The West Coast Conference was one of the few to complete its conference basketball tournament last March before the COVID-19 pandemic applied the brakes on the sports world, including the NCAA Tournament.
Not quite a year later, discussions are heating up about should happen with the WCC Tournament, scheduled for March 4-9 at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, and conference tournaments across the country.
In a normal season, conference tournament games occupy television screens, buzzer-beaters are celebrated and it’s an ideal lead-in to March Madness. This has been anything but a normal season with the virus reshuffling schedules and plans. The result is coaches and athletic directors are weighing the risks and rewards of staging conference tournaments in the short window prior to the NCAA Tournament.
“There are a lot of moving parts to this,” Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth said. “Coach (Mark) Few and I have been talking about it actually for a while. I’ve had conversations with our commissioner (Gloria Nevarez). There’s a lot of things we still don’t know this far out.”
What we do know is Selection Sunday is scheduled for March 14, one day after the conclusion of the Pac-12 and ACC tournaments. The First Four is set for March 18 and NCAA first-round games are March 18-19. The WCC has more wiggle room than many conferences with its title game scheduled for March 9.
The NCAA is requiring players and coaches to have seven consecutive negative tests prior to arriving in Indianapolis. Top teams that are essentially locks for March Madness are concerned about possibly losing key players for the opening rounds should they encounter COVID issues during a conference tournament.
Meanwhile, the WCC has a contract with ESPN to televise several tournament games. The conference also has numerous corporate sponsorships connected with the tournament.
The WCC Tournament has been a moneymaker for the conference, primarily because of the thousands of Gonzaga fans filling hotel rooms and attending games at the Orleans Arena. With few if any fans expected to be allowed to attend this March, the tournament would operate at a “considerable loss,” Roth said.
Questions awaiting answers: How will conferences seed teams if they’ve played varying numbers of games due to COVID interruptions? How much of a controlled environment can conferences realistically maintain at tournament venues? If, for example, Gonzaga opts out of the WCC Tournament, would the tournament winner still receive an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament?
As it has been during the regular season, conferences are studying options and contingency plans. The Summit League and ACC have opted to change venues. The Northeast Conference is planning for a smaller, four-team event with games hosted by the higher seeds.
“I think the right move is let’s wait and see, and see where everything is at,” Few said. “The best thing to do is just see how the league progresses and everything around us is progressing. We already have the protocols now for the NCAA Tournament so we’re already planning for those.”
Cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Tournament resulted in an $800 million loss with $270 million recovered via insurance.
“Remember we need to do what’s best for the WCC, which the best thing you could possibly do for the WCC is accrue as many NCAA (Tournament) shares as possible,” Few said. “That’s what pays for everybody’s bills in the WCC. At the end of the day, I think it needs to be based on that.
“Hopefully, as we progress through the league we’ll get a better feel for what’s the best way to execute that. Is it to try to get a third team in, or is to protect the two teams (Gonzaga and BYU) that are already in? And along with that there’s still some TV contracts, those need to be fed also. There’s a lot of things going on.”
Louisville coach Chris Mack and Pittsburgh’s Jeff Capel told USA Today earlier this week that surefire NCAA teams would have to consider skipping conference tourneys.
“If you’re a team that knows you’re in the NCAA Tournament,” Capel said, “do you take the risk of going or do you say we’re not going to play?”
Roth anticipates conferences taking a close look at their tournaments and formulating plans in the coming weeks.
“What you’re risking is going to another city, staying in a hotel, everybody’s there and a place like Las Vegas isn’t going to shut down for our tournament, so those are valid concerns,” Roth said.
“I would hope that I would have an open mind about what’s best overall, but ultimately what’s best for our conference and the NCAA Tournament. For the NCAA, what’s best is to have all the best teams healthy going into that tournament.”