After bubble bursts on Disney early-season events, conference-only schedules should get a serious look

The plan is to still have non-league games this college basketball season — and that’ll likely remain the plan unless this getting-worse-by-the-day pandemic makes it something close to impossible. But, that said, news on Monday that ESPN is pulling the plug on the NBA-like bubble it was creating to host multi-team events next month at Walt Disney World served as a reminder that the commissioners largely in charge of trying to get this upcoming season from Point A to Point B really complicated things when they declined to significantly scale back and just commit to conference-only schedules.

This is not a new opinion.

More than two months ago, I wrote that the goal in these uncertain times should be not to replicate anything close to a normal season or even create a fair environment. Instead, the goal should be to devise the simplest plan possible to start and complete a season that culminates with the 2021 NCAA Tournament. And, undeniably, the simplest way to do that would’ve been with conference-only schedules.

My initial idea was to start in January with conference-only schedules played inside controlled environments — but I made it clear I could be flexible on the details. So if the NCAA would rather start November 25, and if the leagues would rather try to play outside of bubbles like college football is currently doing, fine. It’s not what I would do, but fine. Either way, conference-only schedules still make the most sense because A) they would allow everybody within a league to agree on testing protocols up front and be held to the exact same standards, and B) they would provide a bigger window to play a smaller number of games, which is something we’ve learned from baseball and football is beneficial, if not necessary.

To be clear, I’m excited about the possibility of Gonzaga-Baylor.

And Michigan State-Duke.

And Kansas-Kentucky.

If those games happen, I’ll watch them enthusiastically. But I’ve just never believed whatever is gained by trying to play non-league games this season is worth the added difficulty that comes with it. Again, the only goal should be to start and complete a season that culminates with the 2021 NCAA Tournament. And anything that makes that goal notably harder than it’s already going to be just isn’t worth doing.

But what about the metrics!?!?!?

If I’ve heard this once, I’ve heard it a million times. And, for the record, it’s true that the NET, KenPom and other valuable resources would not work as well without the cross-pollination that non-league games provide. So not having non-league games would, I acknowledge, make selecting the Field of 68, and seeding the teams, more challenging that it otherwise would be. But the selection committee somehow managed to put together a bracket year after year, for decades, without the NET, KenPom and other such things. So I’m going to assume they could do it again this season, just this once. Put another way, if college football is comfortable picking four teams for its playoff without the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12 playing non-league games, college basketball should be OK picking 68. It’s not impossible or even that hard.

Now let’s circle back to the bigger window.

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Based on current recommendations, and contact-testing protocols, one player testing positive for COVID-19 during the season could sideline a team for two weeks. In this sport, two weeks normally equals four games. So, barring a miracle, teams are going to need windows to make up postponed games. And do you realize how much bigger that window would be if everybody just eliminated non-league games?

If conferences started playing November 25, and limited their regular seasons to 20 league games, they’d have 13 or 14 weeks to complete their schedules depending on when they start their conference tournaments. Even with positive tests and shutdowns along the way, that should be plenty of time. So wouldn’t it be smarter to build that wiggle room in on the front end rather than spend January and February scrambling?

I think so.

College football got so much wrong in its attempt to launch its season — but the wisest thing the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12 did is scale back and focus inward. Why those power conferences would take that approach with football, but not basketball, doesn’t make much sense to me, especially with COVID-19 numbers now trending in a way that suggests playing sports will get harder, not easier, going forward.

Will they pivot now and adjust?

I doubt it.

But there’s a decent chance, come February, they’re gonna wish they would’ve.


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