In an unfortunate echo of March, the Ivy League on Thursday became the first Division I league to cancel its men’s and women’s basketball seasons, announcing that it would not play any winter sports in 2020-21 and would delay a decision on spring sports until at least the start of March, 2021.
Will the Ivy’s decision prompt other leagues and schools to consider canceling winter sports? What are the specific implications for college basketball, most notably the multibillion dollar revenue-generator that is the NCAA tournament? What issues are schools and conferences grappling with as they attempt to return to play amid the coronavirus pandemic? ESPN’s team of college reporters addressed the latest on those fronts:
How much impact do you expect the Ivy League’s decision to cancel the 2020-21 college basketball season to have on other Division I conferences?
I don’t think this will be the first domino like it was back in March for conference tournaments. The Ivy League already was a step ahead of most conferences for this season, as it had already canceled nonconference games. Also, because the Ivy doesn’t generally offer special exceptions to student-athletes, it was unlikely to bring student-athletes back on campus when the general population is learning remotely. Four of the eight schools in the league were operating on a remote basis in the fall, so those students likely weren’t going to return until at least the spring semester — and that’s if the spring doesn’t go remote as well.
Could another league follow suit? Perhaps. The most likely candidate would be the Patriot League, which has already canceled nonconference games and is generally in lockstep with the Ivy League on major decisions. But I don’t see men’s and women’s basketball shutting down wholesale, Power 5 or non-Power 5, the way it did in March. — Jeff Borzello
I’m not convinced there will be a mass exodus at this point, but men’s and women’s college basketball programs are wrestling with critical questions about the upcoming season. Can they afford to follow the protocols with testing and contact tracing? Officials at Saint Mary’s of the WCC said they expect to spend $400,000 this year on testing for athletes. For most non-Power 5 leagues, the main source of pre-NCAA tournament revenue depends on the ability to hold games. Without fans or with limited crowds, those numbers are compromised. If schools can’t arrange buy games, and especially if the Power 5 schools shift toward limited nonconference schedules, how much will college basketball cost those schools this season?
The Ivy League is respected throughout college basketball and its universities have the financial pipelines to withstand an abnormal season. If they’ve decided the risks aren’t worth it, other non-Power 5 leagues could follow. Right now, college basketball’s haves are positioned with resources the rest of the landscape lacks. I think every league in the have-nots group is thinking twice about moving forward now that the Ivy League has made its announcement. — Myron Medcalf
The Ivy League’s decision also directly impacts the ECAC Hockey conference for both men and women. Six Ivy League schools — Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton and Yale — each field men’s and women’s hockey programs that play in the ECAC. Of the remaining six teams — Clarkson, Colgate, Quinnipiac, Rensselaer, St. Lawrence and Union — Rensselaer and Union have often taken cues from the Ivy schools, but there has not been an indication yet if that will be the case. ECAC Hockey is the only conference in men’s hockey that has not announced any portion of its schedule for the 2020-21 season as it awaited the Ivy League’s decision. It would be very difficult for the conference to proceed with four teams (if Rensselaer and Union don’t play). — Chris Peters
How worried are coaches, publicly or privately, about the ability to carry off winter seasons in college sports?
Coaches throughout men’s basketball are making the public declarations we’ve come to expect in these scenarios. And the truth is they’re all working hard to create environments that hopefully will allow their athletes to compete this season. But there seems to be waning support and confidence around a traditional nonconference season for some, while others believe college basketball will just figure it out.
“I definitely think there will be a nonconference season,” said one high-profile coach, while one non-Power 5 coach told ESPN he believes it’s “impossible” for his league to play this season. The coaches with the most confidence about the upcoming season play in leagues where schools can create their own versions of a bubble with practice facilities, private dorms on campus, short walks between buildings and charter flights. The men’s basketball practice facility at the University of Kentucky is next to the dorm for Kentucky basketball, where a chef prepares meals for players. But that’s not the situation for everyone. Then again, the possible payout from the NCAA tournament is also the biggest motivator for those schools to keep going. — Myron Medcalf
There’s a very high level of concern and it’s only growing as cases continue to increase around the country. There’s very little confidence a full season of 27 or 28 games is going to be played. In talking to coaches around the country, I would place the average over/under around 16-18 games. Much of that simply has to do with the 14-day quarantine guidelines put in place and the lack of separation between different position groups. In football, you can have several positive tests and still play a game, or if there’s a 14-day quarantine put in place for the entire team, you might miss only two games. Basketball is a completely different story. There are only 13 players on a team and they all practice together. There’s no separating offense and defense or guards and forwards for an entire practice. And 14 days means at least four games. If a team has two cases of COVID-19 over the course of an entire season, that’s at least eight games gone. — Jeff Borzello
On Wednesday, UConn coach Geno Auriemma expressed confidence that the women’s basketball season will start on time in two weeks. But he also referenced college football, which is going through a spate of coronavirus-related cancellations, to suggest his current confidence means little. “Let’s put it this way: I’m as confident as college football was when they started their season,” Auriemma said. “Why? Because everything is OK right now. Will everything be OK two months from now? I don’t know. But I’m confident that we’re going to be able to do what we need to do, and so far we’ve done everything that we’ve been asked to do.
