What to know about college basketball’s season and the 2021 NCAA Tournament: A Q&A with the NCAA’s Dan Gavitt

Wednesday was a highly anticipated day in college basketball. We now know the season’s start date will be Nov. 25 — or at least that’s the hope. Shortly after the Division I Council finished its four-and-a-half hour meeting Wednesday, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt spoke with CBS Sports to provide more information and insight into the decisions that were made — and just as important, the decisions that were not made Wednesday.

We have a season start date, but why not testing rules yet? And everyone wants to know the status of the NCAA Tournament and what could change there. Gavitt gets into those topics and much more below. 

CBS Sports: What was college basketball’s biggest challenge in getting to this day and deciding this Nov. 25 date?

Dan Gavitt: I think trying to get consensus. Because a lot of different opinions — many valuable opinions — the uncertainty of a pandemic is a challenge for all of us, and college basketball is no different. So, I’m not sure that there’s an absolute right or wrong answer. But listening, getting all different opinions, making sure that all perspectives were considered, and ultimately we tried to get to a unified consensus, that was probably the largest challenge.

CBS Sports: The initial suggested date was Nov. 25, then the oversight committees met late last week and agreed on Nov. 21. I understand that influence and considerations for not only MTEs but television partners went into that discussion but at the end of the day, now we have Nov. 25 again. What were the biggest reasons for making that change?

DG: Well, the entire plan is based on health and safety. And that was primary, was all along, and certainly is with today’s decision. We know that at least 76% of all Division I schools will be done completely with their first semester, including exams, or at least have broken with in-person instruction and gone to virtual learning and online exams by Nov. 25. Nov. 20, only five days before then, it’s only 43% of Division I schools are in that situation, so optimizing the most controlled and least populated date on college campuses was a pretty big portion of this decision.

CBS Sports: Do you anticipate that there will be a healthy amount of nonconference games attempted to be played as soon as possible after Nov 25?

DG: That’s the hope. The two basketball tournament committees — men’s and women’s — weighed in here and made a recommendation for schools to consider playing a minimum of four nonconference games against Division I teams. It’s not a requirement because they don’t have the authority to require that — those are institutional and conference decisions. But for the best interest of college basketball overall, for the benefit of the tournament selection and seeding process, they believe that having some number of nonconference games leading into what will be primarily a conference season this year is in the best interest of the game overall and should be taken into serious consideration by all schools. It’s meant as guidance and direction in a time period when making decisions without any kind of direction or guidance can be really challenging.

CBS Sports: Taking into account everything that needs to go into having a season — TV, building nonconference schedules, conferences figuring out their league play — would you say the sport is ahead, behind or on schedule as of today?

DG: Well, I think a couple of things. One is the Nov. 25 date is somewhat aspirational. It’s based fundamentally on testing being available widely. And we believe from our medical advisory group that it will be. And so it’s based on that fundamental. We’re going to continue to check in on on that and other things to make sure we’re proceeding to a successful start on Nov. 25. But I wouldn’t go as far as guaranteeing that we’re going to start on Nov. 25 because we’re going to be driven by healthy, and safe, protocols. This will require a significant amount of rescheduling potentially, and the oversight committees understood that, but this is a plan to give college basketball the best opportunity to start the season successfully. 

So, are we behind? Yeah. I mean in a normal year, certainly behind because we’d be starting practice two weeks from now if things stayed the same with a Nov. 10 start. That’s one of the reasons why it’s been delayed by two weeks to give more time for programs, student-athletes to get prepared physically and mentally. One of the things that was a big part of this package that hasn’t been talked a lot about is there was significant concern from from coaches from athletic trainers and team physicians that, in many cases, because student-athletes have been home since early March, that they may not be prepared to start practice in the season, physically and mentally, and having a longer time period to get prepared is an important part of this. So starting on Monday, we’ll go from eight hours of countable athletic related activity, of which four can be on-court, to 12 hours, in which eight can be on-court. That’ll last from Monday the 21st until Oct. 13 — three weeks of a kind of ramping up period before practice officially starts on Oct. 14.

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CBS Sports: How much did starting the season on Nov. 25, a Wednesday, a day without football, also factor into this, because that does not seem like it is an inconsequential detail.

