Carlson: Due to COVID-19, college basketball teams should consider this detour on road to NCAA Tournament
Word out of the Pacific Northwest is, Gonzaga may opt out of its conference tournament.
Seems like a no-brainer for the Zags during the pandemic. They are undefeated and a shoo-in for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The top overall seed in the selection committee’s rankings has little to gain at the West Coast Conference tournament.
Except for possible exposures to COVID.
But here’s where the news coming from the other side of the Rockies gets interesting — BYU might opt out of the WCC tournament, too.
The Cougars aren’t the NCAA slam dunk that the Zags are. Everyone expects BYU to make the field with a NET rating in the 20s and a 15-5 record through Tuesday’s games. But BYU wasn’t among the top 16 teams on those selection committee rankings. Most bracketologists see BYU as middle-of-the-road seed, in the eight or nine range.
But if BYU opts out of its conference tournament, it could open the floodgates for other teams to follow. The Cougars might embolden other teams that are solidly off the bubble and in the NCAA Tournament to stay away from their conference tournaments.
Here's hoping OU and OSU consider it because Big 12 and other conferences aren’t likely to do the right thing and cancel.
Amid the pandemic and a season marred by COVID stops and starts, conferences should have already called off their tournaments. Make the regular-season champ the automatic bid to the NCAA. Let the at-large bids fall where they may. Give teams a buffer of down time before they head to Indianapolis.
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Because here’s something you may not have known: players must test negative for COVID seven straight times to be allowed into the NCAA bubble.
Guidelines from the NCAA say all tier-one individuals must produce seven consecutive negative tests before arriving in Indy. That includes coaches, trainers, managers and yep, players.
No team wants to make the NCAA Tournament field only to end up short of players.
No conference wants that either.
Canceling conference tournaments wouldn't guarantee such a fate would be avoided, but having them almost assures it will happen to some team somewhere. The league tournaments run right up until Selection Sunday, and even though the conferences have talked about a bubble of sorts for their tournaments, many teams will have almost no break before the NCAA Tournament starts.
Having very little buffer between the two means very little margin for error.
“I think at this point, our total focus should be on athletes being healthy and our teams being as fresh as possible going into the postseason,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “You have to balance that with the financials, of course. We get that. There’s money to be made off of every game we play … as well as the conference tournament.”
A year ago, conferences lost hundreds of millions of dollars when the pandemic shut down college basketball. Most was lost because the NCAA Tournament was scuttled all together. But some conferences had their own tournaments wiped out. That hurt the bottom line, too.
Add reduced attendance and slimmed-down schedules during the football season, and everyone in college athletics is motivated to bring in as much revenue as possible for the foreseeable future.
But what if a conference tournament and its moderate-sized pile of cash exposes a team to COVID, knocks it out of the NCAA Tournament and keeps a conference from earning an even bigger pile of cash?
Such a thing doesn’t seem far fetched.
It would be an absolute shame, especially for the players. These young people have been through a lot. Some caught the virus and got sick. Many were quarantined. All have had a test swab jabbed up their nose more times than they care to count.
They shouldn’t lose a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament because they played in a conference tournament.
“The kids is always what it comes back to for me, this experience for them and everything that they’ve been asked to commit to sacrificing,” OSU coach Mike Boynton said.
“Let them play as often as we can, and if the league decides the tournament’s not right, get through the regular season and just move on, then we’ve done what we said. Let them have a season, and then it’s on to the NCAAs. If they decided part of playing the season is having a conference tournament, then I’m cool with either one.
“I understand both sides, the justification for both doing it and not doing it.”
I understand the arguments, too, but because of COVID, playing a conference tournament sure seems like tempting fate. What if the Cowboys make the NCAA Tournament for the first time under Boynton, then don't have enough players to play? Or if the Sooners have their best team since the 2016 Final Four bunch but never make it to Indy?
Frankly, it has never made much sense to play an entire regular season but then say the league title and the automatic bid goes to the winner of a handful of games in the conference tournament. That seems foolish in the best of times.
This season, it seems absurd.
“That’s not a choice any coaches have,” Kruger said. “That’s gonna be a conference decision, and we’re gonna do whatever the conference deems we need to do. I think we’re all in on that.
“We’re just concerned like everyone is for everyone’s health and safety.”
That is the same concern that has driven Gonzaga and BYU to consider skipping their conference tournament.
OU and OSU would be smart to do likewise.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.