The latest on college basketball’s Orlando bubble and out of conference scheduling

The latest on college basketball’s Orlando bubble and out of conference scheduling


Photo: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday morning, a shockwave was sent through college basketball – as the bubble that was slated to open college basketball’s season in Orlando was cancelled just a few short weeks before the season. The news was first reported by The Athletic, which cited differing opinions between ESPN and schools on coronavirus testing, quarantining and contact tracing as the reason for the cancellation.

Still, regardless of why the Orlando bubble (which featured 10 different ESPN-televised events) was cancelled, it doesn’t make it any less shocking. It means a month before the season, some staples of the college basketball calendar (like the season-opening Champion’s Classic) will not take place, at least in Orlando.  It has also left some of the sport’s truly premiere programs – think Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, UCLA, Michigan State, Gonzaga – scrambling to fill out their schedules, and without the major out of conference games they were expecting to play.

Admittedly, a lot has changed, just in the last 24 hours, and a lot will change going forward.

Here is what we know now, what it will mean for the season going forward, and why we still may (may!) get good, out of conference basketball in November.

What the heck happened and why is this news so shocking?

There is no other way to put it, but the news that college basketball’s Orlando bubble was cancelled was nothing short of shocking. And it was for a number of different reasons. Orlando, it seemed, was the perfect spot to host such a big bubble.

For starters, Orlando hosted the NBA bubble over the last three months. And regardless of what you think of the on-court NBA product, there is no doubt that – at least from the standpoint of getting games safely on the court – it was a success. The league played over three months of games without a single major coronavirus related issue.

Two, it seemed like all the parties that would have a vested interest in seeing a bubble in Orlando succeed – mainly, ESPN and most major college basketball programs – were all aligned in making it happen. After all, if there was one big loser in the entire event being cancelled, it was ESPN itself. With the NBA now off until at least January, the network has literally nothing to put on its airwaves in the middle of the week, outside a few MAC football games. This would kill all those problems with one stone, giving it solid, quality programming in a 3-4 week window starting around Thanksgiving and ending right Christmas.

And finally, as we all know, Florida has, ahem, some of the loosest Covid-19 restrictions in the country.

Add it all up, and it just felt like all of the bubbles that have popped up the last few months, this seemed like – by far – the most likely to actually happen. It just made too much sense, from too many angles, with again, all the important parties (the TV networks, schools, conferences etc.) aligned.

So what happened? According to the Athletic, and multiple other media outlets, hiccups over testing and overall procedures when it came to coronavirus.

According to the Athletic’s report, the issues stemmed from two things specifically: One, ESPN required that teams follow a CDC guideline that said that anyone who tested positive for coronavirus had to be re-tested within 90 days of the positive test. To be clear, that is a CDC rule but not an NCAA or college basketball rule specifically. Several conferences have different rules and testing policies, and many weren’t crazy about the idea.

The second issue is that if a player tested positive, they had to be quarantined, on the school’s own dime for 14 days following the positive test. Obviously that would create all sorts of logistical issues (especially considering that many teams weren’t even spending a full 14 days in Orlando) as well as financial ones, for schools that would have to house players who wouldn’t be able to participate. According to The Athletic, there was even talk of sending players who test positive home, but after contact tracing, it would likely eliminate some teams from competition all together.

Still, even after reading the report multiple times, it didn’t answer one fundamental question for me: Why was ESPN being such a stickler for all these protocols? Again, they have more to lose than anyone by cancelling the bubble all together, so couldn’t they figure out a way to make things work?

The best answer I can come up with, comes from a tweet that CBS’s Matt Norlander sent out on Sunday afternoon.

Apparently this all went above ESPN’s heads, and straight to Disney’s lawyers. Since Disney was “hosting” the event, they wanted to put in their policies, which ESPN had to abide by.

If you want an explanation as to why we had to take the extreme step to cancel the entire bubble, there you have it.

It’s also worth noting that essentially ESPN pulled the plug now, so teams would have time before the start of the season to adjust things accordingly.

So does this mean that we aren’t getting any out of conference games this season?

Admittedly, when I saw this, my first thought was that this might just end out of conference basketball all together. With so many teams losing so many games, there was just too much to do, with too short of a time frame to do it. When you realize that every state has different restrictions for teams traveling out of state and back, it seemed like it might just be too big of a hurdle to climb.

Still, after making a few phone calls, I am less concerned about the cancellation of out of conference basketball all together. On the one hand, the decision to cancel Orlando doesn’t impact other bubbles in other parts of the country, with Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and Sioux Falls, South Dakota as two places that have aggressively tried to line games up throughout the last few months. Just because Orlando was cancelled, I’m guessing that those places won’t want to do the same.