DG: One of the things that was considered a lot today in the Council meeting, and even last week, is that in this COVID environment having a season start Saturday, Nov. 21, for example, is challenging operationally on some campuses because if those campuses are also playing college football games even under normal circumstances it can be difficult to have a college football and college basketball game on a campus in the same day. With the protocols for safety and health that are in place, and security around COVID-19, it’s even more magnified to be challenging, so that that was a consideration around starting the season on the weekend versus starting midweek.

CBS Sports: How much do you think the relative success of the college football season is going to factor into college basketball starting on Nov. 25? For example, getting the next four weeks’ worth of games and not seeing a spate of games postponed due to coronavirus?  

DG: Potentially, sure.

CBS Sports: Are the oversight committees prepared to advise college basketball season to begin in December or January if necessary, and have the committees at least had informal contingencies about those discussions to this point?

DG: Everything was considered over the last couple of months. One of the initial proposals was a Dec. 4 start. And then there was, as you know, there were some that were advocating just to wait to start the season after Jan. 1, including at this point as we know the Pac-12 and the Ivy League. While they may not have been advocating for that, they’ve already made that decision. So, I mean anything and everything was considered. And as I said we’ll continue to monitor how we’re proceeding toward the Nov. 25 start date. We’re hopeful and semi-confident that that’s going to be when we start, but if it can’t be when we start then we’ll revisit it.

CBS Sports: And though the start date is the big headline, to you, what is the next most important decision made for college basketball on Wednesday that people should keep at the front of their minds? 

DG: I think, competitively, people would focus on the maximum and minimum number of games, because it has impact competitively on a teams’ schedule and potentially on their access and qualification for the NCAA Tournament. The minimum number of contests will be 13 games against Division I opponents. So conferences may make the decision to play a slimmed down season and approach qualification with their AQ that way. And then others of course will hope to play the maximum number of contests. But it was widely supported not just by the oversight committees but by the Council also and conferences of not leaving the maximum number of contests at 31. When you lose two weeks of the season, essentially a minimum of four play dates, the contraction of the season by four games, so as not to encourage or incentivize trying to squeeze games in an already challenging season.

CBS Sports: I want you to address the biggest challenge facing college basketball right now and provide as much explanation as you can about what hasn’t been done so far. As I understand it, the NCAA at large really only has a say over three major factors pertaining to the college basketball season: when it can start, how many games are allowed at maximum/minimum, and then everything connected to the NCAA tournament. Is that right?

DG: By and large, but there’s other things — I mean, in this in this environment there’s also the potential, as there was for fall sports to have medical policies in place, and in this case testing protocol. And we do expect that that will be part of this. A requirement of testing per week will be fundamental to all of this.

CBS Sports: Was that voted on Wednesday? 

DG: No. There’s a new COVID-19 Medical Advisory Group that Dr. Brian Hainline is overseeing that’s inclusive of some members of the first group he had but also, more so other members from NCAA institutions. They’ve started meeting just this week and they’ll have more meetings in the coming weeks. They’ve got initial thoughts in that area and they’ll be releasing an updated re-socialization of college sport focused on basketball that will be part of all of this.

CBS Sports: OK, so circling back to my setup. The sport is now facing a logistical nightmare in regard to nonconference scheduling. You will have all of these schools and all of these leagues understandably looking out for their own interests for the most part, but with the calendar getting hacked by two weeks and a scramble on to get games in, are you concerned about college basketball eating itself out from the inside before we get to league play and having a situation where some teams get the benefit of eight-or-so nonconference games while others might struggle to even play three?

DG: No, I wouldn’t be concerned about that right now. We’ll see how it plays out, but nonconference games come in a lot of different shapes and sizes, right? Ultimately, it’s up to the institution and conference to figure out what nonconference games make the most sense for each program. In some cases, we know those are MTEs or high-level doubleheaders and standalone events or conference challenges. In other cases they’re great local rivalries that you get on a bus and go across town to play. I think every college basketball program has nonconference opponents that they can access. In this scenario, they may have to reschedule or reconsider some level of their schedule. But I think we believe that everybody has the opportunity — it’s how it can be reimagined.

CBS Sports: What about the challenges still facing most schools and conferences: the cost of testing. The recommendations are expected to be three times per week minimum. Having spoken to coaches in many leagues, I can say there are schools that haven’t tested more than twice in two months to this point due to lack of resources. Have you received feedback from most if not all 32 leagues that such a situation can change by the end of November, and if not, is college basketball facing a severely fractured start to its season if you don’t have a situation where a lot of these leagues and schools might not be able to meet the NCAA’s required threshold for testing?

