Despite uncertainty surrounding college sports and the logistics of how football and basketball seasons could be played safely in the midst of a pandemic, NCAA Senior Vice President of Basketball Dan Gavitt dropped a bomb to begin the month of August.
In an interview with NCAA.com’s Andy Katz, Gavitt not only confirmed the NCAA was still planning an on-time start to college basketball on November 10, but added that he was “certain” they’d find a way to play this season as long as the sport is “being played safely anywhere in the world.”
“As long as basketball is being played safely anywhere in the world this season, we’ll be playing NCAA college basketball as well, both regular season and certainly the tournament in 2021,” said Gavitt. “We’ve got all sorts of plans and alternatives that we’re looking at in order to be able to do that in a safe and responsible way. But a high level of confidence that there’s going to be, while different, a great experience playing college basketball again.”
So what would “different” mean for college basketball? This afternoon, college basketball insider Jon Rothstein broke the news that several power conferences have had early discussions about playing games in a “bubble” type setting, adding that it’s a route gaining traction due to student-athletes’ ability to take online classes.
While the SEC is not one of the leagues in current discussions about a college basketball bubble – Jeff Goodman reported that the Big East and Big Ten were the first two conferences to do so – the Kentucky basketball program has actually established its own bubble to get players on campus and settled in safely.
“We’re safe as long as no one’s breaking the bubble,” UK head coach John Calipari told the media back in July. “We’re just trying to guard against all that stuff. And we’re unique. I mean, we’re in the (Wildcat Coal) Lodge where they’re in a single room with a single bathroom. They walk across the parking lot (and) they’re in a sterile gym that no one else is using. No one else is in the building. Weight training. Conditioning is outside.
“So now all of a sudden—the meals, they’re box meals. The chef makes it, we leave it out. If we’re ordering meals away from campus, they’re delivered outside and no one breaks into the building. You got a sterile bubble that’s as good as it gets anywhere. Now we got to say, OK, they’ve been negative for this period of time, they’re like a family now.”
Kentucky basketball’s bubble has not only allowed student-athletes to move into their dorms and get shots up from time to time, they’ve been able to learn the system with coaches on hand. Before giving players a one-week break to head home and see their families – the team will be back in its entirety on Sunday – UK was able to get its first look at a 5-man offense with the new group.
With Calipari’s self-proclaimed gold standard of sterile bubbles working to near perfection, could the SEC look to Kentucky for inspiration regarding similar on-campus bubbles to resume the season?
Actually, scratch that. How crazy would it be for Kentucky to slightly expand its bubble and host the entire SEC in Lexington?
Let’s take a look at the options on the table and see what kind of pitch UK would be able to make to the SEC.
Kentucky already has the likes of Kansas, UCLA, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, Richmond, Detroit Mercy and Hartford confirmed for its non-conference schedule, with new opponents in Marshall and UAB being added just a month ago on July 7.
In this scenario, though, the SEC would have to move forward with a conference-only schedule, similar to the difficult move they made in football. As tough as it would be to miss out on high-profile events and rivalry matchups, a conference-only schedule would likely be the only way to avoid individual contract disputes with non-conference foes, specifically with smaller schools.
This past year, Kentucky’s SEC schedule began on January 4 with a home matchup against Missouri and ended with on March 7 with a road win over Florida. When you take out the team’s road trip to Lubbock, TX to take on Texas Tech on Jan. 25, the entire 18-game conference slate was completed in roughly two months. The SEC’s ten-game conference-only football schedule is currently scheduled to begin on Sept. 26, with a midseason bye week and open date for all programs on Dec. 12 prior to the SEC Championship being played on Dec. 19. 14 scheduled weeks for the college football season.
The University of Kentucky has announced November 24 as the final day of in-person classes this fall in hopes of getting students off campus by Thanksgiving. After participating in individual preseason camps and getting close to game shape at their own respective on-campus basketball facilities, the other 13 schools could head to Lexington for a quarantine period beginning, say, Saturday, Nov. 14. The SEC and individual schools would have to sign off on athletes moving to online-only classes a week earlier than originally planned.
NBA players, for instance, entered the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex bubble in Orlando beginning July 7 and exhibition games began on July 22, followed by official games returning July 30.
With this plan, SEC teams could potentially begin training camp after quarantining and testing negative, with intraconference exhibitions starting Saturday, Nov. 28 and the regular season beginning a week later on Saturday, Dec. 5.
If the SEC moves forward with a typical 18-game conference-only schedule with two games per week, the league could finish by Feb. 2. Whether they want to add a few more games or take a few away, you’re looking at two months of regular season play, along with roughly two weeks added for quarantine and training periods.
While this scenario would maximize time with students off campus (UK’s Spring Semester is tentatively set to begin Jan. 13), the season could also begin in January and finish “on time” if the SEC is hellbent on pushing things back to 2021.
The “how” is infinitely more important than the “when,” but two months is your rough estimate.
- Rupp Arena
- Joe Craft Center
- Memorial Coliseum
- Johnson Recreation Center/Seaton Center
So how would games be played? John Calipari already has the blueprint for that.
