College sports are an easy target.
The NCAA has earned its fair share of criticism over the years, mostly due its stubborn unwillingness to budge on student-athlete rights and empty statements when leadership is most needed. The perception of college sports’ incompetence has been made even worse by the clusterf*ck that has been college football.
Given the NCAA’s history of disorganization, the lack of trust among key administrators in president Mark Emmert, and the mayhem we’ve seen in the other college sports cash cow, it was easy to project that college basketball was staring down an absolute mess come its big decisions to make this fall.
While it’s still too early to be handing out trophies, the NCAA and other key stakeholders in college basketball have proven those predictions wrong… so far.
Jon Rothstein’s Tuesday evening report that “the Men’s and Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee will propose a start date of November 25th to the Division 1 Council for the 20-21 college basketball season” was the latest step towards a season starting close to on time… and without an ounce of the drama that has plagued college football.
So how and why has college basketball beaten most expectations thus far? It starts with leadership. Power Five commissioners are territorial competitors (especially with regards to football), and any hopes that the major players in college football would work together flew out the window when the Big Ten went conference-only in July without much consultation with the other four major conferences. Remarkably, there’s no one in college football whose job it is to unite the big decision-makers. NCAA Senior VP of Basketball Dan Gavitt is the type of leader needed to help conferences work together — a universally-respected voice that key decision-makers trust. NABC Executive Director Craig Robinson, a former high-major head coach and the brother-in-law of Barack Obama, is another key name keeping coaches happy. Neither guy has the power that someone like Adam Silver or other pro sports commissioners have, but there is a level of trust and respect that each commands that is critical in bringing together a united front.
College basketball also seems more willing to be innovative than its CFB counterparts. The willingness to “bubble up” for the NCAA Tournament and even for regular season action is probably surprising to those who thought the optics of it in relationship to amateurism would be too great to handle. As of now, CBB leaders seem prepped to capitalize on the “campus bubble” that winter breaks will create and ready to do everything from inverted non-conference and conference schedules to “pod” play to massive MTEs to make sure as many games can be played before a March Madness takes place.
Is it possible that these well-developed plans wind up being flushed down the drain? Yes. As we’ve learned in football, the final decision-makers are college presidents, and those presidents have more pressing concerns than putting a basketball team on the floor this winter. Division 1 college basketball is full of schools that run tight budgets in more than just athletics, and athletics add risk to the equation of keeping campus open safely. It’s conceivable that North Carolina would play college sports without students allowed on campus, but would Iona or Weber State? The massive disparities in resources and commitment to athletics throughout Division 1 is gigantic.
Expected advancements in testing will also need to come to fruition, though things appear to be on the right track on that front after an inexpensive rapid test by Abbott received FDA approval last week. State and local case numbers and restrictions will certainly play a role. And of course, the success or failure of college football in the leagues that do play will be watched closely as we get closer to November.
Who knows, in six weeks college basketball could be a mess. A lot can change very quickly, and I’m certainly not going to make any promises about what a season (let alone games before January 1) might look like. But it is apparent that, at least for now, college basketball seems fairly united and committed to making a season happen. And right now, that’s all you can ask for.