Thursday, February 22, 2024

The biggest question facing college basketball heading into September: Will nonconference games be doable?


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College Basketball insiders give reason for optimism about a full basketball season

Eighty-three days remain until the scheduled start of the 2020-21 men’s college basketball season. 

Only 17 of Division I’s 357 programs have released a schedule. 

Charles Pipkins, who runs the D1 Docket website and Twitter account and diligently tracks the scheduling world of college hoops, told CBS Sports that in a normal year we’d be at or above 175 officially released schedules by now. This dawdling reveals what’s been assumed for months in college basketball circles: no one expects the season to start on time.

For some this has been a blessing.

“Nonconference scheduling has been easier this year than ever before because there’s the belief it’s not going to stay in its current form,” one mid-major coach told CBS Sports.

It’s been dreadful for others.

“[Our] schedule isn’t complete and anyone who does have a complete schedule will probably soon find themselves back in the scheduling game,” a Big South coach said. 

For Austin Peay’s Matt Figger, it’s been the most stressful offseason of his career. In a normal year, Austin Peay has four buy games. It has one as of today. The program brings in more than $250,000 annually in buy games, which amounts to more than 40% of the athletic department’s revenue. 

“Scheduling has been an issue since the season ended,” he said. “We can’t get guarantee games. I’ve got one guarantee game against TCU right now. Nobody has them and if they did have them, they aren’t offering them to us, No. 1, and No. 2, they’re offering prices to play guarantees that they were giving back when I coached at South Alabama in 2002. I’m talking $20-30,000 to come play. It’s not financially feasible to do those things.”

Figger is in a previously unthinkable position. Austin Peay (which will boast two of the best mid-major players in America next season in Terry Taylor and Jordyn Adams) has TCU, Western Kentucky, North Florida and a multi-team exempt tournament (MTE) on its schedule. The Governors have seven open slots in the middle of August. This is practically unheard of.

“Our league gave a special waiver where we could put four non-DIs in there but I don’t really want to do that,” Figger said. 

It’s reached the point where Figger is seriously considering playing two games apiece against schools still scrambling, like UNC Greensboro and Duquesne, if nothing else can be done.

“We need four or five games,” UNCG coach Wes Miller said. “Been a nightmare.”

Added Figger: “When I say we’ve called everybody: we’ve called everybody. Schools are still holding dates because they’re trying to figure out what’s going on with contracts.” 

New Mexico State is in a similar predicament; the Aggies have six open dates still available — eight if you include two games vs. non-Division I teams. It’s a bizarre time. Coaches of many quality mid-major teams have never had it tougher to get games (never mind the pressure to get buy-game money to fund their athletic departments) and yet the question that’s been steadily gaining steam amongst college coaches and administrators in the past couple of weeks is: Can we have a nonconference season at all? 

Viability, probability of nonconference games

On this topic you’ll find opinions splintered. College hoops going to league-only competition would be an admission of last resort to save — and likely delay — the 2020-21 season. Getting to that point could be inevitable because of money and resources. For so many obvious reasons, avoiding this scenario is high priority for powers-that-be in charge of putting on the NCAA Tournament. A lingering concern among some coaches is the inevitability that one team might get in 24 games while another in its league gets merely 18. Or there could be wide discrepancies of more than 10 games difference between teams. Some schools or leagues might opt out of playing altogether. If that happens, nonconference schedules will be thrown into chaos with unavoidable imbalance. 

From an official standpoint, the NCAA and conference commissioners still expect noncon play. When those games could start no one knows, but an answer will arrive by mid-September. More than a dozen coaches CBS Sports contacted in the past month expressed doubt about the viability of noncon play before 2021. Plenty said they are expecting to begin a conference-only season in January. Anything more than that would be a bonus. 

Regardless of when or how or if college basketball can have nonconference games next season, it is fascinating to see so few teams come forward with schedules to this point — because it’s not as if a lot of these slates haven’t been completed for weeks or months. Almost every school in the ACC, American, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC is done. The reasons for not releasing vary. In fact, some coaches could not provide a reason for why it hasn’t happened yet. Some cited caution from above with the coronavirus. Others because they are involved in MTEs that still haven’t settled up on games and money. 

This is college hoops’ canary in the coal mine.

For schools with entirely completed schedules, all contracts signed, should we expect a rollout this week or next?

“No, no, no, no — not at all,” one coach based in the Northeast said, laughing at the idea. “It’s a useless release. Nobody I’ve talked to really believes this is going to be the schedule. I get calls from coaches and they ask, ‘Can we move this game?’ OK, yeah. Because I don’t think we’re going to play this game anyway.”

The only league off the hook here is the one that’s truly eliminated all nonconference scheduling until January: the Pac-12. The Ivy League halted all its sports competition through the completion of the fall semester, so Ivy basketball teams still technically could be able to squeeze in two or three games between the middle of December and Christmas — though Ivy League coaches and coaches of teams still scheduled to play Ivies in that brief window aren’t banking on those games happening. 

Mid- and low-major programs fortunate enough to sign buy-game contracts prior to the halt of the 2020 postseason will reap those fiscal benefits … if the games can be played. But across the sport, plenty of contracts are still waiting to be signed. That goes for low-majors and high-majors alike. Colgate coach Matt Langer had two games open on his schedule when the Ivy League pulled the parachute on fall-semester play. He’s had conversations about filling those games, but it might require moving other games around. The effort is probably not worth it. 

