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College basketball in a bubble? It’s not entirely out of the question

Two notable names are confident that contingencies for basketball will be in place.

NCAA Basketball: Battle 4 Atlantis-Michigan at Iowa State Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

With the Big Ten and Pac-12 announcing this week the postponement of fall sports in 2020, many eyes are now on plans surrounding college basketball and how the coronavirus pandemic could affect that season taking place. NCAA Senior Vice President of Basketball Dan Gavitt is on the record saying that as long as basketball is being played in the world somewhere, they are confident they can find a way to get the season in this year.

Gavitt, Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart and NABC’s Craig Robinson joined Andy Katz in an interview this week to discuss some of the conversations taking place in the college basketball world right now.

“We’ve been working on contingencies and studying what it is that makes the most sense for college basketball for months now,” Gavitt said. “We’re five months exactly from the date the tournament was canceled back in March and we’re three months from the scheduled start of the college basketball season. We recognize what’s going on around the country and have been making plans and contingencies for a change if necessary. But we’re also, as we’ve said throughout the summer, going to exercise patience and make sure we learn as much as we can from all of the other sports going on right now, notably the NBA and WNBA and the success that they are having.

“Making sure we’re making informed and responsible decisions in a timely fashion, we remain very confident that we’re going to have a basketball season, albeit different, and maybe altered, if necessary. The virus, we don’t control, it controls us. Leading into March Madness, we’re very confident that’s going to happen. Different contingencies are being considered [to make that happen].”

The issues with a bubble in any capacity in college sports has to do with students not being paid to play the sport. Barnhart says that this is a huge consideration in the conversations taking place.

“You hit it with those two words: college student. That is part of the equation, we never forget that,” said Barnhart. “They’re still going to class. They’ve still got school, some of them are online, some are in classes, some of that is hybrid. We’ve got to pay attention to being a college student, that is still a part of this process that we will have to factor it.”

The focus remains on finding a way to safely get the season in and Barnhart says that no stone will be unturned in crowning a legitimate and hard-fought championship next March.

“No matter what sport we’ve got going on, it might not be fair,” he said. “You may look at this and say, ‘Oh my word, that is not fair.’ But at the end of the day, we’re going to find a way to play a championship and we’re gonna get through this thing. It may look a little different, it may be where we bring folks together, it may be in the same format we’ve done. I hope we can go and do what we’ve done at all the original sites and march through March Madness and get to a Final Four. It could look very different. We’ve watched the bubbles, we’ve watched them. We’ve said, ‘That’s working’ and ‘that’s not working.’ We’ll have more information and more time. Everyone is expecting us to have good answers, and the committee is focused on finding a pathway forward.”

Gavitt says that they are hoping for things to go on somewhat normally, but that the NCAA is looking at contingency plans — including tournament bubbles — if it needs to come to that.

“Our best hope is that we have the tournament played as scheduled with some fans in attendance, with 68 teams and crown a national champion in that way,” Gavitt said. “But we’ll have decision points along the way, including getting to a bubble-like situation if that’s the only way to run the tournament safely and responsibly, to determine a national champion. Will that be challenged? Sure, because they are students. They have to be in class when class is in attendance. There’s a lot we can learn about modified bubbles and what the NBA and WNBA have done, Major League Soccer and other sports that have exercised that kind of rigor around health and safety. We’re learning more by the week.”

Gavitt also believes that virtual learning in the fall semester and into the winter break may afford the opportunity to create small bubbles to start the season.

“There are some opportunities in the season, as well, certainly when classes are in session, where a true bubble is just not a reality for college sports,” said Gavitt. “But during the month of late November and into December when most of our schools are in virtual learning environments and/or after exams during the traditional holiday break, that is potentially an opportunity to create regionalized and controlled environments in bubble-like scenarios for non-conference or conference games. Some conferences have made decisions about waiting until January, and we’re respectful of those decisions, but we need to take advantage of opportunities, as well. While this is going to be an imperfect season and an imperfect tournament – the virus does not know fairness and equity – we need to take advantage of windows that we have when they’re there for us to get a season in and a tournament in in a very safe and responsible way.”