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College Basketball Bubbles Could Work, But Don't Squander December

Instead of waiting for Jan. 1, conferences should start playing after Thanksgiving.

The Pac-12 has already done it.

It looks like the Big 12 is considering it, which means the NCAA likely is considering it.

When the Pac-12 said last week it was halting its fall sports season, the conference also decided there would be no sports at all until January 1, 2021.

It wasn’t long after that when Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard said in a letter to fans that while the Big 12 and the NCAA haven’t made a decision on winter sports, “we believe those seasons would likely not start until Jan. 1, 2021.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has already taken down last season’s winter championships in college sports, all of the spring seasons, and now — with the exception of a few conferences — taken out the fall seasons.

What happens next with the 2020-21 winter seasons remains to be seen.

Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s senior vice-president for basketball, said on Monday that any decision on delaying the start of the men’s and women’s basketball season is expected in mid-January, but that alternate plans were being considered.

It’s something Iowa coach Fran McCaffery hinted at a couple of weeks ago.

“Well, we’re preparing for the season as if it will start normally,” he said. “I think we all have to agree that may not be the case. Maybe January 1 is the magic date. Obviously maybe we have a better chance to have a vaccine by then. Will it be conference-only games? That’s a possibility. We’re all talking about a lot of different scenarios.”

Those scenarios need to include December.

Given the way that colleges around the nation have structured the fall semester, if college basketball is serious about a “bubble” format that has worked in the NBA and WNBA this summer, December is prime real estate on the calendar that can’t be wasted.

The Big Ten, whose response to canceling its fall seasons has been widely criticized, can take the lead on this for men’s and women’s basketball.

A vast majority of Division I colleges are going to online-only classes after Thanksgiving break. That means most students will be gone from campus.

“We have an opportunity from Thanksgiving to the start of the second semester to maybe do a bubble-type event,” McCaffery said. “Maybe that’s something we do. But these conversations are ongoing. Everything is on the table.”

Here’s a proposal to put on the table.

Start the season the weekend after Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving week has always been a prime week for men’s and women’s college basketball, with holiday tournaments scattered around the nation, mostly at warm-weather sites.

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It’s hard to see any of those happening this season, and with college football limited (and maybe not going on at all by that point), Thanksgiving weekend would be a good time to start.

For the Big Ten, why not start with a Gavitt Games bubble with Big East teams? Half the games in Chicago — the new Wintrust Arena downtown connects to a hotel with several others close by — and the other half at a site on the East Coast, with pairings based on geography.

And while there are no Gavitt Games for women’s basketball, why not start an event like that?

For the four Big Ten teams who weren’t scheduled to play in Gavitt Games this season, put together a creative bubble somewhere in the Midwest with teams from other Power 5 conferences that will have the same testing protocols.

An ACC/Big Ten Challenge bubble

The first week of December is traditionally ACC/Big Ten Challenge week.

Again, another perfect situation for bubbles. One in Chicago or Indianapolis, one in Charlotte.

It is likely that all conferences will have the same testing protocols with basketball.

Start the conference bubbles the following weekend

The first weekend in December has become the Big Ten’s opening weekend. It would be a perfect time to start the conference bubbles.

Don’t be surprised if the Big Ten considers a conference-only 26-game round-robin schedule. That would mean 26 games.

So, put schools at four different sites — Chicago, Indy, Detroit and Philadelphia — every weekend for the rest of the month and all of January.

Rotate teams among the four sites, but limit travel for the first two months. For example, Iowa doesn’t go farther east than Indy. Penn State doesn’t go farther west than Detroit.

The bubbles will work in February, too

Even if classes are in session and on campus, if you’re playing on weekends, you can still do the bubbles. Arrive in the city where you’re playing on Thursday. Play games on Fridays and Sundays, and be back on campus by Sunday night.

The hope, of course, is that testing is better, and maybe there’s a vaccine by winter.

But the difference of one month between December and January isn’t much.

There is no sense to waste the opportunity.

McCaffery expects some sort of opportunity.

“I’m certain there will be a college basketball season and an NCAA tournament,” he said. “It may not look like it’s looked in the past, but I feel pretty confident that it’s going to happen.”