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Why the WCC’s Las Vegas ‘bubble’ didn’t materialize, and what’s the outlook for the league’s ‘crown jewel’ — the WCC Tournament?

There are contingency plans in place if the tournament can’t be played in Las Vegas — but for now, the league is ‘full steam ahead’ on playing it there

BYU’s bench watches during the final moments of game against Saint Mary’s in the West Coast Conference Tournament, Monday, March 9, 2020, in Las Vegas. The league considered playing the regular season in a “bubble” in Vegas, but ultimately decided against it. But the plan remains to play this year’s WCC tourney if Vegas unless things change drastically.
Isaac Brekken, Associated Press

As the start of college basketball season approached last fall, the West Coast Conference, like other leagues around the country, exhaustively examined how games could be played safely amid a pandemic in enclosed spaces.

The WCC doesn’t sponsor football, so ensuring that basketball games could be played was critical, even while knowing there could be spikes in COVID-19 cases during the winter months.

“Honestly, we considered every scenario. If someone had a crazy idea, we tried to chase it down,” said WCC commissioner Gloria Nevarez. “No matter how crazy the idea sounded, we tried to see if it could be a reality.”

One of those scenarios considered, widely reported in late October, was playing in a “bubble” in Las Vegas. That made sense in many ways, since the WCC plays its annual WCC Tournament at Orleans Arena every March.

The NBA managed to pull off a bubble in Orlando, Florida, in order to finish its interrupted season last summer. Could the WCC replicate that?

Well, that’s easier said than done.

The WCC considered many options, including pods, back-to-backs, travel partners, a bubble, and a single site, in order to safely create a basketball season.

“When you say ‘bubble,’ the NBA had a true bubble. It was a hermetically sealed bubble. What we were looking at was a single site,” Nevarez said. “Of course, we’d have really tight restrictions, probably higher than the local regulations. But we knew we couldn’t pull off a true, NBA-style bubble. That’s just a massive undertaking. What we were looking at was a single site that would solve a lot of issues. There are multiple jurisdictions you have across the states and counties. That’s a challenge.”

Among the many challenges in pulling off the WCC season included handling the officiating of games, with referees, not connected with the schools in any way, traveling in and out of different regions. There are television production trucks and staff that travel as well.

“If you were at a single site, you could solve those issues,” Nevarez said.

On the other hand, NBA findings and surveys have revealed that having student-athletes and coaches locked up in hotels for two or three weeks at a time can be detrimental.

“NBA players struggled with the mental health aspect of it,” Nevarez said. “These adult men are somewhat further along in the maturity spectrum than the college players are in a lot of cases. So it was a whole, comprehensive look at a lot of moving pieces.”

BYU in the mix

BYU deputy athletic director Brian Santiago, who oversees men’s basketball, was involved in the many discussions.

“For sure, (the bubble) was something that was on the table,” he said. “There were multiple conferences around the country looking at those bubble scenarios.”

Santiago said pulling off a bubble would have been extremely difficult and complex.

“When you look at those scenarios, you have to look at what’s in the best interests of the student-athletes. We try to make all of our decisions on what’s best for them,” he said. “When it came down to it, it wasn’t really feasible. It wasn’t financially feasible for the conference or the schools in the conference. I also don’t think it was logistically feasible.

“Is it really the best thing to quarantine? Can you have a true bubble if you go to Las Vegas? Can you have a true bubble in the hotel? The NBA was able to do it because they were able to spend unlimited resources down in Florida to make sure it happened.

“The lengths that they were able to go, resource-wise, is not a feasible situation for college basketball,” he continued. “Not only for the student-athletes, but you have coaches that you’re asking them to leave their families for a month at a time. You start looking at taking these student-athletes away for a month, it was too complicated.”

Ultimately, as the start of conference play got closer, it became clear that teams were settling into the routine of frequent testing, playing nonconference games, flying to different locations, and the protocols.

“Student-athletes were at least in their own beds and had the social interaction of their teams and the familiarity of their campuses,” Nevarez said. “At the time, we were feeling good about how we’re traveling and the institutional protocols to stick with the status quo, knowing that we’d have interruptions.

“We had also seen how football was making it work. You just had to be ready to go every weekend. Take a look at the schedule — who’s idle, who’s on pause? Ready, go. That’s where we ended up.”

The WCC’s basketball liaison, Aaron Woliczko, the senior associate commissioner of men’s basketball and sport administration, has been busy since the pandemic started.

“He’s a gym rat,” Nevarez said of the former Pacific player, assistant coach and head coach at Montana State. “In a normal year, he creates the conference schedule and oversees creating schedules for all of our sports. He creates a schedule and oversees the officiating.

“ In this year, if that guy had a dollar for every mock schedule and concept he drafted up and then lit on fire, he could be retired. He has been amazing. He’s active every week as teams go on pause, working to match up idle teams and assist in rescheduling postponed games. His life is 24-7 since we left the tournament last March.”

