Rick Pitino Pushes for Shortened College Basketball Season
Citing concerns about COVID-19, Pitino suggested teams “only play league games.”
Will the NCAA heed Pitino’s call for caution?
If you thought that Rick Pitino’s eagerness to finally return to college basketball after nearly three years might outweigh any concerns regarding COVID-19, think again. Pitino took to Twitter on Wednesday to lay out his vision for a safe return for college basketball:
While some may bristle at the suggestion that the college basketball season should be delayed, it is not difficult to understand the motives behind a soon-to-be 68-year-old coach stumping for the cautious approach. With the unpredictable nature of the current pandemic, concerns regarding health and safety must be paramount in any discussions about how to bring back college hoops.
There is a key caveat in Pitino’s plan, however. Not only is he calling for a shortened season, but he is also suggesting that teams forgo their non-conference slates, and instead play only their conference games. The push to “only play league games”, as Pitino wrote, has been a point of contention among many people, including those who support the idea of delaying the season:
It has been nearly 40 years since Pitino was head coach at Boston University, and he has spent the time since then at the highest levels of basketball. He might be forgiven, then, for overlooking just how financially vital the non-conference season can be for smaller schools that depend on the money they earn from playing teams like Kentucky and Louisville in the early part of the season. This situation rings especially true for many HBCUs, some of whom will spend the entire first two months of the season traveling across the map just to keep the lights on. And Pitino’s own Iona team would find itself in a similar predicament if it only played against its MAAC brethren.
Aside from the dire financial straits, it could cause for some schools, another wrinkle in Pitino’s plan to eschew the out-of-league matchups is the potential effect that it could have on the world of analytics. The non-conference season provides the context that is required to judge one conference against another; without those games, there is little in the way of hard data to gauge how the Mountain West stacks up against the WCC, for example.
For his part, analytics guru Ken Pomeroy suggested on Twitter that if the non-conference season was canceled, he would “use preseason conference rating as an anchor” for comparing conferences in his KenPom ratings. It is unclear how the NCAA’s rating system, the NET, would account for this change.
Still, even if the rating system can handle the lack of non-conference play, Pitino’s model might make it difficult for mid-majors to secure the early upsets they often need in order to be considered for an at-large berth, and would all but certainly tank the Strength of Schedule metric for any team outside of the NCAA’s top seven leagues, including the Mountain West.
Consider the fact that San Diego State still had doubters after its incredible 30-2 season, because “they didn’t play anybody”. Those types of arguments have generally rung hollow in the past, but if the season were to be curtailed in such a way that Mountain West teams were left only to play themselves, it would become difficult to see a path to an at-large berth. The NCAA would almost certainly need to come up with a contingency plan to avoid further exacerbating the existing narrative that mid-majors don’t always get a fair shake with the Selection Committee.
While Pitino may not have stirred up much support for his call to pass up non-conference play, he does seem to have some backing for his push to delay the start of the season. Jeff Goodman of Stadium noted he has heard rumblings in the same vein from other coaches, and there is a chance that Pitino coming forward with his opinion could provide clearance for others to do the same.
The NCAA, on the other hand, has yet to announce any delays to Division I sports in the fall and winter. Its president, Mark Emmert, told Seth Davis of The Athletic just last week that it might be possible to see the season start even earlier than expected, though, given the recent spikes in COVID-19 in some parts of the country, that projection may look overly optimistic in hindsight.
Our own Jeremy Mauss has already tackled the topic of whether it is too soon for college football to return, and it stands to reason that these same conversations will start gearing up in the coming weeks as the usual start dates for sports approach. For now, college basketball — like all of us — will just have to wait and see how this all plays out.