DG: This decision that is fundamentally based upon the access and availability of testing, and testing that we understand and know in some cases now is more affordable. So, that is part of this. If that does not come to pass by late November, it may well be that this gets revisited. Upon which parameters? We don’t know yet. But it is based on, again, first and foremost is the health and safety of players, coaches, referees and anyone else around the game. And the only way that you can have a high level of confidence there is regular and accurate testing — and quick turnaround on those testing results. So that is also part of reason why Nov. 10 wasn’t seriously considered, because that two weeks may make a difference.

CBS Sports: The D-I Council is scheduled to meet again a little less than a month from now. What do you anticipate the Council will be voting on as it pertains to college basketball then?

DG: Voting on? I don’t know, legislatively, what would need to change. The game operations and protocols is probably not a legislated item. Those are going to be best practices and guidance rather than a legislative change. Certainly the Council is going to continue to monitor testing availability and access and revisit the start if need be. And the other thing that the Council will likely take up in October is eligibility and seasons of competition, which you know they did with fall sports. So student-athletes know what their options may be before the season starts.

CBS Sports: You’ve stated a few times that the NCAA Tournament as of now is still planning to be held as scheduled, in mid-March, at all 14 sites and with 68 teams. But at a certain point that is going to need to be reemphasized to the membership because there’s clearly a cloud of uncertainty hanging over that. So here on Sept. 16, how close do you think we are we to knowing when the NCAA Tournament will be scheduled and/or an official acknowledgement of those dates being reaffirmed?

DG: That’s still the plan and preference as of Sept. 16. But we have been and will continue to working on contingency plans.

CBS Sports: Is there a healthy possibility that for one season the tournament would consider just going to 64 teams?

DG: I don’t know, just at this point. It’d be premature to comment on that.

CBS Sports: Have you run through circumstances yet about what would happen or need to happen if the tournament would have to shrink to, say, 48? The reason why I’m asking is you’ve said before there’s a decent chance we could start the season and really not know the format of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. So, what kind of circumstances would need to arise to for you to even consider shrinking the tournament, and do you still maintain by the time we start the season we won’t know for sure the the format?

DG: Again, I think it’s premature. I mean, we’re only six months removed from the start of this pandemic, right? And we still have quite a lot of time before the tournament is scheduled would start. We’re going to be guided by science, we’re going to be guided by safety and health, and we will consider changes as necessitated by all that. But, you know this, you can look at that both ways. There’s hope and optimism of all sorts of developments between now and March 2021, or there may not be, in which case,  decisions will be necessitated in a different way. So we have we have a lot of contingencies, we have a lot of plans that if needed to be activated will be, but Sept. 16 is not the time to consider that or even comment on it.

CBS Sports: When is the tournament selection committee scheduled to meet again?

DG: They meet every two weeks. 

CBS Sports: And that meeting is kind of surveying the scenery, if you will, but nothing expected to be imminent in terms of anything of consequence related to the 2021 tournament in the next two-to-four weeks?

DG: Yeah, I’d say it’s probably true. I mean, it’s not just surveying the scene. It’s actually, actively working on planning around contingencies, planning around selections and seeding. It’s not just, you know, “Here’s an update on what testing availability or community spread or availability of venues that could host fans are.” I mean, it’s all of those things but it’s really more granular into, “OK, of these two, six, 50 different contingencies, what can we eliminate and what should we continue to be actively working on if needed be.”

CBS Sports: And what about event organizers? I know some have reached out to you in an effort to help college basketball pull off a nonconference season in pods and/or bubbles. Is that something you expect to be prominent in as many as eight or more cities in November and December? 

DG: I think today’s decision helps everybody to move forward with decision-making and planning. That’s what the goal was all along. There was a natural waiting to see what the plan was, so now decisions can start to be made and that includes event operators, whether they be traditional MTE event operators, or you mentioned event operators you know that are looking at creating different bubbles and scenarios where teams can congregate to play nonconference but even conference games. Having talked to many of those, I think they have plans in place that couldn’t start to operationalize those until there’s some certainty on when we’re going to start and what the what the format might look like for the season. Now there’s that certainty at least and I think they’ll proceed with drawing up those plans — and they’ve already started to reach out to teams to gauge their interest in, and now think decisions can start to be made.

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