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Gonzaga coach Mark Few optimistic college season can happen with assist from bubbles, pods

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 1, 2020

The term bubble in college basketball parlance could have new meaning for the upcoming season.

Teams with tenuous NCAA Tournament resumes are usually described as being on the bubble. This season, a bubble or mini bubbles/pods, modeled after ones implemented by the NBA, WNBA and NHL, might become the vehicle that allows college basketball to be played despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Road to the Final Four could possibly lead to the Battle in the Bubble. The NCAA last week filed a trademark application for Battle in the Bubble, which could be used for college basketball contests and tournaments as well as other NCAA sports.

“This is stuff we’ve been talking about,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said on Andy Katz’s NCAA March Madness 365 podcast. “There are some great ideas with combining the MTEs (multiteam events) … there’s a way to bring a lot of these under the same umbrella.

“There’s such a cooperative spirit right now, I think it’ll be a hurdle that’s easy to get over. It’s definitely doable. It’s going to take some work, but that’s what we do.”

NCAA president Mark Emmert and senior vice president for basketball Dan Gavitt have said bubble or pod concepts merit consideration because they have been successful for several professional leagues.

There are numerous issues to work out, beginning with pinning down a starting date for the season. Four dates are being studied, including the original opening day of Nov. 10, but Few suggested starting just before or after Thanksgiving. That would fall within the timeline when campuses are largely without students because of the holiday break.

“Having been through that this summer with my own team where we were literally all by ourselves on campus, it dawned on me that it’s never going to get any safer or any better to try to keep your team away from COVID as best you can, which is impossible, but we were essentially in our bubble,” Few said. “We were able to practice and eat and train. Then if ‘Cal’ (Kentucky coach John Calipari) is doing same thing and (Michigan State coach) Tom (Izzo) is doing the same thing, and we’re all chartering, outside of the NBA and NASA, it’s probably about as safe as you could ever hope for walking around in this day and age.”

The ideal scenario, of course, would be starting on Nov. 10, conducting something close to a normal regular season and holding the NCAA Tournament as scheduled in March and April. It’s highly unlikely that’s going to unfold, so coaches and NCAA executives are trying to formulate plans to conduct games in the safest manner possible.

That’s where bubbles and pods come into play for conference and nonconference games.

The Basketball Tournament was the first to use a bubble for its 24-team tournament from July 4-14. Players were asked to quarantine at home before traveling to Columbus, Ohio. They went through a five-day quarantine on site and had several rounds of coronavirus testing before taking the court.

The TBT had a handful of teams disqualified after positive tests and they were replaced by alternate squads, but the event was viewed as a success because players generally bought into safety protocols, including social distancing and wearing masks.

The NBA bubble in Orlando, Florida, at a cost of more than $150 million, began in July with rigorous safety measures in place. The two teams that advance to the finals will spend roughly three months at Disney World. There have been no positive tests for almost two months.

Safety guidelines haven’t been as strict for Major League Baseball, which is playing games without fans at teams’ home stadiums. There have been several outbreaks resulting in postponed games. Seattle’s three-game series with Oakland this week has been postponed because a member of the A’s organization tested positive.

“If our kids could vote, it would be (to play) by 98% to 2% and those two were walk-ons or guys that were mad they’re not playing,” Calipari said. “If you talk to coaches, they want to play. Now it becomes how do we do it safely?

“Well, we’re talking about pods. The way has been shown by the WNBA and the NBA. Before you leave campus, you’re tested. When you arrive before you play a game, you’re tested. If there are teams there and one of them has a player test positive, they’re just out of it, and whoever is left keeps playing.”

Sites mentioned to possibly host bubbles or pods include Orlando; Washington D.C.; Omaha, Nebraska; Indianapolis; the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and the Sanford Pentagon in South Dakota.

Few, Izzo and Calipari stressed the importance of having nonconference in addition to conference games to find out where squads stand nationally. It also gives the selection committee more information when selecting and seeding tournament teams.

“There’s not going to be competitive equity, stop it,” Calipari said. “We may not play as many games as Tom’s and Mark’s teams, that’s too bad. Maybe we got sick or one of my guys had to go see his girlfriend at a party and now infected us all and we’re out two weeks.”

The trio of coaches spoke about the need to include teams from smaller conferences that depend on guarantee games to fund their programs.

“Louisville and Kentucky play every year, that’s a big game,” Few said. “Maybe grab three teams they each have as part of the guarantee (games) on their schedules and bring them in and they couple play each other as well as play Louisville and Kentucky.

“Same thing at Gonzaga. I don’t even know if the Pac-12 is even going to be around to participate in this or not, but if they were we play Arizona year in and year out, we bring (Washington) in, and maybe involve some of these other teams that ‘Cal’ mentioned are going to be totally dependent on us trying to help them out and ensuring they do get those games. As we all can attest to, our situations on campus are very regulated and safe and could easily accommodate three, four, five, six teams.”

The Pac-12 is willing to reconsider its Aug. 11 announcement that its basketball programs won’t play until at least Jan. 1, the San Jose Mercury News reported last week.

Gonzaga had games scheduled with USC (Nov. 17 in Portland), Arizona (Dec. 5) and Washington (Dec. 12). GU is scheduled to play in the eight-team Orlando Invitational and face Tennessee in the one-game, four-team Jimmy V Classic doubleheader in New York City. Gonzaga and Texas Tech will square off in Phoenix in the headliner of the Jerry Colangelo Classic’s four-game slate.

What GU’s schedule eventually looks like remains to be seen, but Few is optimistic there will be a season.

“We’re all very protective of our schedules and it’s a pain in the rear to try to schedule people, but I think everybody was so open-minded,” Few said. “I really think there’s a great window for college basketball with the void left by so many of the other sports out there. We can really have an impact.”

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