How COVID-19 could affect non-Power 5 leagues making a run to the NCAA tournament

Chris Jans and his New Mexico State team relocated to Phoenix in hopes of getting some much-needed games in for the mid-major school. AP Photo/Jeff Swinger

New Mexico State basketball head coach Chris Jans' new home is still growing on him.

About a week before the season commenced, his team left its campus in Las Cruces, New Mexico, for the Arizona Grand Resort & Spa in Phoenix to avoid its state's ban on games and practices. The Aggies did not have a complete nonconference schedule when they departed but managed to arrange games against Arizona Christian University and Benedictine Mesa -- two non-Division I opponents -- along with a road game against Arizona on Dec. 12.

The team practices in a ballroom that the hotel staff converted into a collegiate court. Each day, the Aggies try to avoid the tourists and travelers throughout the building to minimize possible exposure to COVID-19.

The breakfast is good. Video games and Connect Four tournaments occupy the team's free time. And a staffer recently helped Jans get Netflix on the TV in his room, and Jans was "all excited about it."

"From a coach's perspective, you feel like you're at a holiday tournament," Jans said. "But it's a never-ending holiday tournament. It's a different feel. Our families aren't with us.

"It's not a daily challenge; it's an hourly challenge."

The pandemic has created hurdles for every basketball team in the country, but the coronavirus has had a pronounced impact -- already -- on the non-Power 5 programs. Without the budgets of their wealthier peers, everything from travel to contact tracing and scheduling has been more problematic for America's mid-majors.

For those schools, November and December are lucrative months filled with opportunities to make money through guarantee games. With attendance limited around the country and major TV revenue unavailable to them, mid-majors have never felt more pressure to do whatever they can to play, despite this perilous chapter, even if that means leaving home for a lengthy period to compete.

"The problem is when you're a low-major or a mid-major, you do have to travel because you're going to go out and make money," South Dakota head coach Todd Lee said.

Last year, the Big Ten generated $781.5 million in revenue, so every school in the league received a $55.6 million payout, largely from TV deals attached to football, per USA Today. The revenue for men's and women's sports at South Dakota, Lee's school, South Dakota State, Montana and Montana State combined generated $58.5 million last year, according to Department of Education data. At those schools, a significant portion of that total came from the school itself, directly or via student fees. Those schools are navigating the fiscal fallout from the pandemic, meaning the support could change in the coming months. Ticket sales help, but teams without fans this season can't count on that pipeline, either.

That's why the buy-game opportunities -- which can offer paydays that approach or surpass six figures for those non-Power 5 schools willing to play at bigger schools for such a fee -- are crucial right now. One source in the Western Athletic Conference said one of its schools was set to make $200,000 off a pair of buy games that were canceled due to concerns about the virus.

Beyond the scheduling issues for mid-majors lies an important, and as yet unknown, question: What exactly are we working toward?

Dan Gavitt, the NCAA's senior vice president of men's basketball, announced recently that the annual postseason NCAA tournament (which cost the folks in Indianapolis $375 million because of last season's cancellation) would commence in one city -- possibly Indianapolis -- at multiple sites within the same metro area. It's an ambitious plan for a sport that already has witnessed dozens of cancellations and postponements. Nothing seems guaranteed about a 68-team, one-city event, although Gavitt said the NCAA would offer flexibility and guarantee a payout for each league.

That, however, has not alleviated some of the worries from mid-major coaches who wonder if the NCAA will make room for them amid the chaos in this unprecedented season.

Advancing in the NCAA tournament is an opportunity that helps the bottom line at those schools. Loyola-Chicago generated more than $8 million for the Missouri Valley Conference during its run to the Final Four in 2018. Dwindling budgets and the costs attached to COVID-19 have highlighted financial concerns at some mid-majors, which aren't sure how the coming months will unfold in their leagues.

Among the questions is whether conference tournaments are going to be safe, practical or financially feasible in 2021. Beyond that, leagues are not assured that the ultimate incentive -- NCAA tournament inclusion -- will be on the table this season.

"First of all, the assumption that every mid-major conference is going to be able to have a tournament is ambitious and wishful," said Georgia State's Rob Lanier. "Who knows where we'll be in March?"

"What if it's just a high-major [NCAA] tournament?" said John Becker, head coach of a Vermont program that won't return until Dec. 18. "That's scary for mid-majors. That's what we've feared for a long time."

The WAC stretches from the West Coast (Seattle University) to the Midwest (Chicago University) to the Southwest (New Mexico State). Those logistics and the health and safety protocols they entail are a problem that Jeff Hurd, the league's commissioner, must address. But Hurd said he isn't focused on the NCAA tournament because he is still trying to determine a realistic plan for his league's tournament.

"I'm not as concerned about the decisions at the NCAA tournament level as much as I am concerned about our ability to play a conference season, play and manage games and to play our conference tournament," Hurd said. "That's my main concern."

