Rooney: Surprising call on basketball gives Pac-12 a chance to get creative

Working group exploring options for early 2021 season

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
An early decision by the Pac-12 Conference to postpone the upcoming men’s and women’s basketball seasons until at least Jan. 1, 2021, may give it the opportunity to put something together similar to the NBA bubble that has been successful during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It wasn’t just Tad Boyle — he of the “shock and disbelief” reaction — who was stunned this past week’s announcement by the Pac-12 Conference postponing fall sports included a basketball hiatus until at least Jan. 1.

In more than half of the FBS-level conferences, they still are going to try to play football. At least as of now. Basketball? That’s supposed to be a problem for September or October, after some preliminary results could be disseminated regarding the spread of COVID-19 among college campuses upon the return of students.

Still, give the Pac-12 some credit, despite delivering another gut-punch for fans. While league and school administrators across the country have stumbled their way through one haphazard plan after another in hopes of restarting the financial juggernaut of college football, the Pac-12 may have turned heads by addressing the basketball season so early. But the league also is in position to craft creative, and perhaps unorthodox, solutions to how basketball can be resumed safely come 2021.

After his Wednesday virtual press conference in which “shock and disbelief” was Boyle’s personal theme, the 11-year Colorado head coach discussed with BuffZone some of the hurdles facing his beloved sport. This time, the theme was competitive equity, or perhaps inequity this year, and the need for original ideas.

“We have to think outside the box,” Boyle said. “Because the traditional season is not going to happen. We know that. There’s a lot of moving parts. You’ve got the pandemic that’s fluid. You’ve got testing that’s continuing to evolve and change. Health and safety is the number one thing, but everyone in the country is kind of operating from that standpoint. So I don’t think we’re any different. It’s just figuring out how to make it happen.”

Too often over the past few months, whatever plans being cobbled together in an attempt to field a college football season were done so with an eye on resuming business as usual, with little concession to the reality that business as usual simply can’t be part of the equation in 2020.

Basketball has an opportunity to face this challenge differently. It perhaps wasn’t the most out-on-a-limb observation two weeks ago in this corner when it was noted college athletics needs to begin thinking more creatively to crawl out of the pandemic shutdown. This past week, it was revealed the Pac-12 has quietly been doing just that in an attempt to assemble some sort of viable basketball season.

The good folks at the Pac-12 Hotline produced by the San Jose Mercury News reported the league’s basketball working group has kicked around ideas ranging from mini-pods, where multiple men’s and women’s teams could play multiple games in a relatively small window, to conference-only schedules that might even exceed the 20 game-game schedule the league was set to utilize, for the first time, this season. NCAA president Mark Emmert echoed the semi-bubble advocacy in a video interview published on the NCAA website.

Boyle noted that organizers have had since March to brainstorm an idea for basketball. Yet despite this week’s surprising Pac-12 hoops announcement, the league seemingly is at least a step ahead of the curve in addressing the reality of the situation. In basketball, that reality might not resonate equally across the country, particularly since Division I basketball includes well over 200 more competitive teams than FBS-level football.

That’s a lot of moving parts, and what might eventually work well for the Pac-12 might not work, as an example, in the Big South Conference, either financially or logistically. One of the biggest charms of the NCAA basketball tournaments is that it gives the little guys and gals a chance to compete for championships against the game’s bluebloods. Those March Madness upsets are as indelible as anything in all of sports.

But if those potential Cinderellas can’t hit the floor this year, while some of their peers can, well, in this one-season instance, that might have to be OK.

“We have to understand this is about opportunities for student-athletes,” Boyle said. “This isn’t about what’s fair or what’s not fair. This virus isn’t fair. We never know where it’s coming from or necessarily where it’s going to go. But the people that have been able to stay out of harm’s way — and if you’re a student-athlete, and you’re able to compete safely — you should be able to do that. If that means half of a conference, or half of a league, or half of the country can do it and the other half can’t, that’s the way it is. That’s just my humble opinion. I don’t want to take away opportunities for student-athletes because other student-athletes aren’t able to compete.

“I feel bad for the ones who can’t compete. But let’s not punish the ones that can. I want everybody to be able to compete. But this year, maybe everybody can’t compete.”