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Same as it ever was? Look closely, and 2020-21 college basketball season has plenty of precedent

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The Division I Council has spoken. The 2020-21 men’s and women’s college basketball seasons will start later than usual and consist of fewer games.

And while the council didn’t offer specific counsel on how conferences will or should determine which men’s teams receive automatic NCAA tournament bids, that too could look different this season. Who knows, before it’s all said and done we may even be looking at a smaller field in the 2020 NCAA tournament.

It all sounds new and different, but, in fact, it’s all old and traditional. We’ve done all of these things before. Let’s consider the precedents for what we know we’re about to see in men’s college basketball and even for what might happen….

Late start

The season will commence play on Nov. 25, which is about two weeks later than what we’re used to seeing. Then again, this new start date was itself the “normal” starting time for most college basketball programs 25 years ago. Playing regular-season basketball (as opposed to exhibition games) prior to Thanksgiving is a relatively recent innovation.

On its way to what would be the 1996 national championship, Kentucky played its first official game of the season on the day after Thanksgiving. In the space of just five years, however, that start date would shift two weeks earlier. By the 2000-01 season, the Wildcats were opening their regular season on Nov. 9.

By starting the 2020-21 campaign in the vicinity of Thanksgiving, we are in effect turning the clock back for one season only (let’s hope) to the 1990s. For anyone who liked college basketball back then, this new start date shouldn’t be a problem.

Fewer games played

The Council set the minimum number of games that an NCAA tournament-eligible team is required to play at 13. The maximum was set at 25, or 27 if a program’s participating in a multiple-team event. Keep in mind in “normal” years teams tend to play more than the minimum number of contests. Last season, the minimum was set at 25 games.

We’ve grown accustomed to seeing teams start the NCAA tournament having already played 30 to 35 games, but, needless to say, there’s nothing magical about that particular range. It has simply become the custom. While there’s no reason why we can’t once again come up with a tournament field sooner than that, the NCAA’s assertion that its NET ranking system is “just one tool” available to the men’s basketball committee should really come into play in 2020-21.

Obviously, not every team is going to get a fair shot at scheduling Quadrant 1 opportunities in a shortened season, one in which major-conference teams will play far fewer nonconference games. (Not every team gets a fair shot at such opportunities in a full season, either.) The committee will have to work overtime to give mid-major programs a level playing field for at-large consideration in a 2021 selection.

Another potential wrinkle for the NET is the possibility that leagues such as the Pac-12 and Ivy may start play later than much of the rest of D-I. If that does indeed occur, the NET rankings for those teams could initially be less reliable than they are for teams that have played more games. Unlike other rating systems, the NET uses no “priors” and is based solely on in-season performance. Vastly different starting dates could make for an interesting set of NET rankings in January and even February.

The good news for the NCAA is that things should settle down evaluatively if teams play enough games. Indeed, we probably know more than we think we know early in the season as far as which teams really are the best in the country. Every year since 2003-04, the eventual national champion’s already been ranked in the top 12 of the AP poll by Week 6.

Awarding automatic bids without conference tournaments

While the D-I Council was silent on the question of awarding automatic NCAA tournament bids in a shortened season, NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt has already raised the possibility that leagues could hand such bids to regular-season champions in the absence of a conference tournament.

This of course used to be the way things were done anyway. The Pac-12 was still awarding its automatic bid to the regular-season champion as recently as 20 years ago (when the league was the Pac-10). Similarly, the first ever Ivy tournament wasn’t played until 2017.

The Atlantic Coast Conference was an outlier in terms of starting up a conference tournament relatively early in the league’s history and then playing it every year until the coronavirus pandemic. The ACC had its tournament up and running by 1954. (There was an SEC tournament as of 1933, but the event was discontinued after 1952 and didn’t return until 1979.)

Conversely, the Big Ten didn’t start playing its tournament until 1998. The Pac-10, the forerunner of today’s Pac-12, played four conference tournaments between 1987 and 1990, dropped the idea, then brought the event back starting in 2002.

Naturally, the lack of a conference tournament would dash the NCAA tournament hopes of the lion’s share of teams that don’t win their league’s regular-season title, particularly mid-majors. Over the last 13 years, 54% of the teams that have won mid-major conference tournaments finished first (outright or in a tie) during the conference season. It’s the other 46% that could be impacted this season.

Potentially shrinking the NCAA tournament field

The D-I Council wasn’t about to weigh in one way or the other on the size of the NCAA tournament field six months in advance. Nevertheless, it’s a question that could arise in the near future.

Depending on what course the pandemic takes between now and March, it’s conceivable that playing 67 games at 14 venues could prove problematic. In that case, the NCAA may consider the option of reducing the tournament field from 68 teams to a smaller number.

Such a step would indeed mark a significant change. Over the past 35 years, there’s been an unusual degree of contentment attached to having a 64- to 68-team tournament. In effect, playing six rounds (or seven if a First Four team ever reaches the title game) feels about right. Then again, that feeling is based on our experience watching tournaments that were structured accordingly.

Before 1985, the tournament included fewer teams and fans enjoyed those games, too. In fact, NCAA leadership in the early 1980s initially resisted expanding the tournament to 64 teams. The NCAA executive council approved a men’s basketball committee proposal to eliminate four automatic bids from the 1983 field and replace them with at-large bids. That never happened, however, because in January 1982 the NCAA membership voted in convention to overrule the executive council’s recommendation.

The vote set in motion the chain of events that expanded the field to 64 teams for 1985. But if a tournament with fewer teams takes place in 2021, it will still be basketball worth watching. There’s no need to fear a return to the old ways this one time.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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