Basketball

What elements of college basketball’s pandemic season are here to stay?

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INDIANAPOLIS — In the days leading up to his team’s Final Four matchup against Houston on Saturday, Baylor coach Scott Drew will focus primarily on the X’s and O’s in a game pairing two Texas powerhouses. The Cougars could be a handful. But Drew said he at least knows he’ll face that challenge while feeling comfortable on the sideline in casual clothes instead of a suit.

“One thing I know for sure,” he said, “is dressing like we do now [shouldn’t change].”

That sentiment won’t make Drew’s tailor happy, but coaches dressing down is but one element of an unprecedented season, impacted by a once-in-a-century pandemic, that college basketball could permanently adopt in the coming seasons.

Stakeholders within the game will welcome a return to the more traditional elements that have shaped the sport. The lively crowds should come back next season and restore the atmosphere that makes college basketball one of the most exciting sports in the country. Apart from that, however, coaches, players and administrators are currently debating whether some of the changes this season, such as creative scheduling, could enhance the game in the future.

Schools were forced to shred their schedules in 2020-21 as conferences focused on solidifying their league slates and avoiding unnecessary risks from traveling or hosting nonconference matchups. That disruption, however, also created opportunities. Teams began to schedule games on the fly, sometimes with just a few days’ notice.

UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond said the future might include major conferences blocking out a stretch of each season that would allow teams to schedule impromptu games.

“[Some] mid-majors do it now, but Power 5 schools should look at having a flex week,” Jarmond said. “I would need to think about it more. It’s something to look at.”

It’s an idea that’s backed by Craig Robinson, executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, too.

“Teams should be open to playing new opponents and adjusting schedules on the fly if needs arise,” he said.

Big Sky Commissioner Tom Wistrcill said his league has already had meetings about possibly maintaining the more fluid scheduling options they used this season. His conference also played Thursday-Saturday, back-to-back matchups throughout the 2020-21 season to cut back on costs and minimize potential COVID-19-related challenges. That could become a permanent fixture in the league, too.

“We haven’t made any decisions as a group, but I love the flexible scheduling idea,” he said. “I also think some back-to-backs could help reduce travel costs, which have gotten out of hand.”

The limited travel, to some coaches and others attached to the game, has been a plus during a one-site NCAA tournament held in Indianapolis in recent weeks. There are no signs that the NCAA will pursue a similar event in the future — is there a city that could adequately accommodate 68 fan bases at once when spectators return? — but there are advantages to doing it this way on a more limited scale.

Oklahoma State’s Mike Boynton said there could be an opportunity to turn a one-site NCAA tournament into a great event once fans return because it limits the burden on supporters who follow their teams around the country.

“I think [without the pandemic], we can create an even greater environment,” he said. “Plus, less stress on families having to travel multiple times in a short span.”

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No. 11 seed UCLA knocks off 1-seed Michigan as the Bruins advance to the men’s Final Four for the 18th time in program history.

Ohio State head coach Chris Holtmann echoed that idea, saying the use of one site, beginning with the Sweet 16, could be a great way to end each season.

“The idea of having one site for the Sweet 16 and Final Four is worth considering, for sure,” he said. “I think, in a normal year, it would really add to the experience for both teams and fans.”

Not everyone agrees that the one-site format, however, is best for the sport.

After leading his school to the national semifinals for the first time since 1984 on Monday, Houston coach Kelvin Sampson celebrated at Lucas Oil Stadium with his players, but noted the inability to interact with a diverse collection of fans in multiple cities, some of whom don’t get regular opportunities to attend games.

“I don’t think we should keep it at one central site, though, because I don’t think that’s fair to the fans,” he said. “College basketball is for the players and the fans. … Not everybody has the money to travel. There is kind of something romantic about applying for NCAA tickets and finding out you got it and planning your year around that. I think there is something really, really exciting about that.”

Added Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner: “I think you have to do multiple cities. That’s part of the fanfare. That’s part of a home-court advantage.”

It’s also important to note that this NCAA tournament hasn’t happened at one site, or even one city. Early matchups in West Lafayette and Bloomington sent some teams on bus rides around the state.

“Bloomington was an hour and 10 minutes away. It was too far,” one Division I coach said. “The games at Hinkle Fieldhouse were [scheduled] too close together. Both teams were on half the practice gym at the same time and only got 30 minutes on the main floor. It felt hurried and rushed.”

While the one-site concept generated strong takes on both sides, those who spoke with ESPN seemed to agree that the scheduling shift for the NCAA tournament was a welcome adjustment. The Monday-Tuesday format for the Elite Eight was celebrated by most of those polled. And multiple stakeholders said some of the behind-the-scenes changes, such as videoconference meetings with recruits, might remain — even when coaches can get back on the road.

Other intricacies that players, staffers and coaches noticed — and the casual fan might have ignored — could affect the game in the future, too. Widened areas around team benches — another COVID-19-related adjustment this season — were necessary but challenging, per multiple people who spoke to ESPN.

“I hope we return the benches to normal,” Holtmann said. “I think it limited the camaraderie of the game experience for a team this season.”

The limited capacity in arenas, however, made the energy within each team a vital resource during games. Purdue coach Matt Painter said he’ll continue to demand that support from his team even when crowds return and “keep the emphasis of bringing energy like you would in an empty gym.”

He also said health protocols and precautions around interacting with one another could remain when buildings are full again. Painter said he thinks teams will continue to wear masks and employ other precautions while traveling.

Pastner said he thinks we’ve seen our last handshake lines in college basketball. Even though the country’s vaccination rate continues to increase, he said coaches are now more understanding and cautious of how other illnesses, such as the common cold or flu, could spread to a team and impact its season if they’re not careful.

“I think we should avoid shaking hands after the game,” said Pastner, who added that he doesn’t think his players will share hotel rooms in the future. “I think a fist bump, that’s here to stay.”

With all of these ideas and concepts in flux, college basketball will have to make a number of decisions about what worked and what didn’t in the testing ground that was the 2020-21 season. Per Robinson, college basketball’s powerbrokers and leaders have to be open to conversations about keeping some elements of this chaotic season, if they will help the game.

“A lot of changes were necessary this season, such as unique conference schedules and altered NCAA tournament game days,” he said. “Whether or not these changes remain permanent, our sport should maintain this receptiveness to new ideas. We don’t necessarily have to go back to the way things always were.”

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