Gophers coaches Richard Pitino and Lindsay Whalen and their college basketball counterparts now have a 2020-21 season to look forward to during the pandemic.
The NCAA’s Division I Council voted Wednesday that Nov. 25 would be the official start date for men’s and women’s hoops.
The previously scheduled mid-November opening day for the sport is now delayed two weeks, utilizing a “Golden Window” when students are off campus beginning Thanksgiving weekend.
“It’s a big step toward returning to play,” Pitino told the Star Tribune on Wednesday. “I think [NCAA Vice President of Basketball] Dan Gavitt has done a really, really good job of making sure to be out in front of this. We always had the advantage over some of the fall sports because we had time. We could see what everybody else was doing.”
Whalen’s third season at her alma mater was set to open Nov. 10 vs. American at Williams Arena, but she isn’t sure now when or if her nonleague games will be played.
Pitino’s eighth year at Minnesota was set to open Nov. 11 vs. Albany at home, and nine nonconference games were finalized although not released. Now the coming weeks could have programs scrambling to put together a different schedule.
“Obviously, the schedule we put together is not going to be the same as the one we are going to play,” Pitino said. “You want a schedule to try to put yourself back in a position to make the NCAA tournament. We’ve got a lot of new guys. How do we put ourselves in a position to be ready to go without exhibition games and scrimmages?”
Some bubble plans being formed over the last month could make sense for the Gophers men. The Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut might host Minnesota among 16 teams for 32 games in December, as first reported by CBSSports.com last week.
The Star Tribune confirmed that the Gophers were one of the teams to receive Mohegan Sun’s detailed operational plans. They were scheduled to play there Nov. 21 vs. Central Florida and Nov. 22 vs. the winner of Marquette and Rhode Island in the Naismith Hall of Fame Tip-Off in Uncasville, Conn.
The Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D., has talked with the Gophers about different possible opportunities at that venue this year, according to sources. Of the dozens of proposed bubble locations the Pentagon is the closest, less than a four-hour drive from the Twin Cities. Pitino’s team played Oklahoma there last season — his team’s third game in Sioux Falls in the past five seasons.
Pitino and Whalen have no details to share yet about possible bubbles where they could play this year. But they’ve heard their peers pushing to follow the NBA and WNBA model with that playing situation.
“Getting to play the game you love [in the bubble] is something I think we should look into,” Whalen said. “I’m an advocate for it. We’ll continue the discussions.”
Also included in the basketball-related decisions by the Division I Council on Wednesday was reducing the maximum number of regular-season games from 31 to 27, and the minimum being just 13 to quality for the NCAA tournament, which was canceled last season.
Officially, practices for college hoops start Oct. 14. In the meantime, team-related activities increased from eight to 12 hours a week starting Monday. That extra practice time is critical for newcomer-laden teams such as the Gophers for Pitino and Whalen, who have a combined 12 new faces.
Four of Pitino’s players didn’t participate in voluntary workouts this summer, including returning All-Big Ten point guard Marcus Carr. The Toronto native and co-captain last year recently arrived and is expected to be done with COVID-19 protocol soon to practice, Pitino said.
Among the newcomers are potential impact transfers Brandon Johnson, Liam Robbins and Both Gach. Robbins, a 7-footer from Drake, recently received a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately. Gach, from Austin, Minn., will have his waiver request sent out next week.