“The [power conferences] don’t have a clear vision with what their structure is going to look like, so until they figure that out, our signed contracts are a wait-and-see,” one mid-major coach told CBS Sports. “Mid-major teams are prepared to play the season in November if that’s what happens. But the Power Fives are pulling the strings on what we should do and how we should do it. It’s COVID-related but I also think it’s financial.”

The money factor in this is gargantuan. It’s also been a story half-told to this point. Some coaches pointed out how much money their athletic departments have saved — millions of dollars — since March due to the cancellation of all sports activity. Schools have never seen such cost-cutting before, and it’s come at the expense of players’ college careers. 

The market for games has also been affected. Buy games are down $15,000-$60,000 from typical rates. A 50% slash on payment from big school to small has been common, though the D1 Docket found through a Florida State records request that the Seminoles are slashing their $90,000 pay fee for opponents such as St. Peter’s and Charleston Southern down to $70,000 and $55,000, respectively.  

“It is a buyer’s market,” Stephen F. Austin coach Kyle Keller said. “Usually you could hold out and wait and get a higher-priced game if you waited. Not this year. Games have gone for as small as $30,000 for teams that could bus on day-of travel now.”

If college basketball can pull of a nonconference season, fans at the games is highly unlikely.
Getty Images

Reliable testing is only formula to make it happen

The question of nonconference competition also brings into the issue of testing protocols. For example, Colgate plays in the Patriot League and if there is a noncon slate, the team will only be permitted to play against teams with leagues that have protocols and safety requirements practically identical to the Patriot League: no overnight travel, no airline travel. 

These kinds of barricades may be necessary, but they’ll also eliminate game opportunities. For example, Colgate is scheduled to play at Texas a week before Christmas. Unless that game can be moved to a bubble-type situation that would be fair to both teams, it doesn’t seem like Colgate will ultimately be allowed to travel to Austin to play that game. 

The dilemma streaks both ways.

“Many nonconference opponents do not have resources to test and care for their players like [our league] would, so you have a higher risk against playing against an infected player,” one Big Ten coach told me. “Without fans, not much to gain with most nonconference matchups with the exception of ACC Challenge, Gavitt Games, (etc.).”

Basically: a nonleague game against a low-major at your home arena is “worthless with no gate revenue,” the coach said. And gate revenue can’t happen without fans. Teams are settling for fewer buy games and wondering all the same if these games are just going to get killed anyway. 

Plenty of questions with November MTEs still exist, too. Almost every event scheduled to take place outside the contiguous United States — with the exceptions to this point of the Maui Invitational and the Battle 4 Atlantis — have been or are in the process of being rescheduled to be hosted in the U.S. The Islands of the Bahamas Showcase, the Cayman Islands Classic and the Cancun Challenge have all moved to Florida. 

Whether these tournaments will be feasible remains to be seen. (Coaches scheduled to participate in Maui this year aren’t expecting to go.) Who runs and funds testing at these sites? And there remains the unavoidable hurdle that is the list of states mandating a 14-day quarantine if you come from hot-spot states. If that reality doesn’t change by November or December, this all may be a knot that can’t be untied. Lacking rapid/cheap testing poses the biggest challenge. Perhaps that can change by the end of the year. 

So college basketball will be forced to be creative, flexible. All of the starting scenarios will involve a web of specifics (location, bubbles vs. no bubbles, how many teams, will there be pods), but college basketball is pragmatically looking at four ways it can start its season. Again, this is factoring in the expectation the season won’t begin Nov. 10. 

  1. Start the season around Thanksgiving with nonconference games
  2. Start the season around Thanksgiving with conference-only games
  3. Start the season around New Year’s with nonconference games
  4. Start the season around New Year’s with conference-only games

From there, the questions are: will the season be pushed back entirely? If so, move the NCAA Tournament into April or May? There is also the potential to get creative and start with league games only in November in a bubble-type situation when students aren’t on campus, play out half the league schedule, then have a window in January and February for nonconference games if doable, then have another month to finish out the season with intra-league games. If nonleague games aren’t doable, there’s a window/hiatus built in to maneuver around the pandemic. 

“I think coaches would prefer Thanksgiving nonconference and play them in pods,” one coach of a preseason top 25 team told me. “Three games in a weekend in one location. And then January, February conference play is our choice. But whatever we have to do to have a season then we will be for. The pods would work in my opinion, though.”

Multiple people I spoke with pointed to Nashville as one ideal site for a college basketball bubble. Between Belmont, Vanderbilt, Lipscomb and Tennessee State, there are enough practice courts and arenas to house teams for weeklong competitions, be it with four teams, eight or even as many as 12. 

“Go from Thanksgiving to sometime in January,” Figger said. “Every other week you play in Nashville Wednesday, Friday, Sunday. Three games a week and opponents within a four-hour car ride can come.” 

College basketball is helped and hindered by its volume of teams. With more than 350, there are so many programs to try to cater to. With a schedule three times as big as football’s — but less toll on the body on a game-by-game basis — scheduling can be pliable. A regular season doesn’t need to be 30-plus games. Even 15 or 20 would be enough in this environment. Most critically, the timeline of the season is movable. 

You can’t have an NCAA Tournament without a regular season, and you can’t have an NCAA Tournament with empirical seeding if you don’t have nonconference play. College basketball has about a month, maybe a little more, to figure out this riddle before time’s up. 

Ebenezer Robbins
Ebenezer Robbins
Introvert. Beer guru. Communicator. Travel fanatic. Web advocate. Certified alcohol geek. Tv buff. Subtly charming internet aficionado.

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