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College basketball is poised for a triumphant return. Here's what it will take for it to happen

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Iowa’s Fran McCaffery boldly stated what many in the college basketball community have come to believe.

“I’m certain that there will be a college basketball season and an NCAA Tournament,” the Hawkeye coach declared Aug. 2, giving fans a rare sign of hope in what has been a trying year.

It may not start on time. It may end with May Madness, preserving the alliteration if not the tradition. Not all schools may be able to compete as the COVID-19 pandemic will require extreme measures.

But there is a strong sense that basketball will reach its conclusion in 2021, after the cancellation of its tournament last March signaled that 2020 would be a year of malaise in the world of college sports.

McCaffery enters his 11th season as Hawkeye coach with his best team yet, led by all-American center Luka Garza. Iowa is considered a national title contender, and fans are clamoring to cheer on the Hawkeyes, especially after the gloom earlier this week when Big Ten Conference canceled a fall football season.

More:Iowa's Luka Garza is an unlikely college basketball star with the help of grueling workouts

Mark Few, the coach of another team with championship aspirations in Gonzaga, echoed McCaffery's confidence that a basketball season is within reach.

"You just have to have an open mind and the wherewithal to stay positive and make it happen," said Few, who has been strategizing with fellow coaches all summer on creative ways to get games played.

“I think the NCAA has to do everything humanly possible in the next three months to put together a game plan for college basketball,” said Fran Fraschilla, a former coach who is now a TV analyst primarily covering the Big 12 Conference. “We have to find out how many conferences as possible can afford to regularly test the student-athletes (for the new coronavirus).

“For the psyche of the country, we have to do what we can to get back as close to normal as possible. And I also think financially it makes sense that the major networks have games to put on so they can fulfill their contracts with the conferences, so these schools have that revenue.”

That may mean not starting the season until January. It could be that teams only play within their conferences. It’s possible that leagues will try to emulate the NBA and create “bubbles” in which competition can take place.

On Thursday, NCAA president Mark Emmert suggested that winter sports, including the NCAA Tournament, could utilize a bubble environment for its championships. 

"Will it be normal? Of course not. It'll be playing fall sports in the spring. Will it create other conflicts and challenges? Of course," Emmert said. "But is it doable? Yeah. And we want to do that. We want to make it work for these students."

The tradeoff may be an absence of spectators, just like the NBA. But at least it would mean college athletes from all conferences competing in their chosen sport, televised live, something that hasn’t been seen since March 12.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery is convinced there will be a college basketball season and tournament this winter. If so, his team will carry great expectations into it. The Hawkeyes are a potential Final Four team, led by center Luka Garza.

How the scheduling might work, with non-conference games in jeopardy

One thing working in basketball’s favor is that, unlike football, there is a unifying voice. His name is Dan Gavitt, and he’s the NCAA’s vice president for the sport. Fraschilla was once on the same coaching staff as Gavitt at Providence College. He’s seen how his friend operates.

“Dan has the power of persuasion in his favor. I think he’s someone that all the stakeholders trust to do what’s in the best interest of everybody involved, including the student-athletes,” Fraschilla said.

The first challenge will be what to do about non-conference games, those typically held in November and December. They are often played in exotic locales like Hawaii and Cancun. Those events don’t seem viable now. Nor does it make sense in a pandemic for small schools to travel across the country to play major universities in exchange for a big payday.

That would hurt programs like Maine, where Richard Barron had five such games lined up until he lost a date with Colorado when the Pac-12 announced this week that it won’t allow any athletic competition until Jan. 1. Contests against Rutgers, Virginia Tech, South Florida and St. Joseph’s are still on the Black Bears’ schedule. For now.

“The economic ramifications for these schools are going to last for a long, long time,” Barron said of teams that rely on “guarantee” games to finance their operations.

Barron knows that preserving the America East schedule is the priority. But he is holding out hope that, with three months to plan, the season can begin on time.

“It’s arbitrary,” he said of the possibility of not starting until Jan. 1. “It may make sense. But we may be OK in November. There’s just a lot that can happen between now and then. The sooner we get a rapid test, so we can administer it on gameday, I think that’s the way to go. Without it, we have to do the bubble, which for a lot of places would be cost-prohibitive.”

Ben Jacobson has a different reason for wanting to preserve non-conference games. It’s the best chance for his Northern Iowa Panthers to prove themselves on a national scale before beginning Missouri Valley Conference play. This season, he has games scheduled at Richmond, vs. New Mexico State at a neutral site, and in a Cayman Islands tournament in which Northern Iowa is set to open against Nevada.

