NCAA president Mark Emmert endorsed the idea of potentially using bubbles for NCAA championships — including basketball — in the first half of 2021, saying Thursday night that it’s “perfectly viable in many sports.”
“Starting with 64 teams is tough. Thirty-two, OK, maybe that’s a manageable number. Sixteen, certainly manageable. But you’ve got to figure out those logistics,” Emmert said in an interview on the NCAA’s website. “There’s doubtlessly ways to make that work.”
Emmert said that Joni Comstock, the NCAA’s senior vice president of championships, and Dan Gavitt, senior vice president of basketball, have been working with committees and conferences to figure out the logistics and economics of how it would work amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s obviously expensive to do that,” he said. “But we’re not going to hold a championship in a way that puts student-athletes at risk.
“If we need to do a bubble model and that’s the only way we can do it, then we’ll figure that out.”
Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari backed the concept, saying on Thursday’s edition of The Intersection on ESPN Radio that a “well-thought-out” bubble concept is realistic for college basketball because of what the NBA and WNBA have achieved. He said college basketball’s leaders have to “listen to the science, listen to the doctors” but he believes the blueprint has already been established.
“The thing that’s happened for all of us in basketball is the NBA and the WNBA have shown a path for us to have a season,” he said, referring to the bubbles those leagues are using in Florida. “The one thing every [college] campus seems to be doing is saying there’s not going to be people on campus after Thanksgiving, so it probably opens up a door after Thanksgiving that even if we’re not having fans that there’s going to be a safe campus based on your team is going to be there by themselves.”
He added that Kentucky already has created a bubble, with players competing in their own practice facility, working out in their own weight room and living in a private dorm, which has its own chef. That model can be translated across the country, Calipari said, because college basketball teams have fewer players than football programs.
Like Emmert, Calipari said that while the NCAA tournament could unfold in a bubble, it would be difficult to have a traditional 68-team field.
“Instead of it being weeks on weeks long, maybe it’s short. You lose, you’re out of the bubble. You go home,” he said.
While Emmert acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately will dictate the schedule for winter and spring sports, as well as the fall sports that were postponed until the spring, he said the preference would be to keep the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments as scheduled, beginning in March and ending in early April.
“Men’s and women’s basketball, we’ve got to do what we need to do to support those athletes and those timelines,” Emmert said. “We’re talking, of course, with our media partners pretty constantly now about what flexibility they would have and we would have. We’d love nothing more than to hold the current dates constant, and that may well be doable. … We’re hopeful we can do that, but we are looking at alternatives. Moving backward if we needed to — where can we plug that in?”
Emmert announced Thursday that there would be no fall NCAA championships due to the number of teams participating dropping below the 50% threshold in every sport. But he had optimism for having championships in 2021.
“This is mostly logistics and health care and media time. These are not insurmountable problems,” he said. “They’re hard, but they’re not insurmountable.”
Multiple college basketball officials have spoken to ESPN about the importance of COVID-19 testing in being able to have a men’s and women’s college basketball season, and Emmert discussed how he’s hoping for an improvement in that department by December and January.
“I’m actually pretty optimistic given all of the brainpower and energy and, frankly, money that’s being put on the testing issue in the private sector as well as the public sector, that we’re months away … from having much higher quality antigen testing — in terms of its reliability — much greater availability of those tests, and at a cheaper price point,” he said. “And if we can get there, then as we move into the winter, we can do much, much more testing, we can do it frequently, we can do it daily in a perfect world, and it’s turned around in 15 minutes instead of 15 days.”
Calipari seemed convinced college basketball’s leaders will be prepared to unveil a plan and avoid the chaos endured in the buildup to fall sports around the country.
“I think basketball will be a little different because it’ll be clear when it’s time for us,” he said. “I haven’t been in any of the football meetings to talk about it. … But I think it’ll be a little clearer for basketball. The thing for all of us is there is a pathway.”
The 2020 NCAA men’s basketball tournament was canceled on March 12, marking the first time since it began in 1939 that no men’s champion was crowned. It was the first time no women’s basketball champion was decided since 1982, when the NCAA tournament began in women’s basketball.
Information from ESPN’s Myron Medcalf was used in this report.