Every summer, Calipari hosts his Fantasy Basketball Experience at UK, where individuals 35 years of age and older pay gobs of money to learn from the Kentucky head coach, along with numerous high-profile celebrity basketball friends of his, and live the life of a UK basketball player at the team’s facilities for the weekend.
While the annual camp is meant for entertainment value and charity, they have mastered the “find ways to play games anywhere we can” method you’d have to have bringing 13 other SEC teams on campus.
In the numerous years KSR has been able to cover the event, the camp has played games on four different regulation courts: one at Rupp Arena, one in a side warehouse room in Rupp’s underbelly, and two at the Joe Craft Center, all equipped with professional scoreboards, locker room access, and referees, the whole nine yards.
Outside of the courts they’ve put together for this annual camp alone, we also have the court in Memorial Coliseum, steps away from both practice courts at the Joe Craft Center. If that’s not enough, you could also work out a deal with Transylvania to play at their home gym, which is a quick shuttle down the street from Rupp Arena.
If you want to reserve the six regulation courts for games only, UK also has numerous on-campus basketball courts, specifically located at the Johnson Recreation Center and Seaton Center (each facility has four regulation courts). Calipari has used both facilities in the past for other summer camps, so odds are slim there would be any pushback there.
It wouldn’t need to get to that point with rotating schedules, but all 14 SEC teams could practice at the same time if they wanted to, all within a two-mile radius.
In the NBA, each team (30 total) allowed 37 people into the Orlando bubble, meaning roughly 1,110 players, coaches, trainers, and medical/equipment staff members needed to be accounted for as a starting point. This doesn’t even consider the fact that families are allowed to enter the bubble and join the players when the playoffs begin.
For the SEC basketball bubble, only 13 new teams are being added to the mix, with each school bringing roughly 30 people along between players, coaches and staff. That brings our non-Kentucky total to 390.
How would we fit nearly 400 people in? Let’s look at the two hotels connected both directly and via covered pedestrian bridge to Rupp Arena.
Hyatt Regency Lexington
- 366 suite-style guest rooms
- BlueFire Bar & Grill, room service (food)
- Direct connection to Rupp Arena
- 4.4 stars out of 5
- 366 suite-style guest rooms
- Bigg Blue Martini and Triangle Grille, along with room service (food)
- Covered pedestrian bridge to Rupp Arena
- 4.2 stars out of 5
While both hotels would have to be willing to close its doors to the general public like the resorts in Orlando did to accommodate the NBA, every player, coach, and staff member would be able to have a suite to themselves, with all teams being within walking distance of Rupp and a quick shuttle away from all other basketball facilities.
If the SEC wants to level the playing field and force Kentucky players and coaches to stay with the rest of the teams at the hotels, there would be plenty of space to safely accommodate them.
As Calipari noted before, players are currently receiving box meals from the program’s professional chefs, along with delivery options available at players’ disposal. If delivered, the meals are left outside for players to pick up to avoid outside contact.
To make things even, the rest of the SEC would have to be allowed the same cooking and delivery options Kentucky receives, along with the aforementioned hotel restaurant/room service options.
For this to work, the NCAA will obviously have to be flexible with schools on food costs, along with travel, housing, and entertainment. If it means saving the season, odds are good they’d be lenient on those fronts.
Speaking of entertainment, how are you going to entertain over 400 college kids during what amounts to a two-month lockdown?
The NBA’s bubble came with a golf course and movie theater, among other built-in amenities UK’s bubble doesn’t currently have.
That being said, LexLive is currently in the process of being built across the street from Rupp Arena, and they’ll be able extend a pretty solid offer to student-athletes.
LexLive is a set to feature a movie theater – which boasts the largest movie screen in the state – a bowling alley, and an arcade featuring video and virtual reality games.
The massive complex doesn’t have an official completion date, but it was tentatively planned to be finished by the end of the summer. With the coronavirus putting the world on pause this spring and to start the summer, who knows when they’ll actually be ready to open, but one would think the opportunity for 400 college kids looking for any and all activities every night for two months straight would be reason enough to kick it into high gear.
Worst case, UK’s brand new student center has a movie theater, as well.
Like the NBA did in Orlando, ping pong tables, board games, cards, and other time-passing activities are easy to add at any point. Nonetheless, the possibilities for fun are there.
If you’re going to use the NBA’s bubble as a blueprint, you’re going to have to incentivize the student-athletes quarantining for two months beyond fun activities and basketball.
With name, image, and likeness restrictions set to be lifted in the not-so-distant future, this could be the perfect opportunity for the NCAA to do right by its players and allow them to put a few extra dollars in their pockets with branding opportunities during the season. The NCAA has already been working behind the scenes about letting players earn money while in school – albeit with significant restrictions – but the change is not expected to go into effect until the start of the 2021-22 academic year. With a significant move like this, though, lifting the restrictions (ones you’re already prepared to life) in time for the season would be fair given the circumstances.
The NBA is in Orlando for roughly four months, but they’re being paid millions. This would “only” be two months, but college kids are college kids. If the NCAA is desperate to make money, allowing the student-athletes to do the same is more than reasonable.