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NCAA basketball season still uncertain

The NCAA still has to decide on how the season will be formatted.
Photo by FlickrThe NCAA still has to decide on how the season will be formatted.

In early March, the sports world came to a halt due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Now, after six months, a timeline has been put forward by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) that considers a resumption of the college basketball season by as early as Nov. 25.

As a whole, basketball is the largest source of revenue for the NCAA. The men's bracket in the March tournament, which sees 68 teams competing for a chance to take home the biggest prize in NCAA basketball, generates approximately $700 million in revenue alone.

"We need to have the tournament," said Duke head men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. "We can’t have it two years in a row you don’t have the NCAA tournament."

Altogether, the men's and women's basketball divisions combine to generate 40 percent of the NCAA's annual revenue, a number that far outweighs any other sport.

The oversight committees for men's and women's college basketball recently voted to request Nov. 25 as a start date. On Sept. 16, the Division I Council will vote to make this date official. But a host of logistical issues threatens to push the start date back, with some sources suggesting Dec. 4 or perhaps even into the next year.

"The first thing to understand is when you're going to play the tournament — start from the end," one conference commissioner said. "If you’re going to try to play the tournament in March, what does that look like? How many games in the regular season"?

For starters, the NCAA has yet to decide how the season will be formatted. There are a total of 357 men's basketball teams, out of which only 68 advance to the final tournament. In a typical year, November would be filled with smaller multi-team tournaments, referred to as MTE's, that would decide which of the 357 teams would be moving on. Yet with late November being the designated start time, NCAA officials are left wondering how to proceed.

Should the MTE's be pushed back, altering the typical timeline to produce a "March Madness" tournament in July? Or should a more radical solution be implemented, one that does away with the bracket slate and instead focuses on a single large tournament that all 357 teams can participate in? 

A large factor in determining a potential timeline is the widespread reopenings of college campuses across the country, and the constant threat of a COVID-19 outbreak that comes along with it.

Many schools, including several high-profile Division I institutions, have opened up, filling campuses with thousands of students and increasing the chances of COVID-19 affecting student-athletes.

The significant negative effects felt by Notre Dame and North Carolina less than a week after reopening their campuses make planning for in-person college sports difficult, which force head coaches to delay practices even further. For most of its medical issues, including COVID-19 testing, Ohio State Athletics Director Gene Smith said that the team will "wait and see and take the advice of (its) medical experts from the Big Ten Medical Task Force" before proceeding.

The NCAA is planning a review process that addresses these issues in the coming days. Tentatively, further meetings with the Council are scheduled for Oct. 13 and 14, in which commissioners and Council members hope to resolve any changes that occur.

Though this situation is fraught with troubles, the NCAA men's tournament could be a turning point. If the current model is successful, it could incite other NCAA divisions, such as football and lacrosse, to resume play as well. A solution to these challenging issues could bring life once more to college sports in an unexpected and unprecedented season.

"We'll figure it out," said NCAA President Mark Emmert.

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