Hurd said the Power 5's greatest advantage with navigating the current season is access to better travel. Multiple high-major programs take chartered flights, a luxury that would ease some of the concerns about the coronavirus if the WAC had access to it, Hurd said. His league will play a Friday-Saturday, one-site conference schedule to limit cross-country flights this season, but his teams must still journey through multiple airports to reach their destinations during a time when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised limits on travel.

"That's one of the biggest differences," Hurd said. "Those schools are able to travel, by and large, by charter flight. That's not only a resource issue. It's a health and safety issue."

South Dakota's Lee said his conversations with his peers at the Power 5 level have demonstrated the major differences between their experiences around COVID-19. It's not just travel and other accommodations, he said. Having the ability to isolate players in private hotel rooms when they've either been exposed to the coronavirus or tested positive is an advantage too. Some of those schools can devote more resources to contact tracing. And daily testing increases the likelihood of identifying a case and preventing an outbreak. At South Dakota, players are tested three times a week, per NCAA guidelines.

Lee said his trainers do the bulk of the program's contact tracing and are on a team responsible for reviewing video as part of contact-tracing protocols at his school -- a new burden that is largely overlooked.

"I think our training staff and our COVID committee have watched more film than our coaching staff," Lee said. "We're trying to keep guys out of quarantine."

The NCAA's recommendation of a 14-day quarantine after one positive test on a team could change following the CDC's new guidelines (10 days without symptoms and seven days with a negative test) introduced this week. The current NCAA guidelines have created the most challenges for mid-major schools that have followed them. Belmont's Casey Alexander told ESPN his team failed to complete one-third of the 30 allowable preseason practices because of four separate 14-day shutdowns since Sept. 1.

"We were literally just trying to see if they could breathe through a workout," he said. "It's pretty disheartening."

To abide by social distance rules, Craig Smith's Utah State team watches film on the wall of its practice facility that is streamed from a large projector while players and staffers sit at least 6 feet apart. That's not the only adjustment the program has had to make. When he landed in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for the Crossover Classic last week, Smith found out his team would face VCU, not Wichita State, which had withdrawn due to COVID-19 issues.

The on-the-fly realities will define the college basketball season. But Smith said he worries about the opportunities some non-Power 5 schools will have to get on the NCAA tournament selection committee's radar. The NCAA has lowered the minimum number of games to qualify for the tournament to 13. And Gavitt said the NCAA would soon unveil a waiver that can be used by any team that doesn't reach the 13-game minimum. The opportunities to score a signature nonconference win, however, will be limited for mid-major schools.

"The Power 5s, they're going to have Quad 1 and Quad 2 opportunities left and right," Smith said. "I just don't think anything is going to be equitable."

At Vermont, Becker said his team had quarantined for nearly four weeks in the preseason. Those interruptions, he said, have created trepidation among mid-major coaches about their ability to push through the rest of the season.

"We might have one out-of-bounds play," Becker said, citing limited practices. "I think that the fear is one we probably all feel of, 'What if no one in our league can get to 13 games?' How many mid-major conferences are going to be able to make it to the finish line?"

The latter might depend on decisions outside the control of collegiate officials. On the West Coast, both Oregon and Oregon State were granted state approval to compete weeks ago, but Portland and Portland State had to wait for an exemption, which arrived last week after Gov. Kate Brown reportedly said, "It is only fair to give Portland State University and the University of Portland the same opportunity that Oregon's Pac-12 schools have had," during her announcement.

Those differences between the haves and have-nots, West Coast Conference commissioner Gloria Nevarez said, suggest Power 5 schools might have more influence with local authorities as they try to navigate protocols.

In the WCC, Santa Clara University is in a county that recently banned contact sports, forcing the San Francisco 49ers to leave the state and play their upcoming games in Glendale, Arizona. New stay-at-home orders in Los Angeles could impact Loyola Marymount.

"Our league is unique," Nevarez said. "We're in one of the most strict regions in the country."

Tom Wistrcill, the Big Sky commissioner, said he is confident the NCAA tournament organizers will recognize the challenges throughout the collegiate hoops landscape and include every league that is available to play, because, "It's extremely important for our organization for us to stay glued together."

Like his peers, Wistrcill is more concerned about the other variables that could impact the season long before Selection Sunday.

Wistrcill said it's a day-by-day assessment in his league, which has schools spread across eight states. He said his focus is to play as many games as possible and reassess postseason plans as March approaches.

"We don't want to plan for doomsday," he said. "But we haven't planned to play every game, either."

Back in Phoenix, Jans said he'll accept any games. With just three on his nonconference slate thus far and only one Division I school, it's obvious that scheduling has been complicated. Living 380 miles from campus for the foreseeable future hasn't helped.

But Jans said his squad will treat the following weeks like a Saturday morning run at the YMCA and hope it can fill a void on the schedule of a team that needs a last-minute opponent.

"As we watch it all unfold, there are going to be opportunities," Jans said. "We just plan on being a phone call away."

Like mid-majors around the country, he can only wait to see what comes next.