“We’re going to do what we need to do to make it work. Until when? Until we realize that, you know what, it’s not in our best interests — the players’ best interests specifically — to move on.” — Graham Hays
Baylor women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey, whose Lady Bears won the 2019 NCAA title, said her players “understand that there are no guarantees for tomorrow.” She tells them to focus on what they can control.
“We’re focused on basketball, but they’re human. You just have a, I don’t know if ‘nervousness’ is the word to use, but it’s just the unknown,” she said.
“[COVID-19] is here to stay, and we can do all the things we’re supposed to do, and as you’re seeing across the country, it’s going to happen. What I’m gathering is administrators across the country, and even the NCAA, they just want you to, by golly, get those games in. It’s not about wins and losses. Well, how do you tell Kim Mulkey it’s not about wins and losses? But I understand the situation we’re in with COVID, and I’m going to have to figure out how to survive and live and help our team get better, regardless of the score of ballgames.” — Mechelle Voepel
The men’s college hockey season is scheduled to begin Saturday with Wisconsin traveling to Notre Dame to open the Big Ten season — Notre Dame is a hockey-only member of the conference. Other conferences are due to begin by Nov. 20. The Big Ten has scheduled only its first half of what will be a shortened season, while most other conferences have scheduled out their entire shortened seasons. NCAA coaches have been outwardly positive about the prospects of pulling off the season, though more on the side of cautiously optimistic. — Chris Peters
What are the most common COVID-19 and quarantine guidelines schools and leagues are working around?
That’s the challenge. Guidelines are different. What’s clear is there seems to be an acknowledgement of NCAA guidelines. Multiple college basketball programs have already paused team activities for 14 days following a positive test within their programs, which is what the NCAA recommends. But that’s not the tricky part.
There are more than 350 teams and unique requirements depending on the state and sometimes, the county. Want to play in Hawaii? Need proof of a negative test 72 hours before entering the island. In California, some schools have only recently been given the green light to practice. At UC Irvine, players have spent a chunk of the preseason practicing with just six people in the gym at a time and a single hoop for each athlete. Ohio State pulled out of the Crossover Classic in South Dakota, which currently has the nation’s highest positivity rates (more than 50%), due to state guidelines of a 14-day quarantine for people returning from high-positivity states. Officials in Michigan have labeled basketball as a “high risk” sport. New Mexico State has opted to move its entire team this season because of state guidelines against competition.
The American Athletic Conference is testing three days per week, per NCAA guidelines, but AAC member Temple is located in Philadelphia and is subject to city rules that require “participants to have been tested seven consecutive days prior to competition,” per AAC officials. When you combine Division I schools in 49 states and a series of state, county and even city regulations, it’s easy to see how much of a mess might be ahead for the sport. — Myron Medcalf
What are schools most worried about, in respect to COVID-19 and quarantine guidelines?
There certainly has been a lot of buzz about the 14-day quarantine guidelines from the NCAA. Some of the game’s top coaches have been fighting behind the scenes to adjust those guidelines for the season. I think there is a collective concern that the 14-day quarantines could create lengthy pauses for programs and create substantial interruptions in the season. One coach said he favors the NFL rule, which allows asymptomatic players to return to competition five days after testing positive, if they test negative with back-to-back PCR tests at least 24 hours apart. — Myron Medcalf
Coaches are worried most about the start of the season. There are a number of programs that have shut down recently due to a positive COVID-19 test and now their season-opening games are up in the air. The coach of one program who shut down earlier this month told me he had no idea how his team could be physically prepared to play games in less than two weeks — especially if they had to be sidelined from workouts and practice for another week. That’s the general vibe around college basketball. Shutting down for 14 days is one thing — but it’s not just 14 days until you can play a game. No team is going to suit up for a game after not doing a single thing for two weeks. And it’s that type of scenario that has coaches concerned about the season. — Jeff Borzello
Women’s basketball coaches agree that a 14-day quarantine is problematic, especially as it pertains to the student-athletes maintaining fitness and mental health.
