Are college basketball's conference tournaments in jeopardy?
By Mark Titus
FOX Sports college basketball analyst
THE OPENING TIP
While the majority of us have been locked in on the fall of college basketball’s blue bloods and the rise of teams such as Alabama and Oklahoma, a different topic of conversation has been lurking in the shadows for the past few weeks, and it is slowly making its way to the forefront: Are conference tournaments in jeopardy?
If you’re out of the loop as to why this has suddenly become a hot-button question, here’s the gist: On Jan. 19, the NCAA locked in dates for the 2021 NCAA Tournament. This was obviously a welcome event, in the sense that it made it feel more real that the tournament was actually happening this year. The problem, though, was that the NCAA painted itself into a corner by not leaving much room for flexibility in dealing with a potential coronavirus outbreak.
The issue with the scheduling rigidity is that essential personnel — players, coaches, staff, etc. — are required per the NCAA’s protocols to test negative for the virus seven consecutive days before they are able to participate in the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, more than half of the conference tournament title games (including those for all of the major conferences) are scheduled to take place the weekend of March 13-14. With the NCAA Tournament scheduled to kick off March 19, that means there won’t be enough of a "buffer" for teams playing in conference title games to get back to campus, isolate and rack up the number of negative tests they need to be cleared for the start of the tournament.
In other words, teams will have to start their NCAA Tournament testing before or during conference tournaments and cross their fingers the virus doesn’t spread while they’re in an environment with a handful of other teams. According to the following poll, which was conducted by CBS Sports college basketball analyst Matt Norlander, more than a quarter of Division I coaches believe playing the conference tournaments isn’t worth the risk. Perhaps most notable among those is South Carolina coach Frank Martin. Meanwhile, North Carolina coach Roy Williams made it very clear where he stood on the matter, saying, "You know what opting out means? It means you freaking quit."
My thoughts are the same as they’ve been all season: Opt out if you want. Or don’t. Every team should be free to do whatever makes the most sense for it, and I don’t think the issue needs to be made more complicated than that.
I could see some smaller conferences canceling their tournaments altogether because there might not be an obvious financial incentive to have them. But the major conferences aren’t going to throw away the TV revenue unless every team in a conference opts out.
If I’m a power conference, I build my conference tournament bracket with the following rules in place: I treat any instance of an opt-out as a forfeit, and I award my conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid to the conference tourney winner, as has always been the case. From there, I leave it up to individual teams to decide what they want to do. If, in the end, that means Kansas State is playing TCU in the Big 12 title game because every other team opted out, so be it.
As for anyone whining about conference bid collusion (the idea, for example, of Gonzaga opting out of the WCC Tournament so that another team in the conference can take the automatic bid and ensure that two WCC teams make the NCAA Tournament), I would invite them to put on their big boy pants and get over it. The same goes for anyone complaining about how it won’t be fair for the selection committee to have to sort through résumés when some teams are playing conference tournaments and others aren’t. This season is already the most bizarre college hoops campaign of all time, making it near impossible for the selection committee to make sense of imbalanced schedules, teams looking drastically different before and after COVID pauses, and games being played without key players and/or coaches. We’re splitting hairs here when we should be thanking our lucky stars that the NCAA Tournament is happening, given the circumstances.
Within the next week, the NCAA is planning to provide some clarity on how it would handle conference tournament cancellations/opt-outs. In the end, I expect the same thing to happen that has happened this entire academic year with college sports ... pretty much nothing. All of this noise will likely lead to zero notable opt-outs, every team worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid will end up with a tournament bid, and the teams that don’t belong will be sent home as Dick Vitale argues that they were snubbed. Then we’ll all do our best to convince ourselves that everything is operating like "normal" as we watch games in empty gyms with spaced-out benches and coaches wearing masks on their chins.
All that ultimately matters to me is that the path to the finish line is left up to the individual teams, and they can make whatever decision they deem best for themselves, with the understanding that one team's decision has no bearing on what other teams do — you know, as has been the case all season.
We interrupt the regularly scheduled blue blood power rankings to instead talk about all of the absurd things that happened in college basketball this week.
1. Bill Walton eating a cupcake with a lit candle live on the air
... for the second time in a two-year span!
2. Scott Drew saying that Baylor players broke up with their long-term girlfriends this season to "keep the bubble tight and play games"
Now that’s what I call commitment!
3. Boston College's administration being willing to throw its walk-ons to the wolves
News broke Monday morning that Boston College was down to four scholarship players for the Eagles’ game vs. Florida State on Tuesday, which meant BC walk-ons were going to be tasked with matching up with the most athletic team in the ACC. As a former walk-on myself, allow me to chime in with some expertise and say that this situation could be classified as "not ideal."
As more information came to light, it became clear that this decision was not made by anyone within the basketball program and was instead made by Boston College’s administration, which somehow makes the whole ordeal feel cruel to me.
Anyway, after all signs pointed to the game being played, it was mercifully called off … because of Florida State’s COVID issues.
4. Jim Boeheim falling out of his chair as his son hit a shot and got fouled
But wait, there’s more! Boeheim also threw his player under the bus, which isn’t completely unexpected if you know anything about Boeheim, but it is slightly surprising when you consider that these comments came after a Syracuse win.
5. Fran McCaffery saying nothing and everything at the same time in his postgame news conference after a heartbreaker at Illinois
We’ll let the video do the talking ...
No. 7 Ohio State at No. 8 Iowa (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
No. 10 Alabama at No. 18 Missouri (12 p.m. ET, ESPN)
No. 23 Kansas at No. 17 West Virginia (2 p.m. ET, CBS)
No. 19 Wisconsin at No. 12 Illinois (2:30 p.m. ET, FOX)
No. 8 Iowa at Indiana (12 p.m. ET, FOX)
No. 7 Ohio State at Maryland (9 p.m. ET, FS1)
No. 17 West Virginia at No. 13 Texas Tech (9 p.m. ET, ESPN)
This week’s love for the little guy is a bit of a misnomer, as we are giving some shine to 6-foot-11 Utah Valley junior Fardaws Aimaq, who is averaging 15.8 points and 14.9 rebounds per game this season. If you’re wondering just how amazing this is, maybe it will be useful to know that Aimaq is averaging 2.3 more boards than the second-leading rebounder in America and is on pace to have the most impressive rebounding season college basketball has seen this century. Also, Utah Valley’s head coach is Mark Madsen (yes, that one), which might or might not be relevant to Aimaq’s rebounding prowess but is definitely something you should know.
THIS WEEK IN TITUS & TATE
We had a loaded show Tuesday, highlighted by a visit from my co-host on "The People’s Sports Podcast," Charlotte Wilder. We spoke to Charlotte about her being fully responsible for Virginia’s collapse against Virginia Tech. Tate and I also touched on Michigan State’s struggles, John Chaney’s death and Jim Boeheim shenanigans, and we made the case that college basketball needs an Intercontinental Belt.
As always, you can listen to every show and subscribe here.
See you next week!