“They’re either going to put you in the at-large discussion (for the NCAA Tournament) or keep you out of it, but at least you’d get to play the games,” Jacobson said. “Not only do we need those opportunities to get into the at-large picture, but we look forward to them.”

Fraschilla thinks the best chance to hold non-conference games is to move tournaments to the mainland and create bubbles for a week or two. That means the players and coaches would be tested for COVID-19 and quarantined for the duration of the event before returning to their campuses on conclusion.

Mark Few is hoping to lead his Gonzaga Bulldogs back to another Final Four this winter. The veteran coach has been collaborating with colleagues all summer to try to set up non-conference matchups that would consist of several teams flying to the same location and competing in a "bubble" environment.

Few said Spokane, Washington, could easily host such an event. The city, home to Gonzaga, was going to be the site of opening-round games in last year's NCAA Tournament, and has the hotel capacity and enough basketball courts to host three games simultaneously.

"It's pretty simple to get eight, 10, 12 like-minded institutions at a time to meet somewhere and you could easily knock out six or eight games in a 10-day period, then go home and rest and practice, test and get healthy and then go do it again," Few said.

"That would essentially be the non-conference right there and you can do it easily in less than a month."

Few said the coaches he's spoken to would like to make certain that smaller schools are included, since they stand to lose the most if the non-conference portion of the season falls by the wayside.

"Maybe instead of writing them a check, we fly them up and test them and put them up in a hotel and they get three games or four games," he said. "Everybody has been so open-minded with it and not so territorial, like football seemed to be." 

Profile:To know Gonzaga's Mark Few is to know 'Fewy'

It’s also how Fraschilla envisions conference play happening for the nation’s top 12 leagues. In the Big 12, for example, he outlined a scenario in which all 10 teams would gather in Kansas City for a few weeks and play nine games. A month later, they would do the same in Dallas.

What works for the Big 12 won’t work for all conferences. Jacobson said the upcoming season might further expose the financial gap between the top and bottom of college basketball’s spectrum.

“That divide has been widening for a number of years now and it seems to be getting wider faster in the last five years than it ever has,” Jacobson said. “If they can pull off a bubble for two weeks or two months, I don’t have any issues with that. It won’t be feasible for all 32 leagues.”

Jay Bilas, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, thinks travel will be possible this winter, but that leagues will look to regionalize play, similar to what Major League Baseball is doing. That means Michigan and Michigan State may face each other three times instead of two. The Iowa Hawkeyes may play a schedule heavy on their border rivals and not head east to face Rutgers or Maryland.

“The schools that are farthest away, like Nebraska, Rutgers, Maryland, may have to play multiple games on a road trip. They may not get as many home games this year. But they don’t have to worry about the gate (ticket money). They don’t have to worry about fans. They need to prepare for that. That may be OK for one year,” Bilas said.

“I’m confident they’ll do everything they can to get the games played.”

The pandemic challenge: At Army, a 58-page dossier says it all

Zak Boisvert has a 58-page dossier on his desk that signals how strange this college basketball season will be. He is an assistant coach at Army, and the insurance company and athletic training staff there have offered detailed instructions about how the practices, games and travel are to be handled.

“We’re going to come close to sealing this place off,” Boisvert said of the military academy, where all students are being tested weekly for COVID-19. “So we can do some measures that frankly I don’t think work at a lot of other places.”

The Black Knights have been “practicing” for two weeks, but that consists of each player using his own hoop and his own basketball, essentially 15 guys playing alone in their driveways. The dossier includes “a five-week progression to normalcy,” Boisvert said, meaning actual practices are a few weeks away.

Army, which competes in the Patriot League, is scheduled to open play Nov. 9 at Notre Dame. The team is operating as if that will happen, although Boisvert thinks there’s so much momentum for delaying the season to Jan. 1 that that is what will actually occur.

“Everyone’s acting like this Jan. 1 thing is going to be this end-all, be-all,” he said. “What’s going to be different on Jan. 1? I think there’s going to be some start-stop to this season. The Patriot League has to decide how it’s going to handle an outbreak on any campus. How do they handle a positive test?”

Those do seem inevitable, as McCaffery’s Hawkeyes found out last month, when at least three players tested positive for COVID-19 and workouts were halted for a two-week quarantine.

Daniel Diekema is the director of the Division of Infectious Diseases with the University of Iowa Health Care. He has been studying the coronavirus and its spread, and believes that the United States never left the so-called “first wave” of the pandemic. He’s not convinced things will markedly change by the time basketball season rolls around.