“We went from being able to contact trace to now an entire program being shut down,” Butler women’s basketball coach Kurt Godlevske said. “The impact of that on our student-athletes’ mental health could be very challenging.”
Whether it’s the NCAA or the Big East, Marquette women’s basketball coach Megan Duffy hopes a 10-day period is considered instead.
“I think there are some ways when you have a whole program of healthy individuals sitting at home in their dorm rooms or their apartments, I think there has to be a way that we can look into it a little bit differently than we’re doing right now.”
Added Creighton women’s basketball coach Jim Flanery: “I would like to see the quarantine rules at least given a hard look. I feel like 14 days, and then to get them into condition, that’s almost three weeks. I think there’s the potential to maybe have them tested after five and six and seven days and potentially not have the length of quarantine that’s recommended.” — Graham Hays
How seriously are conferences considering bubble-type scenarios in order to knock out multiple league games in a single event?
Not as seriously as they should be, in my opinion. In fairness, there have been a few leagues exploring the option. Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said on a conference call last month that a bubble was a “possibility” and they had alternative plans for the second half of the conference season. The Mountain West and West Coast Conference have had legitimate discussions about moving to a bubble format, although it appears they will attempt a normal season for now. But that’s about it. There’s a school of thought, shared by most decision-makers, that you can’t bubble college athletes — amateurs — for extended periods of time. The money aspect is an entirely different conversation, and there are certainly conferences that can’t afford to bubble for an entire season — but the bigger conferences should be able to figure out something if they really wanted. — Jeff Borzello
I think any league that can’t create a bubblelike environment for league games should probably prepare for a chaotic season. More than 15% of Division I football’s scheduled games have been postponed or canceled because of COVID-19. And that’s with one game per week and fewer than 100 schools competing right now. College basketball has hundreds of teams spread across the country that will try to play multiple games each week. Seems like the only way to pull this off is to create a model where one location is the host for multiple games in most leagues, especially those without private travel to and from games. But that’s costly, and it also creates academic challenges for programs that might have to leave campus for lengthy stretches. — Myron Medcalf
Marquette women’s basketball coach Megan Duffy initially wasn’t a fan of playing in a bubble, but she is warming up to the necessity of it.
“A few months ago … the idea of putting our student-athletes in a confined space for a month or five weeks just seems daunting. I don’t think that fits what we’re all trying to do,” she said. “But as we move forward into figuring out if we can move forward with our seasons, for me personally I wouldn’t be against some sort of a bubble. I think it would have to be a situation where it’s a shorter time and you can get a few games in.”
Creighton’s Jim Flanery also sees the positives of a bubble environment, but again favors a shorter time period.
“I think that’s a great opportunity to get games in, whether it’s a two-week bubble or a three-week — I don’t want to do a month or a five-week bubble,” he said. “But I think if we could do it long enough that it wasn’t going to compromise our mental health, but also could assure that we can get four, five, six games in, I think that would be huge. Because I do think we’re going to have disruptions.” — Graham Hays
Only one of college hockey’s conferences — the National Collegiate Hockey Conference — has committed to a bubble for the first half of its season. They’re calling it a “pod” and it will take place from Dec. 1 to Dec. 20 in Omaha, Nebraska. The conference, which is men’s hockey only, expects its eight teams to play 10 games apiece for 40 total contests inside the pod. The conference says a number of its schools will already have wrapped up fall semesters and the conference will provide academic assistance for the schools that will still have classes ongoing as the pod opens. The rest of the conferences plan to host games at campus sites. — Chris Peters
How many cancellations/postponements should fans expect in college basketball this season?
Based on what we’ve witnessed so far, cancellations and postponements will probably become common in college basketball, a sport that will commence as the United States endures record rates of positivity. In football, six or seven guys can be quarantined and the game continues. That won’t happen in basketball. The other issue is location. Playing indoors presents a challenge that no basketball league outside a bubble has encountered. College basketball will be the first. I expect officials to be quite cautious about moving forward with games after positive tests. — Myron Medcalf
Should we expect schools to schedule games on the fly all season, as cancellations necessitate?
