The NBA, NHL and MLS have all shown this summer that sticking their respective athletes in a bubble environment can work.
All three leagues have restarted their regular seasons in bubbles. Medical and testing protocols have been strict, not to mention uniform, which has led to positive COVID-19 tests being nonexistent. This has all come at great cost to the leagues, but what they’ve done has clearly been effective.
Paid professional athletes moving into a bubble is one thing, but asking unpaid student-athletes to do the same would be quite another. More specifically, as decision making on the fate of the 2020-21 college basketball comes into focus, there does not appear to be a strong appetite at the top of the Pac-12 decision-making food chain to place student-athletes in a bubble environment for a period of multiple months.
“The idea of student-athletes being in a bubble doesn’t resonate well with our university leaders and everyone throughout the conference,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said Thursday on a Zoom call announcing a testing research initiative with Quidel, which will provide the Pac-12 with rapid-response testing capabilities. “When I think of a bubble, I think about what the NBA is doing in Orlando. We’ve said from the beginning, we don’t think it would be appropriate to take student-athletes completely out of the population, put them in a bubble and have them operate separately, and I still feel that way.”
Once the Pac-12 pulled the plug entirely on all sports until Jan. 1, some attention began turning to college basketball and how it might get played this season and whether or not a bubble is feasible.
“Our kids go to class, 25 percent or so of classes at the University of Utah are going to be in person,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan said last month. “Now, do I think there are some creative things we can do in some sports, whether it be basketball or others, whether that’s some kind of pod system where we travel our men and women at the same time and we try to get more games in a region? I think there’s things that we can do.”
If NBA-style bubbling of college athletes is not an option, then as Harlan suggested, getting creative and figuring out a pod system could be what saves Pac-12 basketball this winter. What goes into that and how it ultimately gets accomplished are among the multitude of questions now facing those in charge.
Can the Pac-12 back off its Jan. 1 mandate?
With rapid-response testing ready to hit Pac-12 campuses at the end of this month, Scott acknowledged Thursday that presidents and chancellors might be willing to reverse course and vote to begin sports before Jan. 1, but there are still hurdles to clear before anyone gets too excited.
For now, the Pac-12′s position remains clear, no sports for the remainder of the calendar year. Scott has been adamant that data and science has driven and will continue to drive decision making, but the league raised eyebrows on Aug. 11 when it lumped basketball into the equation by postponing all sports through the end of the calendar year. Three other FBS conferences — the Big Ten, MAC and Mountain West — have postponed football, but none of them touched basketball.
Multiple sources have told The Salt Lake Tribune that everything is in a holding pattern until Sept. 16 when the NCAA and its VP of men’s basketball, Dan Gavitt, are expected to announce plans for how to proceed with the season.
CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein was first to report Tuesday afternoon that the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Oversight Committees have recommended Nov. 25 as a start date. The Pac-12, per sources, has been in favor of the later start, pushing an even later start of Dec. 4, but Nov. 25 has gained the most momentum to this point. The Division I Council is expected to vote on the start date Sept. 16, at which point a lot of basketball matters will begin coming into better focus.
Assuming the Division I Council votes the recommendation forward, the Pac-12′s medical advisory board is expected to take another look at Jan. 1, especially given everyone else would then be working toward a Nov. 25 start.
The Pac-12′s medical advisory board includes Dr. David Petron, team doctor for the University of Utah as well as the Utah Jazz.
“The Pac-12 is going to keep listening to the doctors,” said a conference source, who requested anonymity in order to discuss privileged conversations. “We have to see what the positivity rates are, we’re still trying to learn about post-COVID effects on the body. If the doctors go back, look, and they still don’t like it, they’re not budging on January 1.”
Regardless of what the start date actually ends up being, the complexion of an altered schedule is up for debate. Do nonconference games get played? Do Power Five conferences play extended league-only schedules? If yes to the latter, Pac-12 schools keeping the regular season amongst themselves minimizes virus risk, but what would the setup look like?
What might a Pac-12 pod system entail?
Utah men’s basketball coach Larry Krystkowiak says he would get on board for a bubble, but he also admits to being an optimist.
Krystkowiak also generally comes off as a realist. The Pac-12 is not going to employ NBA-style bubbling, but he did express his thinking on a pod system, much of which was outlined recently by Jon Wilner of The Mercury News.
The example Kyrstkowiak gave was taking the two Southern California schools, UCLA and USC, and flying them to either Arizona or Arizona State. With all four schools in one spot, take four or five days for everyone to play each other, giving all teams three games.
A big reason this could work is because Pac-12 teams would have uniform medical and testing protocols. Everyone following the same rules is paramount, as has been shown with the success of the NBA, NHL and MLS.
“Bubble, pod, whatever you want to call it, it’s going to be successful because it’s being kept tight,” Dr. Sheldon Jacobson, a data scientist at the University of Illinois, told The Tribune. “Everyone has to buy in, everyone has to be tested frequently. High-majors are going to need to play against each other more as opposed to scheduling low and mid-majors so you can maintain the protocols and the rigors of doing this effectively.”
This wouldn’t be anything totally new. The Pac-12 basketball schedule generally has teams playing Thursday-Sunday or Wednesday-Saturday on the road. In 2019, Utah played Thursday-Sunday twice, in addition to a Thursday-Saturday (Arizona schools) and a Wednesday-Saturday (Bay Area schools).
“Give them four, maybe five days, maybe Wednesday to Sunday,” Krystkowiak told The Tribune. “We’ve tackled that in the past with the schedule to play two games. You play three games in the one location, and I think class time missed will be less problematic with a lot of stuff moving online.”
One benefit of the Pac-12 doing pod systems on campus is the fact that multiple campuses, including Utah, are finishing in-person learning at Thanksgiving. That means campuses would empty from Thanksgiving until early or mid-January when classes start up again.
Under Krystkowiak’s thinking of four teams in one place over four or five days, a lot of Pac-12 games could get played on campuses with no risk to regular students.
“What I do know is with every Pac-12 school basically doing online learning after the week of Thanksgiving, there’s about a four-to-six week period of time in the calendar where the college campuses in the Pac-12 will be the safest place that our student-athletes can be in terms of basketball,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle told reporters last month. “Because everyone goes home. We’re here by ourselves.”
The Big East, which does not sponsor football and relies heavily on basketball revenue, has been near the front of bubble/pod talk in recent weeks. The 11-team league sees the Thanksgiving-to-January window as crucial, while neutral sites like Indianapolis, Connecticut, Omaha and Florida are also part of the early thinking.