Now that the Arizona Wildcats know they will be playing basketball this fall, they have to figure out who they’re going to play.
The Pac-12 announced Thursday that its basketball season will begin Nov. 25, just like the rest of the country. But while Arizona originally had several non-conference games scheduled after that date, Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star tweeted that many, if not all of them, are subject to change due to COVID-19.
In case you forgot, here’s what Arizona’s slate was supposed to look like during that stretch:
Nov. 25 at NIT Season Tip-Off
Nov. 27 at NIT Season Tip-Off
Dec. 2 Colorado*
Dec. 5 at Gonzaga
Dec. 9 Cal State Bakersfield
Dec. 12 at Illinois
Dec. 16 Cal Baptist
Dec. 19 at Stanford*
Dec. 22 Montana
*Pac-12 conference game
Pascoe tweeted that Gonzaga is “almost definitely out; Illinois is very iffy; NIT is in question but UA may save some of its non-conference home games if they can be played safely.”
The NCAA is only requiring teams to play four non-conference games to be postseason eligible, a number Arizona can reach simply by playing in the Preseason NIT—if that’s still a thing—and preserving two of its home games against Cal State Bakersfield, Cal Baptist and Montana.
If Arizona wants more, it can either schedule single games (think of a traditional home-and-home series) or partake in a multi-team event.
One challenge with playing mid-majors like Cal Baptist is they might not have the same testing capabilities as power-conference schools—notable because the Pac-12 said Thursday that non-conference opponents must have “minimum testing protocols in accordance with NCAA and Pac-12 COVID-19 Medical Advisory Committee recommendations.”
Any opponent Arizona adds figures to be from the West. Athletic director Dave Heeke said in the spring that Arizona is “ramping up” its scheduling of regional opponents from New Mexico, Utah, Nevada and Southern California in order to reduce travel costs after the athletic department lost millions of dollars due to coronavirus crisis.
Quality teams in that category include UNLV, New Mexico, New Mexico State and San Diego State. Maybe even BYU and Texas Tech, which are a bit further away.
Arizona could also meet those teams at a central location and knock out several non-conference games within a week or two, similar to what the NBA has done in Orlando.
Matt Norlander of CBS Sports reports that as many as 100 men’s and women’s teams from the Big West, Big Sky, WAC, WCC, Mountain West, Pac-12 and Big 12 could play in Las Vegas, which has plenty of hotels and arenas to safely host several multi-team events.
Big West commissioner Dan Butterly spoke to Norlander about the logistics of that:
Butterly said a good schedule template for his league would be five games over a 10-day period in December, ideally once players have finished taking finals. Butterly is equipped to help make this happen; he built MTEs for years when he was running point in the Mountain West for basketball. Arranging schedules for a Vegas bubble-type environment is a bear, but the most obvious way to do it with the least amount of hassle is determining pool play and putting “like competition” in the same pods. Metrics from previous seasons will be used as a compass, taking the best and worst teams and then they’ll work toward the middle.
It is not cheap. Your average November MTE event runs in the neighborhood of $500,000. Add coronavirus testing and the costs spike. But these events are attractive to schools because of the benefit of testing not falling inside athletic-department budget ledgers.
The expectation is rapid antigen testing upon arrival and then every other day during the stay.
As far as Arizona’s conference schedule goes, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said it’s not clear when conference play will start or how many games it will consist of. The Pac-12 was supposed to shift to a 20-game conference schedule this year, including two games in December, but those plans may have to be shelved.
“This is such an unusual year,” Scott said, “that everything is on the table.”