Definitely. College football has created a number of restrictions that blocked teams from coming up with games on the fly, but I think college basketball will demand more flexibility. This weekend, Ohio State and Alabama, two powerhouses, are looking for a game but won’t play each other due to league rules. In college basketball, I believe Kentucky would play Villanova in a similar situation if both had open dates due to COVID-19. I think the goal, regardless of conference, will be to play as many games as possible. The selection committee might create a COVID-19 stipulation and we also could have an expanded field. Can’t worry about March. Just play games and see what happens. I think that’s the attitude. — Myron Medcalf
What’s the latest with fans in the stands in college basketball and hockey?
It varies. But it doesn’t seem as if any team will play in front of a large crowd. Louisville and Kentucky have 15% capacity limits due to state rules. Duke just announced it will not have fans at Cameron Indoor Stadium. North Carolina coach Roy Williams said he doesn’t expect to see any fans in the stands this year and perhaps next season as well. Fans aren’t the priority for schools that haven’t even been cleared for competition. It’s all delicate. We’ll see a lot of empty venues this year. Dr. Jaimie Meyer, an infectious disease specialist at Yale, said she doesn’t see a scenario where it will be safe to have fans in arenas this season. — Myron Medcalf
South Carolina women’s basketball, which has led the nation in attendance each of the past six seasons, will be allowed to have about 3,500 fans at home games to begin this season. That’s about 20% of capacity at Colonial Life Arena. Tickets will be available only via mobile apps and will be sold in groups of two, four and six seats, with each group separated by approximately 6 feet. Masks will be required for all fans and staff in the arena, and fans will not be allowed to sit in the first five rows behind the court.
Ranked second in attendance a season ago, Oregon will start the season without fans at Matthew Knight Arena. The Pac-12 announced in September that its schools would not be permitted to have fans in attendance at home games through the end of the calendar year.
Baylor will allow 25% of capacity to start the season at the Ferrell Center, which equates to approximately 2,600 fans at the on-campus arena. — Graham Hays
Each conference in hockey has its own guidelines. The NCHC pod will not have spectators, but if its member teams are able to play the second half of their schedule, each institution could issue its own policy on attendance. Big Ten schools are largely operating with limited capacity with preference given to families of the participants. Hockey East has left the determination on fan attendance up to its member institutions based on state and local health officials’ guidance. Many schools have told NHL teams that there will be a limited number of spots available for scouts at their games as well. — Chris Peters
Do you expect the NCAA to give serious consideration to moving NCAA tournament dates?
I’d say some consideration, but not sure how serious it will be. “March Madness” is a brand the NCAA will fight to sustain. At the same time, when asked multiple times in recent months about moving the event, Dan Gavitt, NCAA vice president of basketball operations, said the “preference” is to host the event in March and April. A source recently told ESPN, however, that the NCAA might have more flexibility with its TV partners on the dates of the tournament than first believed. When asked about that, NCAA spokesperson David Worlock told ESPN, “Nothing has changed with regards to the committee’s ongoing study of various contingency plans.” — Myron Medcalf
Do you expect the NCAA to move any of the tournament sites, including the Final Fours in Indianapolis and San Antonio?
I don’t think any site can count on hosting the tournament as scheduled. The bottom line is that the NCAA has to host a tournament for financial reasons. It lost $375 million with last year’s cancellation. It can’t afford another, which means the NCAA is going to host a tournament even if it has to put every team in the same bubble and pay for individual hotel rooms and daily testing. More than anything, I think the sites for the tournament will depend on the spread of the virus. — Myron Medcalf
Do you expect the NCAA to seriously consider having ‘replacement teams’ at the ready for its tournaments, if positive tests prevent selected teams from playing?
I’m not sure how the NCAA tournaments move forward without replacement teams. A positive test could eliminate multiple teams from the event, depending on contact tracing. You’d think it would need to have a team or two ready to step in and compete if necessary. When Gavitt was asked about it, he told ESPN that replacement teams were on the table. And The Basketball Tournament proceeded and only worked because the event had four replacement teams, all of which were used and had gone through the same protocols as everyone else. It also doesn’t seem too complicated to keep the highest losing seeds at the event after each round, just in case. Does it sound unusual? Of course it does. But so does playing a full season with more than 300 teams in a pandemic. — Myron Medcalf
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