Bubble talk is common during an unprecedented 2020. Not to compare at-large resumes for the NCAA Tournament, but just to play games safely during the coronavirus pandemic.
Several professional leagues, such as the NBA, WNBA and NHL, all saw incredible success keeping the coronavirus from penetrating their bubble seasons. If a league has the finances to make it work, it seems that is the best path to safely hold a competitive atmosphere for sport. But whether a bubble could work for college basketball, at the ‘amateur’ level of sports, is a complicated concept.
The entire construction of a student-athlete gets blurred if a whole season gets moved to a bubble. The economic disparity between the haves and have nots becomes even more amplified. And of course, how would this change the NCAA’s regulatory power?
By the time the 2020-21 season concludes, however that happens, there will be questions about why a bubble did not happen in college hoops. This was asked in MLB, the NFL and across college football. As much of the country has grown accustomed to the virus and the new age we live in, so have those in college athletics.
“We’re not going to be able to stop the spread of [the coronavirus]. It is what it is,” Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon told the media last month. “We always sacrifice as coaches and athletes to do what we love to do, and we’ll continue to do that to make sure we can play.”
Already there have been several ‘minor bubbles’ that have sprouted up in nonconference play. Most famously is ‘Bubbleville’ at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. Operating for the first two weeks of the season, over 40 games were played in a "mini-bubble." At least 30 teams (men’s and women’s) played a nonconference game in the bubble, some whole tournaments. Coaches, such as Villanova’s Jay Wright, have lauded the success of Bubbleville and scheduled more nonconference games there on a whim.
It has not come without cost. Programs must pay for lodging, the costs for regular testing as mandated by the location and other fees associated with the event. The financial burden is far too great for some teams that rely on ‘buy games’ just to have their athletic department stay afloat.
For some conferences, a bubble has been deemed a potential option for conference play. Leagues like the Big East, Atlantic 10 and ACC all say they considered it when building out their schedules. Some are leaving it on the table as an option to pivot to if the circumstances force them to.
“It's a possibility,” Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said on media day. “You know we are looking at a variety of game formats that would be an alternative to what we're calling the travel model. Right now we've been advised by our doctors that the travel model can be made to work given the way that we travel, given again our in-venue preparations, the NCAA guidance does not discourage that and have offered some parameters about how to do that safely so we've taken all of that to heart.
“So that's Plan A for us is to travel like we normally do… If we determine that another model is safer and-or necessary, we're going to be in a position to pivot to that and that could include a single-venue format for all of our schools for some portion of our schools.”
Outside of bubbles – and even within them – games have been canceled everywhere because of COVID-19. In the scope of the larger college basketball landscape, nonconference cancelations are fine. Canceling conference games though, and using a NCAA recommended 14-day quarantine period for a positive test, creates a massive problem as the clock ticks toward March Madness. That will be the biggest test.
In the Big Ten, they don’t even use a 14-day quarantine period for an individual, they use a 21-day quarantine period. Under normal circumstances that would put six games on the docket into question if there’s a significant outbreak.
Leagues will have to be creative on how to seed teams for conference tournaments that have varying amounts of games. What if the overwhelming favorite for a smaller conference has positive tests the week before the league tournament and can't win the league's automatic conference bid? If measuring the strength of teams to make the NCAA Tournament, imagine having to do it with many programs having wildly different sample sizes to evaluate. Hypothetically speaking, could an ACC team that only played 15 games get in over a mid-major that played the full 27?
“I need a calculator,” Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade said on media day. “We easily had 10, 12, 14 different potential combinations of schedules. We did little pods. We did a big pod. We did a look at a bubble, bringing everyone to the same place. We kind of ran the gamut.”
There’s bound to be a high-profile league that can afford the expenses of holding a bubble. That league will also likely be able to do it in a manner that affords more teams the opportunity to make the Big Dance. Smaller leagues -- and probably even a notable single-bid team -- will get left out just because of the lack of financial backing that the blue bloods have.
Somehow, we’ll end up with an NCAA Tournament in March. After losing it last season, the NCAA will find a way to make it happen. The organization has already said it intends to host the whole tournament at one site in Indianapolis (the original location for the Final Four) to limit travel. As it stands, it falls short of a definitive ‘bubble’ due to how open the environment will be.
“The bottom line is that we’ve worked backwards,” Turgeon said. “We put the NCAA Tournament in, we know when the dates are and we work backwards from there. We’re just trying to figure out a way to get an NCAA Tournament. Is it going to go perfect? No, it’s not going to go perfect. We’re going to have positives in the season, throughout most teams in the country probably. But the bottom line is that we do everything we can during these positives to make sure our guys are safe and healthy. Kids want to play, coaches want to coach.”
As leagues and teams prepare for the months ahead, the goal remains the same as year’s past: just get to the NCAA Tournament. This year that just takes on a whole different meaning.