.”

It’s a reason for pause, particularly if a full medical report shared across the NCAA paints a picture of an unacceptable risk to participants. It’s why, as of Thursday, Bilas said that despite public remarks from Emmert and NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt to the contrary, he’s not confident there will be a season.

The calendar might actually work in the sport’s favor. At many colleges, including Ohio State, students will not return to campus after going home for Thanksgiving break, creating at least one full month of what amounts to a natural on-campus bubble.

“They’re going to be living what amounts to bubble life anyway,” Parrish said. “Basketball players want to play basketball. I don’t think they ever envisioned playing it under these circumstances, but if the options are to play it under these circumstances or don’t play it at all, I feel confident that the overwhelming majority of basketball players would gladly sign up to live this life to have a season in some form.”

In recent days Parrish said he has heard from multiple higher-ups within the sport that they are continuing to explore creative ways to make the season happen. Greenberg said Gavitt, who essentially oversees college basketball, and his team have been doing daily work since March to evaluate other sports and leagues to see what does and does not work.

There’s still time. Decisions on the season almost certainly won’t need to be made until mid-September. But the fact that the sport isn’t primarily relying on hope is cause for optimism.

“I talk to these people, and they definitely have numerous plans to make it a reality safely,” Greenberg said. “I think they’ll be able to execute them. It’s not like, ‘Well, football canceled, now we’re going to start thinking about it.’ They’ve been thinking about this every single day since the tournament was canceled.”


Florida State players leave the court  in Greensboro, N.C., after the Atlantic Coast Conference pulled the plug on its tournament on March 12.