Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman is juggling many different scheduling options for this season’s games.
By KEVIN McNAMARA
College basketball may just emerge as a key vehicle to help downtown Providence and the State of Rhode Island awaken from its coronavirus slumber.
The Dunkin’ Donuts Center and the Rhode Island Convention Center are among a handful of venues holding discussions to host a bubble for Big East Conference basketball games, KevinMcSports has learned. Talks are in the preliminary stages and heavily clouded by the Covid-19 virus but scheduling plans for the conference, and all of college basketball, are in a frantic period right now.
Even with the season set to tip off in less than a month, the Big East has yet to unveil its 20-game schedules for men’s and women’s basketball. The conference office and 11 athletic directors are weighing a series of options, with the first being schools hosting games on their campuses or downtown arenas. Dates for some of those games, scheduled in December, were released Wednesday in advance of the Big East’s virtual Media Day.
“We have proceeded with a single-venue format,” said commissioner Val Ackerman. “We are looking at several alternatives to what we call the `travel model.’ That’s Plan A for us.”
As for encountering issues with the travel model, Ackerman said the league is looking at single venue competition for several teams. “Those models are on the table,” she said.
One source told KevinMcSports that the Big East “will try” to have schools host the single games in December but then look to pivot towards a bubble scenario in the first two weeks of January when most colleges are on semester break.
Multiple sources said the Big East is exploring sending all 11 of its men’s teams to the same site; splitting the schools into East and West bubbles; and is even looking at sending all 11 men’s and women’s teams to the same site.
However in order to cut down on travel and reduce the chances of contracting Covid-19, conferences across the country are considering the bubble scenario that worked so well for the NBA over three months in Orlando at Disney World. The Big East is studying the bubble option at neutral sites like Orlando and the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, sources said. But traditional league venues are also being explored with the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence and the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Neb., emerging as possibilities.
“Would we be interested in hosting a Big East bubble or pod, yes,” said Larry Lepore, the general manager of the Dunk and Convention Center.
After watching the NBA and talking to friends in that sport, it appears the Big East coaches are convinced that a bubble is the way to proceed most efficiently.
“Although we’re going to start the season in a travel model,” said Marquette’s Steve Wojciechowski, “the best bet to have a season that best resembles what we’re used to in a lot of ways is a bubble.”
Providence and Omaha make sense because neither is a big city like New York, Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., and offer a centrally located activity area.
The recent rise in COVID cases in the East, and around the country, is weighing on every conversation in college basketball scheduling but school and conference leaders need to explore numerous alternatives and scenarios. Lepore stressed that any questions about health and safety or access for fans at games in the Dunk are premature “but everyone needs to plan ahead and we are talking.”
A positive in pooling several Big East teams together at the same site is the uniformity the teams will have regarding testing protocols. That’s now a major issue in the sport with a proposed ESPN-sponsored bubble in Orlando that was set to host more than a half dozen tournaments being shut down due to disagreements over testing.
Also under current NCAA recommendations and contact-testing guidelines if one player tests positive for COVID-19 during the season, a team could be sidelined for 14 days. That means postponed games so the benefit of playing numerous games in controlled environment becomes paramount.
“The one thing I want to clarify is it’s not an NCAA mandate. It’s an NCAA guideline, that’s what they recommend,” Wojciechowski said. “That walks in concert with what the CDC recommends. That’s what the NCAA has said is the best practice for Division One college basketball. Some leagues have come to the conclusion of other ways to do it.”
Wojciechowski’s team is currently not able to practice because one team member tested positive for COVID-19. He maintained “the one positive test and 14-day quarantine is a challenge, there’s no question about that. There are going to be outbreaks across the country, and across our league.”
Another hurdle for a college basketball bubble scenario is the mandated state quarantine periods. Many states, like Rhode Island, are requiring a 14-day quarantine period for visitors from states with a greater than 5 percent COVID test positivity rate. The only Big East teams that would currently not have to quarantine in a visit to Providence would be UConn, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Georgetown.
A negative test within 72 hours before a visit to the state could waive that provision, however. As one administrator said “we need cooperation from the state, whatever state we play in. These kids get tested three times a week. They’re among the healthiest people around.”
Providence athletic director Bob Driscoll said the Big East “is exploring many options,” and added “while we haven’t gotten any indication that we could host this, I’d be all for it. I think Providence could pull it off and it would be great for some businesses downtown.”
Lepore noted that the state’s facilities can act as a bubble and, more importantly, assist in pulling downtown Providence off the mat. The Omni Providence Hotel, which has been closed all summer, directly connects with the Convention Center and Dunk. The Hilton Providence, which is currently open, sits right next to the Dunk. The doors of the new Providence Residence Inn open directly across the street from the arena.
“This could certainly act as a kick-start for the downtown area with hotels, food services and other parts of the economy,” Lepore said.
There is a desire on the part of the Dunk to host some college basketball games in the facility in January and February in advance of first and second round NCAA Tournament games scheduled for mid-March. The NCAA awarded those games to Providence several years ago and is insisting on holding March Madness, with or without fans. That decision won’t be made for some time but Providence’s downtown hotels are looking ahead to that event.
“We’re working with the NCAA, focused on hosting the tournament and welcoming the eight teams to Providence,” Lepore said.