The Pac-12 finds itself on a basketball island.
When the league announced on Aug. 11 that it was postponing all sport competitions through the end of the calendar year, that means just what it says. All Pac-12 sports include men’s basketball, which remains scheduled to begin nationwide on Nov. 10. That start date could change in the coming weeks as talks at the conference and NCAA levels are beginning to ramp up.
Either way, the Pac-12 and Ivy League are the only Division I conferences to postpone basketball in any fashion. The Big Ten postponed football on Aug. 10, but it left its powerhouse basketball league alone, at least for the time being as time is on its side and football matters continue to get sorted out.
What the 2020-21 season may look like for the Pac-12, but more specifically the University of Utah, is very much up in the air as high-level decisions loom.
Is Utah’s nonconference schedule postponed? Canceled?
Before the Pac-12′s Aug. 11 announcement, the Utes’ schedule was set at 10 nonconference games, plus a previously-unreported exhibition on Nov. 5 against crosstown Division II program Westminster College at the Huntsman Center.
The terms of the Westminster game contract, obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune via source, call for the Griffins to receive a $5,000 guarantee for playing. That sum pushes the amount of guaranteed money Utah is slated to hand out to nonconference opponents this season to $460,000.
To be clear, Utah has not yet officially released its nonconference schedule. Merely postponing some or all games would be a best-case scenario at this point, but the Utes have not yet outright canceled any games either.
In an interview last week with The Tribune, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak indicated the Pac-12 is in a holding pattern, as everyone zeroes in on Sept. 16.
On that date, the NCAA Division I Council is expected to vote on a start date to the season in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As outlined by CBS Sports earlier this week, an on-time Nov. 10 start, Nov. 20, Nov. 25, and Dec. 4 are currently on the table as decision makers at the conference and NCAA levels, including NCAA Senior Vice President of Basketball Dan Gavitt, sift through the options.
Krystkowiak, for what it’s worth, is one of two head coaches on the Pac-12′s basketball working group along with Cal’s Mark Fox. That working group is not making decisions for the league, but it is certainly making recommendations.
“September 16 is going to come with decisions that will affect everybody,” Krystkowiak told The Tribune. “I do think there’s value in the fact that we have already made some decisions, but I also think you could see changes in the landscape. When Dan Gavitt speaks on the 16th, it may give everyone an opportunity to pivot where they are at this point in time.”
While the Pac-12 is not starting before New Year’s, the NCAA instituting a start date of Nov. 25 or Dec. 4 would give everyone else more time to deal with pandemic-related issues.
A slew of early-season nonconference matchups would need to be altered, but those start dates still offer opportunities for some nonconference action. Entire conference schedules would theoretically be preserved, regardless of whether or not teams and conferences move to off-campus bubble or pod formats this winter.
What might a Pac-12 schedule look like?
With the NCAA’s Sept. 16 declaration pending, realistically, if the Pac-12 is not playing basketball until at least Jan. 1, the prospect of playing any nonconference games is bleak.
The question then becomes, how many conference games might the Pac-12 play in an abbreviated season?
As early as the middle of May, a 22-game conference-only schedule was one contingency plan being tossed around at the conference level. That would produce a double round-robin in which everyone plays everyone else twice.
Conference-only slates of 24 and even 26 games have been speculated in recent weeks, but the feasibility of those, especially if the NCAA Tournament begins on time with Selection Sunday on March 14, is questionable.
The Pac-12 has played 18 games since the 1978-79 season, with a move to 20 set for this season. The 20 games included two for everyone in early December, then the other 18 in earnest beginning in early January.
“Some of it will depend on what the NCAA decides in terms of March Madness and the envelope for the season, so we will obviously stay in close contact with the NCAA in terms of their plans for the postseason,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott on an Aug. 11 Zoom call. “Our working group is now one of many things we need to get to work on.”
The NCAA Tournament conundrum
There are more hypothetical scenarios in play right now than concrete answers across college athletics, so here is a major one pertaining to the Pac-12.
If the NCAA Tournament starts on time, and the rest of the college basketball world has figured out a way to play at least some nonconference games, how is the selection committee supposed to judge Pac-12 teams, whose resumes will potentially include only conference games?
“It’s pretty apparent that would be problematic, that’s one of the ramifications of this decision,” said Krystkowiak, who has coached Utah to the NCAA Tournament twice, but not since 2016. “You need a little bit of a resume.”
Aside from the strictly basketball end of the NCAA Tournament, automatic bids, at-large bids, and tournament wins equate annually to millions of dollars for respective leagues.
To make it simpler, the more Pac-12 teams that get to the NCAA Tournament and the more tourney wins those Pac-12 teams compile, the more money the NCAA gives to the Pac-12.
For a basketball league constantly fighting a perception problem among its peers, having few or even zero NCAA Tournament teams would not help.
Four times since 2010, the Pac-12 has had three or fewer teams get to the NCAA Tournament. A league-record seven teams got there in 2016, but only one, Oregon, made it to the second weekend. Had COVID-19 not canceled the 2020 NCAA Tournament, the Pac-12 was projected to get five or possibly six teams to March Madness.
“With the research institutions we have in this conference, the caliber of institution in our conference, I am very proud to be a part of it,” Krystkowiak said. “Hypothetically, if everyone does play, I hope we don’t see something drastic happen because of that decision. Hindsight is always 20/20, and I’m glad we’re not going to be a part of something negative happening if everyone does play.”