On a day when college football applied another mismatched patch to its thorn in the side of a quilt for 2020, college basketball presented a relative work of art – a seasonal plan that strives to include everyone and set broad national parameters.
The difference between two sports practiced by many of the same schools is striking. It underscores what can be done with centralized NCAA leadership and cohesive conferences (basketball), as opposed to five oligarchies who don’t care much about whether the whole enterprise survives as long as they get one (football).
Dan Gavitt, the NCAA vice president for basketball, was the unifying presence football has lacked for the past six months. He has delved into the workings of competitions from coast to coast, brainstorming a framework for what the season should look like.
“We wanted to build consensus and consider all perspectives,” Gavitt told Sports Illustrated. “We had the advantage of time, watching other sports that start and learning from it. It’s not perfect, and we weren’t even looking for perfection. But I really hope we have achieved a responsible and united plan to start college basketball. “
The basis: a 20-hour practice week starting on October 14, increasing from 12 hours per week before; games begin Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving, at a time when campus occupancy will plummet as students go home for longer vacation breaks; a maximum of 27 regular season games, with a minimum of 13 to qualify for automatic qualification for the NCAA Tournament; a recommended minimum of four non-conference games (which would facilitate tournament selection and placement). And the big hope at the end: a Big Dance with 68 teams, as usual.
Dare to dream. But don’t just dream it; plan it. Gavitt led the planning. And it’s worth noting that the schedule also includes women’s basketball.
Football has no Dan Gavitt. It’s highly unlikely that the Power 5 conference commissioners would welcome a national football czaar – why hire a boss if you don’t have one – but it could help the sport as a whole. Now more than ever.
Football is too big to fail, which could be one of the reasons why the leadership can behave itself the way it does. It almost doesn’t matter how mercenary the stewardship is because the game’s inherent popularity will keep it going. But it’s also times like these that make you wonder what this fall football season could have been like with more conference collaboration.
It may look a lot like the 2020–21 basketball season, which can still flop, but at least has a plan. A coherent, organized plan. A plan that could work just as well in the Southeastern Conference as it does in the Big Ten as it does in the Pac-12.
“There are still many things to be determined in terms of scheduling, testing protocols, (tournament-exempt) bubble capabilities, etc.,” said Georgia coach Tom Crean. “But it does give everyone a target to prepare for now.”
This is preferable to the scattershot approach to football, where the Power 5 schedule now reads: Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12 in use (with multiple interruptions); Southeastern Conference scheduled to begin September 26; the resurrected Big Ten scheduled for October 23-24; and Pac-12 not scheduled for anything before January 1 (although efforts are being made to speed up that timetable).
In July, the Big Ten went their separate ways in terms of a football schedule, and then the Pac-12 followed. That made the other Big Three frozen, leading to a soccer cleft that has not been repaired and could easily get bigger in the coming months. If you thought previous iterations of the College Football Playoff selection process were controversial, wait until this time. Ask the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 how understanding they want to be about including a Big Ten champion who has played maybe two or three fewer games, especially after the league shut down its scheduled power play in July.
The college basketball community has a greater humility, even when forced upon her. Football made that clear, when it was almost 100% the driving force behind conference regrouping decisions and hoops was an afterthought. It was then that basketball programs realized their place in the sports tiers of college and also gained the understanding that they had to work together to maintain the relevance of the sport.
Have any attempts been made to speed up the process towards this planning plan? At least a. Last week, the sport’s big dog, the ACC, was one-sided in favor of an all-in NCAA tournament: 346 teams plus a few carnival acts and 12 swans-a-swim. That was a move that the football powers could appreciate, but it probably won’t go anywhere – and guess what? In this sport, a league can’t really make up its own rules and tell everyone to deal with them.
Part of the humility of basketball is the realization that the great dance dominates the sport, and the great dance is everyone. It’s the Power 5 but also the brave mid-majors and the dangerous low-major Cinderellas. It’s the whole country, princes and paupers, all thrown together with a chance of fighting for three weeks in March and April.
The hope is to go to that populist party in the spring. For now, Gavitt admits, “That’s ambitious.” The basic goal is for each school to play anywhere near 20 regular season games and at least one post-season tournament. When that happens, the players, coaches and fans may feel like they have something real – maybe less real than usual, but better than the March 2020 void.
“I know the players want to play,” said UCLA coach Mick Cronin.
The players want to play and the power brokers want it to happen for everyone. The good thing about the game is a concept that’s still gaining momentum in college basketball, contrary to each conference’s football ethos for itself.
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