College basketball’s season on the brink

The pandemic has dealt a huge blow to the finances of sports teams, both professional and collegiate. However, most leagues have managed at least to complete their seasons in one form or another.

The NBA and NHL resumed and completed their 2020 seasons in “bubbles.” (The NBA is struggling some with its current season, though.) Major League Baseball had an abbreviated season which, fortunately, produced a worthy champion, not a .500 team admitted to its expanded playoffs, as might have happened.

The major European soccer leagues completed their 2020 season after a few months off, and are well into this year’s competitions. The NFL is about to wrap up a complete season — no shortcuts. College football struggled this Fall but managed to hold its playoffs and crown the right champion.

Only college basketball was unable to do so. The pandemic hit the U.S. just as March Madness was about to begin. The NCAA tournament was cancelled. There is no 2019-2020 champion.

This year’s season is also in jeopardy. The Ivy League cancelled its season. The major conferences are soldiering on, but the sledding has become very tough.

I follow four conferences fairly closely — the Big Ten, the ACC, the Big East, and the Atlantic 10. Last night in the Big Ten, one of two scheduled games was played. In the ACC, it was two of four. In the Big East, one of three, and in the A-10, four of six.

Thus, nearly half of the scheduled games in these four conferences were postponed.

The missed games are piling up. It’s extremely difficult to see every team completing it conference schedule in time for the conference tournaments and the “Big Dance,” which is set to be held exclusively in Indiana starting on March 16. If things get worse, many teams might not even come close.

In that event, it will be impossible fairly to select a field for the tournament. The selection committee would have to compare teams that played half of their conference schedule (some an exceptionally hard part, some an exceptionally easy part) with teams that played their full schedule. It would have to compare teams that had their non-conference schedule largely cancelled with teams that had the opportunity to play virtually their entire one.

The NCAA faced a similar problem with football. For example, Ohio State played only six games, raising legitimate questions as to whether the Buckeyes deserved to be in the four-team championship tournament. (If I recall correctly, the Big Ten had to change its rule on the number of games required in order for Ohio State to play for the conference championship.)

But the NCAA basketball tournament is 17 times larger than its football counterpart. The selection committee will have to choose and seed 68 teams. Thus, it will have to make a huge number of judgments based on what might well be highly inadequate data.

All that said, there’s a good chance the NCAA will be able to crown a worthy champion. The worst selection calls will occur at the lower ends of the brackets. There will be plenty of unfairness, but no team that truly deserves a shot at the title will be shut out due to lack of games.

But will all of the best teams be able to compete in mid-March? Unless the pandemic slows, it may turn out that some of them will be experiencing outbreaks within their ranks at tournament time, and therefore be unable to take the court. A tournament this year without, say, Gonzaga or Baylor couldn’t be considered truly legitimate.

Ideally, the NCAA would have a backup plan for holding the tournament later in the year. However, I don’t know that it has one, or even that one is possible logistically.

My fingers are crossed. It would be most unfortunate to have two spoiled college basketball seasons in a row.