When the NCAA released its healthy and safety protocols for the Division I men’s basketball championship on Jan. 6, the necessity of conference tournaments this season was immediately called into question.
The major takeaway from the NCAA Tournament protocols is that before arriving in Indianapolis, which will host all rounds of the 68-team event, Tier 1 personnel from respective programs will be required to register seven consecutive negative COVID-19 tests. Tier 1 includes players, coaches, trainers, medical staff and other essential travel party members.
The overarching question then becomes, if NCAA Tournament-bound programs need to have seven days of negative tests before arriving in Indianapolis, why add in extra travel, extra logistics, and, in theory, extra risk by participating in a conference tournament, when you already know you’re getting an at-large bid to the more-important tournament?
As February unfolds and the NCAA Tournament bubble picture starts coming into focus with upwards of five Pac-12 teams at least in the March Madness conversation, it is important to note that the conference intends to hold both men’s and women’s tournaments next month in Las Vegas. The women’s tournament is scheduled for March 4-7 at Mandalay Bay, while the men’s tournament will be contested March 10-13 at T-Mobile Arena.
A Pac-12 spokesman told The Salt Lake Tribune as much late last month, while University of Utah athletic director Mark Harlan echoed that sentiment last week.
Harlan, specifically, made an important point during his twice-a-month appearance on ESPN700 last week. It is in the Pac-12 bylaws that all eligible teams participate in the conference tournament. A medical situation like COVID-19 would be a different story, but short of that, teams are not allowed to simply opt out.
The exact wording in the Pac-12 handbook reads, “All Conference members that are eligible for postseason play shall participate in the men’s tournament.”
“We believe strongly that it’s important to have a tournament,” Harlan said on ESPN700. “We understand that the NCAA coming out with its COVID requirements for the tournament, seven days of clean tests and then a complete bubble in Indianapolis, obviously, that brought some scrutiny on the conference tournaments. Is it smart to play if you’re locked into the tournament, those kinds of things.
“I think everyone’s settling in now, looking at that, realizing conference tournaments are important. We’ll see the landscape, it always changes, but from this conference perspective, we’re full speed ahead.”
Part of the Pac-12′s desire to hold a conference tournament is rooted in money. In a normal virus-free year, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority pays handsomely to host the Pac-12 Tournament. The exact monetary figure exchanging hands on an annual basis is not publicly available, but it is thought to be, at a minimum, mid-five figures.
The economic impact includes the fact there won’t likely be fans at T-Mobile Arena, but beyond that, things are going to be close to normal, at least in terms of what teams are playing for.
As of Monday, the Pac-12 has a handful of teams that appear to be NCAA Tournament locks (USC, UCLA, Colorado), a couple more that are either on the right side the bubble (Oregon) or squarely on it (Stanford), and still more that are nowhere near the bubble (Arizona State, Cal, Oregon State, Utah, Washington, Washington State).
USC, UCLA, Colorado and, for now, Oregon, legitimately don’t need to be participating in the Pac-12 Tournament. Stanford could be in a position where it needs to shore up its resume, but the beauty of conference tournaments lie with those latter-six programs.
If any of them want to go to the NCAA Tournament, they need to win four games in four days in Las Vegas. No matter how a season has gone for a given program, four days at a neutral site in March offer the chance to turn it all around.
“I believe we’ve got probably five NCAA Tournament teams at this point that I would like to think are penciled in, so you have to understand perspective, I guess,” Utah head coach Larry Krystkowiak said last week. “If you’re one of those five teams that’s somewhat secured a spot, you could maybe see a hesitancy or an inclination to not go to Las Vegas for five days and risk COVID or whatever the case may be.
“Certainly, the perspective of the other six teams is that it is the only chance we’re getting to the NCAA Tournament. I think it’s important, I’m with Mark on that. That’s certainly, I think, the right opinion, and I want an opportunity to take part in that.”