Other conferences have come up with their own scheduling formats. The Mountain West Conference, for example, has its teams playing back-to-backs, two games against the same opponent during the week, cutting down on travel, travel expenses and travel-related logistics.

“Everybody was trying to figure out what was the best way and the safest way to get these games in,” Santiago said. “Everybody’s gone to their own scenario to try to get their games in. The WCC has decided they were going to do the status quo and do the schedule as is and schedule make-up games as necessary.

Rescheduling games

“Certainly in the first two weeks, there were a number of games postponed that have had to be rescheduled. That’s been very interesting.”

At one point, half of the league’s teams were on pause due to COVID-19 issues. BYU, for example, had its first three conference games postponed. But games are being rescheduled.

“I think it’s going as best as we can expect,” Nevarez said. “Obviously, there are so many unknowns. You’re always going to have that random case where an official didn’t get their test back on time. Or someone on a team had a false positive. But our folks are really working through it. I couldn’t be more pleased with the collaboration and the cooperation and the flexibility that we’ve had between the leadership at our institutions, specifically our athletic directors.

“They’ve been amazing. BYU agreeing to play the No. 1 team, Gonzaga, in the nation on a day-and-a-half’s notice? Wow. That’s everybody rolling in the same direction. … Our schools have been phenomenally flexible, always with the best interest of our student-athletes first and foremost, but ready to do what they’ve got to do.”

Saint Mary’s Jordan Ford looks to pass as BYU’s Alex Barcello defends during game in the West Coast Conference Tournament Monday, March 9, 2020, in Las Vegas. Saint Mary’s won 51-50.
Isaac Brekken, Associated Press

What about the WCC Tournament?

There is less than two months until the WCC Tournament is scheduled to tip off in Las Vegas (March 4-9 at Orleans Arena), featuring 20 teams — 10 on the men’s side and 10 on the women’s. During a normal year, there’s also thousands of fans, officials, conference and school administrators, media and television production staff to worry about.

What is Nevarez’s outlook for this year’s tournament?

“In this environment, we have contingency plans behind everything because that’s just the prudent thing to do. Right now, we’re optimistic,” she said. “We have four other leagues that are tipping off in Vegas. We began meeting regularly with them, in order that we’re coordinated and all sharing the same information.

“The city of Las Vegas will begin reviewing this week the large gathering protocols and permissions. We’re still tracking in a positive direction. In a normal year, I would be saying, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s Jan. 15, the tournament is just around the corner.’ In COVID, that’s a lot of time. We’ve shown that we can pivot if we have to — move it to a campus or do whatever. But right now, we’re full steam ahead working on Vegas.”

Will fans be allowed to attend?

“We’re planning on it without fans,” she said. “If we can have fans, great.”

It’s extremely important that the tournament is played, in terms of revenue generated, exposure, and helping catapult teams into the Big Dance — as long as it can be done safely.

“The tournament is definitely the crown jewel of our conference operations and events. It is a sold-out event every year. Last year, it was amazing,” Nevarez said. “It’s been sold-out every year since we began in Vegas (in 2009). It’s been amazing. That’s the biggest feel-good about the student-athlete experience.

“Secondly, our ESPN exposure during that event is amazing on both the men’s and women’s side. We’re very fortunate. Leagues our size don’t have that kind of tournament exposure. Typically, we send multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament. Our WCC event has definitely been a platform to doing that in a lot of years.”

Getting to the Big Dance

How difficult will it be to pull off a conference tournament during a pandemic? There’s still a lot of uncertainty.

“I think there’s a lot still up in the air. They’re planning for a bunch of scenarios, with or without fans. They’re looking at every option and trying to figure out which is the safest. It’s got to be (resolved) over the next month or so,” Santiago said. “They’re looking forward to a tournament but everybody’s waiting to see how it’s going to play and what the protocols are in Vegas, whether or not they’re going to try to create a mini-bubble for the tournament.

“To do that, then you have to have everybody at the same hotels,” he continued. “There are a lot of logistical things that need to be worked out. They’ve got to see where things are at with COVID. We’re all in a holding pattern. I don’t think anybody has answers as to how it’s going to play out for sure.”

And there are other intriguing issues to consider, such as what if teams play an unequal number of regular-season league games due to COVID-issues? Seeding could be determined by win percentage and tie-breakers could be determined by the NCAA’s NET rankings.

Those are issues that could make seeding in the NCAA Tournament troublesome as well.

But after the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled, everybody just wants it back in March. The NCAA has announced that the Big Dance will be held entirely in the state of Indiana, with the Final Four scheduled to be played in Indianapolis.

BYU coach Mark Pope is on board with that plan. Last year’s tournament was canceled due to the virus and the Cougars were set to return to the tournament as a single-digit seed.

“I’m just grateful that people are trying every way possible to make the NCAA Tournament a safe reality,” Pope said.

“I like it because they’re trying to figure out how to have a tournament,” Santiago said. “I hope for the student-athletes’ sake that they get to play in it.”