“It’s best to understand this pandemic as a constellation of little individual epidemics in different locations,” Diekema said. “I very much doubt that this wave will be over by the time we hit the influenza season this winter.

“The combination of school reopening in person, if that does happen, and the colder weather driving people indoors is almost certain to increase the rate of the spread of the virus.”

What that means for basketball is it’s probably best to forget about letting any fans into the arenas. The coronavirus spreads more easily indoors.

“The situations where we have seen these so-called ‘super spreader’ events have basically all been in crowded indoor settings where there’s close contact and probably not well-ventilated spaces,” Diekema observed. “Also, a lot of respiratory efforts, be it conversation or singing.”

Or cheering and booing.

Diekema doesn’t believe it is possible to make sporting activities safe this fall, the same conclusion the Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences have reached. He doesn’t anticipate that a vaccine for COVID-19 will be widely available until early next year.

Therefore, the only way to keep the coronavirus from disrupting a basketball season is to quarantine the players. And Diekema said, with such relatively small numbers, that is possible if the athletes and coaches never venture outside of their restrictive environment.

That may be what it takes to get a season in. Jacobson said he believes his Panthers are willing to observe any protocol in order to play their sport.

“It’s going to take a concerted effort, and we all know that,” he said.

Few agreed, expressing frustration that the athletes are often not consulted when decisions are made to cancel seasons.

"People underestimate how much it means to these kids," Few said. "We're encouraging them and helping them to get signed up and get out and vote. And yet we're not going to give you a vote on whether you play or not. And in some instances they've prepared pretty much all of their lives for this moment."

Bilas thinks the players will be safest on their campuses, especially if there are no other students around. Many colleges are considering sending students home for Thanksgiving break and then not asking them to return for a couple of months for a delayed second semester.

But Bilas believes if you’re going to ask athletes to isolate themselves, it’s well past time to be honest about what this endeavor really is.

“They’re not forming a bubble for the marching band. Nor are they forming a bubble for the school play. They’re doing it for football and basketball,” Bilas said. “There’s no reason to do this except money. And that’s OK because all of us are doing things for money. What’s not OK is telling the players they can’t have any. They’re pros. We can’t deny it anymore.”

The reward: An NCAA Tournament that will likely have a different feel

The end game, as always, is to get to the NCAA Tournament, the three-week spectacle that essentially finances the entire operation. Universities lost an estimated $375 million when it was canceled in March. No one involved in basketball wants to think about that happening again.

“They’re going to do whatever they can to tip the ball on a Thursday afternoon in Raleigh, N.C., so they can get the CBS money,” Boisvert said.

The looming questions will be how many teams make it that far, and whether that Thursday afternoon is in March, April or May.

The powerful conferences, those top 12 Fraschilla spoke of, will surely be represented.

Barron doesn’t think America East will be left behind, despite the challenges ahead. The nine-team league stretches from Maine to Maryland, so travel will be an issue. It’s unlikely that the league can afford to put teams in a bubble for long stretches, but perhaps for one week in order to play its season-ending tournament.

“I don’t think that every conference will play games the same way. Some may have a full home-and-away, double round-robin within their league. Bigger conferences may play more league games because of the TV revenue they can get. I don’t think anybody has given up on their school to have a basketball season,” Barron said. “I do believe we’ll find a way to do that (crown a league champion), even if it’s rock, paper, scissors.”

If there's a basketball season this year, Northern Iowa's AJ Green is primed to become a well-known name among fans.

Jacobson has a Valley title contender, led by NBA prospect A.J. Green. He’s excited about his team, but concerned about what might happen if he’s only able to play a conference schedule. Will the Valley only get one team into the NCAA field? That would put all the pressure on its four-day conference tournament.

Unless ... 

“If we play only conference games, my hope would be that we expand the NCAA Tournament for one year, go up to 96 or 128 (teams). At a minimum, you take two teams from each league,” Jacobson said.

“I don’t see any real problem with having an extra weekend in the NCAA Tournament. I think everybody around the country would be excited about it, coming out of what we’re coming out of.”

Boisvert is hoping the Patriot League can complete a season for the sake of his athletes, who have a five-year military commitment ahead of them after graduating from West Point.

“This is the last chance for our players to put on a basketball uniform and I feel for them in that their opportunity would be robbed. That last competitive environment, that last arena before they have to go and get a real job,” Boisvert said.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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