In the middle of a pandemic, Big East commissioner Val Ackerman isn’t going to pretend like the conference can play a full schedule without any issues.
“I can promise you that we’re going to continue to persevere in the coming weeks and months and do our level best to stage a season where disruptions, which are likely to happen, are nonetheless kept to a minimum,” she said.
To accomplish that goal, the league created a COVID-19 task force, which features national health experts, athletics administrators, head coaches, physicians, trainers, operations personnel, and student-athletes. It’s also working with NCAA Women’s Basketball VP Lynn Holzman and the NCAA’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Hainline to keep teams safe and healthy.
Though the December schedule will be played in teams’ home arenas, the idea of using a bubble — similar to what the NBA, WNBA, NWSL, and MLS did over the summer — has been floated as a possibility.
Ackerman said the idea of a “single venue format” — as the league refers to it — is “on the board” but she didn’t commit to the idea one way or another.
“I don’t know that college sports could exactly replicate this sort of really contained, super contained environment that we saw in the summer in the pro leagues,” she said. “But I think there can be a modification of that in the college world that needs to be considered by every conference...That’s certainly on the board for us as we think about our scheduling formats and alternatives to the travel model.”
Luckily, the Big East will have the opportunity to see how a bubble format works for college basketball. Mohegan Sun — the site of the conference’s women’s basketball tournament — will be the home of “Bubbleville”, a modified bubble put on by the casino, the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Gazelle Group — which runs numerous early-season tournaments — will host over 30 men’s and women’s basketball teams over an 11-day period.
“It’s going to be very instructive to us to see what they come up with and how this works out and how the testing on-site works and all the protocols fit together,” Ackerman said. “I think it can actually be very helpful in giving us a sense of what a Big East single venue format might look like later on in the season if we need to go that route.”
Most of the conference’s head coach favored some type of bubble, though Villanova’s Denise Dillon expressed her preference to keep games on-campus to “allow students-athletes to be student-athletes.” A couple of coaches also noted with most of the student population staying home after Thanksgiving break, campuses are close to “mini-bubbles” anyways.
But aside from that, the prevailing opinion among the coaches was that a bubble could work — as long as it didn’t last too long.
“I would be a proponent of bubbles if we can do it,” Creighton’s Jim Flanery said. “I think that’s a great opportunity to get games in, whether it’s a two-week bubble or three-week. I don’t want to do a month or five-week bubble but I think if we could do [one] long enough that wasn’t gonna compromise our mental health but can ensure that we could get four, five, six games in, I think that would be huge because I do think we’re going to have disruptions.”
“I don’t know (if the WNBA/NBA bubble model is) realistic for an entire season for college kids. I don’t know, I would suspect that it’s probably not,” Auriemma said. “So, given that, there may be shorter versions of bubbles for a few games here, a few games there.”
The bigger issue in the eyes of the coaches is NCAA’s 14-day quarantine for (essentially) the entire team if one player or staff member tests positive for the virus. Currently, Marquette’s men’s and women’s basketball teams are both in a two-week quarantine after a positive test within each program.
Ackerman said those guidelines are mandated by local health officials, so there isn’t much the conference can do. But college football players can avoid quarantining by “testing-out” — i.e testing negative a set number of times. In general, the Big East coaches felt it’ll be difficult to pull off a season if the 14-day quarantine stays in place.
“There’s no way we’re going to be able to play with this 14-day quarantine. It’s just not going to happen,” Seton Hall’s Tony Bozzella said. “Someone’s going to get sick at some point and then to shut your program down — it’s not 14 days, it’s closer to 20 days because 14 days of non-activity, you need five to four to six days of activity before you really can physically play in a basketball game.”
“When you have a whole program of healthy individuals sitting at home and they’re in their dorm rooms and their apartment, I think there has to be a way that we can look into it a little bit differently than what we’re doing right now,” Marquette head coach Megan Duffy added.
Though Ackerman emphasized that maintaining the health and safety of the players and staff members is the league’s top priority, everybody still wants to play basketball. So when asked what a successful season looks like to her, Ackerman’s answer was simple.
“Success is ending the season with a Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. A Big East tournament at Mohegan Sun arena,” she said. “And then an NCAA tournament, whenever that is played.”