After professional leagues have (re)started their seasons by successfully cordoning off their athletes from the rest of society, they have been able to play the games without risk of COVID-19. As long as players are not interacting with the public, they cannot bring the virus into the sports infrastructure.
Because of that, each conference should be focusing on how to execute the basketball season as an island. No doubt, the conferences need guidance from the NCAA in terms of postseason start date, contingency plan to it, and minimum requirements for postseason participation. Even without the guidance, there is a clear calendar opportunity for conferences to burn through at least a portion of their conference season.
Thanksgiving is typically a time where college basketball teams head to locations of various warmth for non-conference tournaments. This season? Many schools are shutting down on-campus learning (if it gets that far) until the spring semester.
This truth opens up, in theory, the need for college basketball teams to be at their campus throughout December. So from about November 23rd until into January, conferences can isolate ...somewhere and hoop for a conference season.
Location, location, location
What has always been unspoken about college sports is that they exist in natural bubbles. Each conference should, in theory, have multiple options at their disposal to cordon off a limited number of roads, offer three hots and a cot for each player (and coach/support staff), and play basketball. No need to overthink logistics.
Keeping the examples in house, Carver-Hawkeye offers no such amenities - unless the Big Ten is housing 300 Aaron Whites - as an isolated arena. However, Mackey Arena does. Not only is Mackey on the outskirts of Purdue’s campus, but it is near two separate dormitories and a dining hall.
Further, Mackey Arena has it’s own practice facility while Holloway Gymnasium and Lambert Fieldhouse could be repurposed as additional practice areas. Just over one linear mile needs to be monitored to ensure the bubble is not broken and there is a reasonable amount of space which can be repurposed for academic, athletic, and leisure activities.
Purdue also has an on-campus airport which would allow for transportation to be as clean as at any campus.
The Big Ten’s bubble could be on other campuses which might enable a wider window than Purdue - classes are scheduled to end the Tuesday before Thanksgiving (November 24th) and pick back up January 11th - so just six full weeks of games could be played before students theoretically return for the spring if held at Purdue. Even if only six weeks are available for scheduling, a ton of games can take place during them.
Another thing which feels overthought with other bubble concepts is that just a single court could turn out about 18 games in a week (two per weekday, four per weekend day). That would mean a round robin schedule, or more, could take place in six weeks. With no travel, the players would not be stretched in the same way as they normally would with late night returns and potential back-to-back road games.
How it fits
College basketball is still scheduled to begin November 10th, which means Big Ten teams would have just about two weeks before heading to the bubble. As it stands now, Iowa has nine games schedule (Oregon State in Sioux Falls is not counted in the link) plus the unscheduled ACC and Big East games.
However, just four games take place before the window outlined above.
The end date is 100% arbitrary for this exercise. The NCAA hasn’t provided any guidance if the current start date of March Madness (March 16th) might get adjusted or the tournament be bubbled. But if Iowa were able to fit 17 games in ahead of January 11th, that’d grant them eight weeks to fit 14 (conference or otherwise) for the allowed 31.
Without guidance from the NCAA, it’s impossible to tell what can be managed around the off campus block.
There are still tons of unanswered questions regarding a bubble for collegiate athletics. Even though it seems the Big Ten is exploring them, they need to lock in their own version of a bubble sooner than later. As we are learning with the backlash to the uncertainty the Big Ten conference is injecting into their football plan, credibility erodes when conference members are not on the same page.
It’s important for them to walk and chew gum at the same time and football, the driver of conference revenue, is the walking. If conference basketball is lost because too much time is spent walking, it will be an avoidable mistake.