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Being inside a bubble instead of being on it could save NCAA Tournament

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The leaders within college basketball are coming together and planning ahead to make this season a reality.

NCAA Basketball: Maryland at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

With the Big Ten having postponed all fall sports this past week, it was fair to become concerned about what the decision meant for winter sports. I’ve been worried about the potential obstacles the Rutgers men’s basketball team would need to overcome just to be back on the court for next season for awhile now. Watching the college football climate over the past few weeks was enough to give pause as to whether the Big Ten and NCAA would be able to figure out how to save college basketball.

Why is there any reason to be optimistic that college basketball can take place in the midst of a global pandemic such as COVID-19?

Football has been a mess in the handling of such a difficult issue with each conference fending for themselves and little leadership coming from the NCAA. The positive news is that it’s become clear there is a much more united front from the top down in making an effort to prevent the NCAA Tournament from being cancelled for a second straight year.

Leadership on the hardwood from the executives that run the sport are being much more vocal and transparent in the task ahead. Earlier this week, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt told YardBarker the following in regard to the upcoming season:

“We are going to have a tournament that’s going to be special. We have our preferences about how we’d like to have it be, but if we have to adjust to the virus, which we don’t control, we will adjust accordingly. And the health and safety of the players and the coaches and all the people around the games, the referees and fans, will be primary. But ultimately it will also include determining a national champion in the fairest and most equitable way that we can under these unusual circumstances.

“So, I think it’s important to note we’re going to have all sorts of contingencies and plans if it’s necessitated. We’re just not in the position to be able to talk about those in the middle of August, because that’s not what our primary goal is.

“But, at the appropriate time and place, if we need to adjust, we will. We’ll be flexible. We’ll be nimble. And we’ll deliver what the country is desperately looking for again, and that’s an incredible March Madness tournament in 2021.”

Gavitt also joined Tournament Selection Chair and Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart in a conversation with Andy Katz on Wednesday, where it was stressed that they are giving every effort to make March Madness happen, regardless of what month it actually would take place in.

A major difference in the logistics in pulling off a college basketball season versus college football is the amount of people involved. It’s a much more manageable situation to prepare for teams of 15 players and a smaller coaching/support staff versus 100+ players and dozens of coaches/support staff in football. That’s why a word that typically makes college basketball fans nervous during the season should bring some sense of comfort and optimism now....bubble.

The NBA has been successful in resuming league action by isolating the teams playing in a restricted bubble type environment. While it’s certainly more feasible for a pro league to create this stand alone situation for an extended period of time, college basketball decision makers are looking into ways of following a similar type model.

NCAA President Mark Emmert emerged from his own secluded bubble to discuss the prospects of winter and spring sports after it was announced on Thursday that Division I Championship events were cancelled for the fall.

Emmert spoke with Andy Katz on Thursday night to discuss what’s next and he emphasized the ability to be flexible regarding college basketball. Specifically on the bubble concept for the NCAA Tournament, Emmert seemed positive about being able to pull that off. “If we modify the model, shrink bracket sizes, do everything in pre-determined sites, instead of running kids around the country and move toward bubbles or semi-bubble models. There’s a way to do it.”

In regard to moving the tournament and Final Four back as late as May, along with working with television partners to make that happen, Emmert said “These are not insurmountable problems.”

His most positive statement regarding the prospect of having an NCAA Tournament in 2021 was this: “If we need to do a bubble model and that’s the only way we can do it, we’ll figure that out.”

It’s clear the NCAA will do everything possible to avoid missing out on the Tournament a second straight year. The event produces so much revenue that it helps fund all of the rest of the NCAA Championship events in every other sport, so missing out on it again would have serous financial implications for college sports across the board.

From a Rutgers perspective, this is encouraging news. There is a strong core returning and the team receiving a lot of national hype this offseason. A national preseason ranking, whenever the season is set to begin and whatever the schedule looks like, appears likely.

As for the Big Ten itself, there was a very encouraging sign today in regard to how committed the fourteen members are to working together to find a tangible way to play this season.

The dean of the coaches in the Big Ten, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, told Graham Couch of the Lansing State Journal on Wednesday that “I think we’re 100% going to play.” While he admitted to not knowing all of the logistics it would take to pull off a Big Ten season in a bubble environment, he did say “I know I’m going to dive into (those conversations). I think the worst thing we can do is just sit back (and wait).”

With the Big Ten actively discussing having spring football in 2021, there are still more questions than answers as to making that a reality. COVID-19 has created a global health crisis that’s dissolved what normal used to be in every facet of life. It started wrecking havoc in this country during March Madness last spring, ultimately halting the sport right before it entered its biggest stage.

Perhaps that’s why college basketball seems much more realistic in understanding how well prepared the sport must be in order to play this coming season. We don’t know what next season will look like for Rutgers, the Big Ten or the rest of college basketball. However, it’s fair to be hopeful at this stage that the leaders within the sport will do everything possible to make sure it takes place and that March Madness is a reality once again, even if it happens in May.