If anything, I think Orlando’s cancellation is going to have the opposite effect of what many might think: Instead of it leading to fewer out of conference games, it’s just going to make the places which are already hosting out of conference games more aggressive in trying to land some of these teams.

Crap, I talked to two different event organizers on Monday that essentially confirmed as much. In essence they said, “Why wouldn’t I want to bring a Kentucky, Duke, Gonzaga or Kansas to my venue?” Not only is it great for the local economy to fill up hotel rooms and put restaurants back in business, but it’s obviously great for exposure their respective city’s and states.

As an example, with the “Battle 4 Atlantis” now being played in Sioux Falls, that event will essentially be a three-day advertisement for the city and state (insert your commentary here).

That sentiment was confirmed almost immediately by Jon Rothstein, who reported this morning that the Champion’s Classic will likely still get played. Indianapolis has emerged as the front-runner to host that event.

And really, Rothstein’s report just confirms what I wrote above. Monday’s news has only incentivized other event organizers to get involved and get events to their venues.

It’s way too early to speculate who might be the big winners, but here are some quick thoughts: One, Indianapolis has seemed to want in on the bubble action from the beginning. They will host a mega-showdown between Baylor and Gonzaga on December 5th and are now angling for the Champion’s Classic, per Rothstein. They have also openly said that if conferences need to host bubbles, they would be willing to do it as well.

Beyond them, don’t sleep on Las Vegas, which has the hotel and events space to host as many teams as are interested in coming. I know for a fact, there is a bubble being worked on there.

Also, don’t sleep on South Dakota (and no, I could’ve never imagined when I woke up this morning that I’d be writing this much about South Dakota). The state has some of the loosest Covid-19 restrictions anywhere in the country, and the arena where games are played is literally just down the road from a hospital. If there were any major Covid-19 issues, this seems as though it’d be the venue to handle it.

And with that, Sioux Falls is already set to host the Battle 4 Atlantis (featuring Creighton, Ohio State, Memphis and Texas A&M among other schools) as well as a matchup between Gonzaga and Iowa. It wouldn’t shock me if they tried to get into the fray on many of these events, especially the smaller ones.

The point here is, based on everyone I’ve talked to, I still expect plenty of good out of conference basketball. Even if it isn’t in Orlando.

This also increases the importance of on-campus MTE’s

When college basketball scheduling first began taking shape a few months back, it appeared as though most out of conference games would be played inside these giant bubbles, featuring dozens of teams. Orlando, Mohegan Sun, Las Vegas, on and on and on.

Yet as time has gone on, lawyers and state regulators (like in Orlando and other places) have gotten involved, it’s clearly become increasingly harder to hold these big, wide-ranging events.

Which is why, in the coming weeks, expect for more, smaller on-campus events to take place. We already know of plenty, including ones which will take place in both Lexington and Louisville, as well as at Duke. It wouldn’t shock me to see more of these pop up in the weeks ahead.

And ultimately, Monday’s Orlando news highlighted why these smaller, on-campus bubbles are so important. While fans have become frustrated with the lack of “marquee” opponents in these bubbles, that was never really the goal when they were put together. Instead, the goal was to simply to get games on the schedule prior to the start of conference season. For the small schools, it gives them a chance to play the big boys – even if the deck is stacked against them. And for the big schools, they will hopefully serve as easy wins before the start of league play.

In the end, the hope is obviously for events like the Champions Classic (where Kentucky is slated to play Kansas) to happen, and I believe they will.

However, just as important is getting a few out of conference games under your belt, to get you ready for league play.

How does this all end?

I mentioned up top the possibility that some leagues could go to a “conference only” model and at the end of the day, that wouldn’t shock me. I don’t know that it is anyone’s definitive plan at this exact moment, but I do think it’s possible.

The main reason I don’t think we’re there yet is because schools all over the country realize the value of out of conference play. The big schools want a chance to beat up on some bad teams before league play, and maybe play a marquee game or two to boost their resumes. The small schools want a shot at the big boys in hopes of pulling off an upset (there is a reason why a school like Gonzaga has been more aggressive than maybe anyone in scheduling the last few months). Also, as mentioned above, the TV networks are incentivized to make out of conference play work to give themselves something to put on air in November and December.

Regardless, if you had to ask me how all this ends, it feels like we are headed towards a scenario where it plays out like college football did this year. I would expect some leagues to go to conference only games (where testing will be uniform across the board) and some conferences to put limitations on what out of conference play looks like (only against conferences with similar testing protocols, certain travel restrictions, things like that). In others it will be a free for all like in football, where some schools like Army are expected to play a full, 12-game schedule.

One thing is for sure: This season is not only going to be like any other, but will likely be changing by the day.

And Monday sure was proof of it.





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