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Amid projected Winter cancellations, NCAA floats idea of an early start to the hoops season

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Too much money to not try; too much uncertainty to finish.

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Major football programs are holding their breath to see how the Ivy league will handle athletics. Harvard, Princeton and the other Big Boys have moved to a hybrid strategy of online classes and rotating attendees, and are the first conference to make call on primarily off-campus instruction. That’s not to say that what Penn or Columbia do will be models for the Big 12 or the SEC; rather, that administrators are weighing options. And what the Ivies do will be instructive.

Nevertheless, is hard to to escape two conclusions about the state of fall sports.

The first, is that everyone’s hair is fire from uncertainty; we are all awash amid rising daily case numbers, conflicting research, and hourly updates that seem to break on the hour. So, you can forgive the FBS ADs waiting until the very last second to commit to a decision. And that is not a decision that will solely be made at the University level. For instance, just yesterday (and over the protest of educators), Florida mandated its public school systems reopen this fall. Three weeks ago, we were just seeing the first spike from Memorial Day reopenings that administrators in Texas, Florida and others have now acknowledged were premature. Who knows what the next three weeks will bring, but there is scant positive news — aside from the mortality rate, which has halved as more testing has been done and the virus begins to make its way through the population a second time. If you have a crystal ball, I will gladly borrow it for August 1st.

The second is that there seems to simply be too much money at stake for the major conferences to not at least give it a shot to the extent of their revenue sports. Alabama athletics made $177 million in revenue in 2018. A number so obscene that not all of the accounting tricks in the world could hide that it still recorded nearly $11 million in profits. And that’s after athletics gave back to the UA general revenue account. No administrator is going to make a decision worth 1/6th of a billion dollars lightly or quickly. For mid-majors and FCS teams, that pressure may be even greater. These are schools without the benefit of semi-pro apparel deals and the distribution of billion-dollar television revenue. Alabama athletics can survive an entire calendar year without sports, Alabama State cannot.

But, even accepting the premise that schools will still give it a shot, there’s no guarantee that we even get through a season at all; not in football, and not in basketball: the latter occurring entirely during cold & flu season and during the projected height of another wave of infections. When I’ve been spitballing about football, I’ve always thought that we get a SEC-only schedule with very limited or no fans. And that it is a season that may not include all member institutions, and will eventually be interrupted and/or cancelled later in the year.

It seems that this is also the thinking of NCAA grand poobahs as well. In an idea floated to conference commissioners and internal oversight committees, the NCAA has requested a feasibility analysis of an interrupted winter basketball schedule, but one that also begins earlier in the year.

The NCAA’s highest-ranking basketball executive has floated the idea to conference leaders about accelerating the start of the men’s basketball season, moving it up two weeks to increase scheduling flexibility and get more games played in event of a winter interruption.

NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt told Sports Illustrated on Monday that he has proposed moving season-opening games from Nov. 10 to Oct. 27, with perhaps a corresponding acceleration of practice from the currently scheduled start date of Sept. 29. The goal is for schools to play something closer to a full slate of regular-season games amid what could be an uncertain collegiate school year both academically and athletically, as campuses search for ways to deal with COVID-19 fallout.

And the mechanics of the proposal are interesting as well:

Gavitt said it is “almost a certainty” that some basketball games scheduled for that window will be canceled...In that scenario, Gavitt’s solution would call for front-loading the schedule with up to four games played per team in that window between Oct. 27 and Nov. 10...Some of the high-profile games subject to being canceled during the winter break might be moved to that late-October, early-November window, or local opponents could be scheduled during that time to limit travel. Playing conference games in that time also could be an option.

You have to give the NCAA some credit for forward planning on this one. The moon-shot vaccine project is hoped to deliver up to 100 million doses of the vaccine...but not until January 2021. That leaves us in the position of getting by the best we can, in a way that emphasizes safety without completely shutting the country down. Indeed, with us hosting the worst outbreak on the planet and cases spiraling out of control, that may be the only real option we have remaining. The nation had the chance in March and April to get a handle on this, and we failed. Thus we must now live with the decisions made in the spring and try to maneuver through this as best we can, with as much commonsense as possible — until a vaccine is available and routine preventive precautions become normalized in public spaces.

If that is the case, then the NCAA’s approach here seems to be a good first step.

Fortunately, that just means we get to see the most exciting Alabama basketball team in recent memory just few weeks earlier.

Glass half-full, huh?