COLUMN: College basketball conferences must consider adding bye weeks

As the Los Angeles Lakers were crowned 2020 NBA champions Sunday night, tucked underneath congratulatory tweets and continued LeBron/MJ comparisons was praise for the Orlando bubble. The league isolated itself for four months and didn’t record a single positive COVID-19 test.

The sport’s attention now turns to the college level, which doesn’t have the luxury of a season-long bubble or the widespread financial backing that made the NBA’s experiment possible.

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Scheduling mayhem

College basketball’s scheduling madness is off to a rocky start. With a little over a month until the season is scheduled to tip on Nov. 25, none of the 357 Division-I teams have released an official schedule. Though multi-team events (MTEs) are slowly coming together, many teams still have several holes in their nonconference slates. Meanwhile, two conferences — the Patriot League and Ivy League — have shut down basketball until at least January.

College basketball’s scheduling process typically spans several months. According to schedule guru D1 Docket, West Virginia was the first team to release an official schedule last year on April 19 while UMBC released the final official schedule on Oct. 12.

Here in 2020 amid a global pandemic, things are wildly different. Among countless other challenges, here are some main factors to consider regarding scheduling:

  • NCAA’s recommendation of a 14-day team quarantine if a player tests positive
  • NCAA’s recommendation of three tests per week on nonconsecutive days
  • Minimum number of games (13 vs. D-I teams) to be tournament-eligible
  • Maximum number of games (24-27, depending on MTE inclusion)
  • Financial obstacles with “guarantee game” contracts and COVID-19’s impact
  • Final exams and classes
  • State-wide health protocols and travel
  • Scheduling preferences for postseason consideration

Needless to say, the 2020-21 college basketball campaign will face several challenges. Most of them are out of everyone’s control, but preventative measures could go a long way in mustering a somewhat normal season.

Conference schedules

This brings us to conference schedules. Generally, leagues have significant flexibility in how they wish to stage their conference slates. These decisions can span from total number of league games to which team assumes the conference’s NCAA Tournament automatic bid.

We have already seen this flexibility exercised by various conferences.

According to CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein, the Big Sky voted for teams to play the same opponent in the same location on Thursdays and Sundays this season. The Conference USA will reportedly follow the same scheduling model and the America East, CAA and NEC are considering it as well.

MAAC’s scheduling savvy

No league is better suited for the upcoming season quite like the MAAC, though.

The first conference to finalize a ’20-21 league slate, MAAC commissioner Rich Ensor developed a forward-thinking scheduling model. Its schedule calls for men’s games to be played on Tuesdays and Fridays, which creates an additional day for COVID-19 testing. In recent years, weekday games typically landed on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Additionally, the conference also has three of the first five weeks of the season blocked off for nonconference competition. According to the MAAC’s press release, nonconference games will be “left to the discretion of each institution.”

But the most admirable aspect of the MAAC schedule is where no games are played at all. Week 11 remains entirely blank as a window to make up any games potentially postponed due to COVID-19. The regular season will then resume and conclude the following week before the league’s tournament in Atlantic City, N.J.

“I believe that the group developed a strong scheduling model which spaces league games throughout the season, which gives us the flexibility to make adjustments during the season should any of our teams be faced with an interruption in play,” Siena vice president and athletic director John D’Argenio said.

Sports in non-bubbles

Given the struggles seen in non-bubble leagues like the NFL, MLB and college football, a conference-wide bye week for postponed games should be a requirement, not a rarity.

Major League Baseball fended off a treacherous start to its season in which the Marlins and Cardinals were ravaged with COVID-19 breakouts. Elsewhere, the NFL announced a handful of rescheduled matchups on Sunday, and college football has seen about a quarter of its games postponed even before the Big Ten and Pac-12 resume play.

So why don’t college basketball conferences — already staring directly at a mountain of COVID-19-related obstacles — take preventative scheduling measures?

Mountain West’s schedule release

If the 14-day quarantine protocol remains, entire conference schedules could be ravaged by a single positive test. Dedicating a week late in the season at least allows a window to make up games. Why not prepare for the worst while still hoping for the best?

The Mountain West, with teams spanning from San Diego to Laramie, Wyo., opted to retain its normal scheduling model. Friday’s schedule release calls for an 18-game slate with each team playing nine games at home and on the road. No team will be off for more than seven days.

Though the Mountain West could very well complete its season without any COVID-19 positives, there is a massive difference between assuming zero complications vs. preparing for complications.

Importance of a bye week

Given what we now know about coronavirus seven months after it derailed the ’19-20 college basketball season, failing to make preventative scheduling adjustments is alarming at best and negligent at worst. The Mountain West’s schedule release makes no mention of COVID-19 at all.

Again, both the MAAC and Mountain West could evade COVID-19 all season long. But in the case of a positive test, the MAAC is prepared to make up postponed games and the Mountain West is not.

When the MWC last faced a scheduling hurdle in 2018 due to the government shutdown, Fresno State was forced to host Wyoming on a Saturday night and face Air Force exactly 48 hours later in Colorado Springs, Colo. Given the league’s geographical vastness and varying state-wide protocols, squeezing in postponed games seems like a nightmare waiting to happen. If a single positive COVID-19 test results in a mandatory 14-day team quarantine, at least four games could potentially be postponed, which is already a massive chunk of the Mountain West’s league schedule.

College basketball doesn’t have a season-long bubble like the NBA. It obviously doesn’t have the same roster size as college football or just a single game per week either, which is hugely advantageous for scheduling workarounds.

Implementing a bye week late in the season might not seem like much but it could do wonders in salvaging what figures to be a messy and chaotic season.


Eli Boettger is a college basketball writer and founder of HeatCheckCBB.com. He has previously worked for Sporting News, DAZN and USA TODAY SMG.

Boettger’s content has been featured by Bleacher Report, NBC Sports, FiveThirtyEight, Yahoo Sports, Athletic Director University, Washington Post, Illinois Law Review and Notre Dame Law Review, among other publications. Boettger is also a current USBWA member and Rockin’ 25 voter.