Opinion: Should college basketball conference tournaments be canceled to minimize COVID risk?

For the next seven weeks, the first, second, third and fourth priority for college sports is making sure the NCAA men’s basketball tournament gets played on time with all 68 teams and as few disruptions as possible.   

Given the NCAA’s $600 million revenue decline as a result of canceling the tournament last year, overcoming any and all COVID-19 obstacles to play the tournament is pretty much an existential issue for the association. 

Anyone who has looked at a nightly college basketball scoreboard knows it won’t be simple to pull it off. Every day COVID-19 is hitting players and coaches, shutting down teams due to contact tracing and wreaking havoc with the schedule. The NCAA’s plan to bring all 68 teams to Indianapolis and create something of a bubble — they, of course, won’t call it a bubble because of amateurism — is probably the best they can do. 

Lucas Oil Stadium, here during the 2010 NCAA men's Final Four, will host another Final Four this year. (Photo: Amy Sancetta, AP)

But as we get closer to March, more and more people involved in college basketball are wondering whether the biggest impediment to pulling off a successful NCAA Tournament is playing the week before in conference tournaments. In fact, coaches are now debating out loud whether teams that are locks to get in the field should even attempt to play conference tournaments. Of course, that’s assuming they’re held at all. 

“I do believe there will be some teams that opt out of conference tournaments knowing they’re a shoe-in for the NCAA Tournament,” Louisville’s Chris Mack said this week. “I would consider it. It probably wouldn’t be my decision alone. That’d be a hell of a choice.”

There are a lot of practical and ethical issues to factor into this discussion, but let’s start here: The NCAA has declared that any team personnel traveling to its tournament and coming into contact with participants – that includes players, coaches, staff, administrators, etc. – must have seven consecutive days of negative test results before they even travel to Indianapolis. 

Given everything we’ve learned about COVID-19 over the last year, this becomes a very simple logic problem for a lot of coaches. If you knew that your players had to test negative for seven straight days before getting on a plane, are your odds of navigating that successfully better by staying on campus and practicing in a bubble-like environment or by traveling to a different city and playing as many as three or four basketball games? 

“It’s going from a murmur to a buzz with coaches because in a season of complete upheaval the key to survive until April 5 is to be nimble and flexible,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “From coaches that I’ve talked to, it makes sense from a practical standpoint for teams who are going to the tournament to use the week before to stay safe and not go in as the walking wounded with guys in COVID protocols.”

Of course, it may not be that simple. As Fraschilla acknowledged, coaches don’t have to deal with the financial implications for athletic departments, conferences and television networks that count on airing those games for an entire week before Selection Sunday. 

Largely because of the millions of dollars at stake, there isn’t a single conference currently playing that has made a definitive move toward canceling or significantly scaling back its tournament. It’s fair to say, however, that conversations in various conferences are ongoing as the key dates draw near. 

“We’re all really monitoring and walking through this day to day and not knowing how it's going to look in a month,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said. “Are there going to be more pauses or cancellations? When we get to the end, does that impact the conference tournament? Does it hold value? There’s a lot of unknowns and factors, and in a month we may know more.”

Of course, like all issues involving COVID-19, there is no uniform opinion within the sport. Coaches of teams who are likely to be on the bubble by the first week in March can’t really afford to miss out on the opportunity for more wins. Even Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, whose team is going to be in the field barring a total collapse in February, basically laughed at the idea of not playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. 

“I don’t see any more of a risk playing in the ACC tournament than now,” he said.

But if you’re Gonzaga or Baylor — teams that have already had to shut down in the middle of this season due to COVID-19 issues — is the risk really worth the reward? Could it even potentially benefit a conference like the American Athletic Conference if Houston sat out of the tournament, potentially opening up the league’s automatic bid for a team that wouldn’t otherwise get in? 

“If you’re on the bubble or you know you’re not in the tournament, that may be a way to get in,” Pittsburgh coach Jeff Capel said. “You go and play and maybe you hope those teams don’t show up. There could be some gamesmanship there.”

Presented with that hypothetical scenario, AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco said he believes Houston would want to play to improve its seeding and doesn’t envision his league canceling its tournament. 

“Nobody has even talked to me at this point about not playing,” he said. “We will have that discussion with our ADs, but I think our teams do want to play. We’re going to do all the precautions you can possibly take and have hotels where you do the best you can to isolate. There’s always a risk teams are just tired and don’t have much chance of winning the tournament and opt out. You don’t know. I hope that’s not the case.”

But this is still a fluid discussion, partly because nobody knows for sure how to measure the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak at a conference tournament. On one hand, leagues are going to take precautions, sanitize and social distance to the best of their ability, and conferences will say their medical teams have not detected evidence of in-game transmission. 

The common sense element, though, suggests there’s at least some degree of greater exposure when more than 10 teams are coming to one venue and playing each other while they’re in a testing period that will determine whether they can participate in the NCAA Tournament. 

The new COVID-19 variant popping up on college campuses, which on Saturday caused the entire Michigan athletic department to go on pause for two weeks, is another potential wild card coaches are monitoring closely.

In conversations with several administrators and coaches, there’s unanimous agreement that there will be at least one team, and perhaps multiple teams, that get disqualified from the NCAA Tournament because of a COVID-19 situation that pops up during testing. In basketball, the roster numbers are so small that even one or two positives can shut down a program because of contact tracing.

Imagine getting through this entire season and putting yourself in position to go to a Final Four only to have several players forced to stay home because they contracted the virus at a conference tournament. That’s a nightmare scenario coaches are suddenly thinking about more frequently and talking about more publicly. 

Nobody knows for sure where the conversation will go, but it’s going to dominate the discourse as college basketball’s rocky season heads toward its conclusion. 

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