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Craig Meyer: Craig Meyer's proposal for the 2020-21 men's college basketball season

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — Craig Meyer Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sept. 15-- Sep. 15--On Wednesday, the NCAA Division I Council will convene to decide whether to accept recommendations from the men's and women's basketball oversight committees regarding the start of the 2020-21 season.

In mere days, more than six months after the 2020 NCAA tournament was canceled, there will be a definitive date set for the return of college basketball. What that season will look like beyond that date -- the oversight committee reportedly proposed Nov. 21 -- remains something of a mystery.

Unlike its football counterpart, men's college basketball has had the benefit of extra months of planning for what is looking like the increasing inevitability of an unconventional season. But the plans for what that season might look like vary greatly.

In a world engulfed by a pandemic and the unpredictability that creates, there's no such thing as a perfect proposal devoid of risk or uncertainty. There are merely ideas that seem more plausible than others. While the minutiae of planning a college basketball season is best left to those who do such things for a living -- all of whom should be working closely with medical professionals -- writers who cover the sport sometimes have half-baked ideas for how things should proceed.

Here's one of them -- a plan to have the 2020-21 college basketball season.

Do regional non-conference bubbles

For all of the lessons that have been learned from the return of sports during a global pandemic, perhaps the biggest of those has been that bubbles work. The NBA, NHL and WNBA have resumed and begun their seasons with little trouble, which is no small feat from a public-health standpoint.

So let's give it a try with college basketball. This isn't a novel concept, as many others have pitched bubbles in some form, but many of those have served as substitutes for multi-team events (MTEs) like the Maui Invitational.

Instead, let's allow geography to dictate things and have bubbles with teams located in the same pocket of the country. There are 357 Division I teams, so 35 bubbles with 10 teams each would make for a logical setup, with seven of those bubbles having an extra team. The bubble could be in a centralized location in that district that is easily accessible by bus for every participant and that has the infrastructure to be able to host that many teams.

In most cases, if not all, it could be a college that has dorms to house the teams and additional courts to allow them to practice. With schools increasingly shifting to online learning -- according to Davidson College's College Crisis Initiative, 33% of American colleges are either primarily or fully online with their classes, and that was as of Aug. 31, before several other colleges moved into those groupings -- some once-crowded campuses will be largely empty.

These bubbles would be a mix of high-, mid- and low-major programs to provide some level of consistency across the country -- though, given where some schools are located, some bubbles will have stiffer competition than others (namely, in states like North Carolina, Kentucky and Indiana). Pitt, to use one example, could be part of a group with Duquesne, Robert Morris, West Virginia, Penn State, Saint Francis, Youngstown State, Akron, Kent State and Cleveland State, with games taking place in Pittsburgh. At the very worst, it could restore some old rivalries that have been largely abandoned in this area of the country and beyond.

Each team would play each other once in a traditional round-robin, giving every team nine non-conference games, although some would get an extra game, since the NCAA doesn't have an even number of teams. Given this arrangement, there would be no MTEs, but, hey, it's a pandemic and we've got to make do with what we have. If an event as large and profitable as the NCAA tournament took a year off, those can, too.

The games would take place Nov. 21, the proposed start date, through Dec. 22, meaning teams would play nine games over a 31-day span (so one game every 3.4 days). Granted, the pool of teams that get divided up regionally could change as some schools may opt out of the 2020-21 season, but for now, this is what we'll go with.

A Christmas break

As unseemly as it may seem to have unpaid college athletes confined to a bubble -- we'll get to that part a little bit later -- those players shouldn't be deprived of the opportunity to see their families over the holidays. Once games finish, players can return home for about a week.

Once they return to campus, they'll be tested before they can interact with any teammates or coaches. Should they test positive, they'll be held out in isolation for a designated period of time until their results come back negative.

Conference bubbles

The same principle as the non-conference schedule, though this time it comes with teams that are already divided up and have the added help of an existing administration overseeing it all.

The sport's six major conferences are expansive, stretching from Boston to Miami or Morgantown to Lubbock or Providence to Omaha, but as most teams will have to fly, it doesn't have to be held in a central location. Instead, it should take place somewhere that conference leadership, from the commissioner to the schools' presidents and athletic directors, determines would be well-equipped to handle the influx of teams and that would have the necessary housing and athletic facilities so that the bubble can operate smoothly.

In these bubbles, which would operate from early January until early March, every team would play 18 games, meaning that in Pitt's case, it would play each of the other 14 ACC teams along with an additional game against four to-be-determined league foes (it might be fun to have it just be the old Big East, with the Panthers playing Syracuse, Boston College, Louisville and Notre Dame twice).

At the end of that run of games will be a conference tournament, with the winner getting an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, which, in this universe, will have four 16-team pods, with the champions of those meeting in the regularly scheduled Final Four in Indianapolis in April.

Lingering questions

This plan, of course, isn't without its flaws and doesn't come without questions, some of which are more difficult to answer than others.

Bubbles are expensive to maintain -- the NBA's was reportedly more than $150 million -- and even the richest athletic departments don't have the same kind of money these professional leagues do. Paying for it would be a challenge, especially as these departments are more cash-strapped than ever before in recent memory.

The idea of a bubble raises some ethical concerns, as well. It's one thing to isolate professional athletes, but they at least get paid and are part of unions that can bargain for better health and safety conditions. College athletes don't have those same rights and luxuries. Though the issue of being away from campus for classes shouldn't be too much of a concern (athletes already take some online courses and many schools may well have shifted to remote learning by this point) the NCAA and its members would have to publicly acknowledge in some way that, no, these athletes aren't just normal students. They're necessary parts of a lucrative athletic enterprise.

There will be questions around testing, too, from the cost of it to who should shoulder those expenses to how frequently it should be conducted. And should a player or multiple players on a single team test positive, how would that be handled?

Right now, though, this plan stands as one of the more appealing options. Without the requisite financial incentive and by nature of college students being college students -- that is, people who don't appropriately weight risks and who are liable to do all kinds of dumb, reckless things -- it's nearly impossible to envision a season occurring the way the NFL and MLB ones have thus far outside of a bubble.

If you want something resembling a fair, functional college basketball season, there are worse ideas.

Craig Meyer: cmeyer@post-gazette.com and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG

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