College basketball's unlikely hub for the biggest cluster of games to start its 2020-21 season is a resort casino snugly tucked against the Thames River in southeastern Connecticut.
Mohegan Sun, which sits on protected tribal land in Uncasville, Connecticut, will take the sport's main stage for a week-plus when the season starts Nov. 25. CBS Sports has obtained the schedule for what's been dubbed "Bubbleville" with 45 games over an 11-day period (Nov. 25-Dec. 5).
This is a huge win for college hoops amid what's been a barbaric past two months in scheduling. More than 50% of teams still haven't released their schedules, and in late October ESPN canceled all its tournaments and events for Orlando. But in Connecticut, the opposite has happened: this destination has attracted more teams than any other and continued to grow from its initial plans in the summer.
"I believe it's very important to show games can be played in a safe environment," Gazelle Group president Rick Giles told CBS Sports. "And very important for the sport for us to present great nonconference games. The quality of these games will go a long way in determining who makes the NCAA Tournament and how teams are seeded in the NCAA Tournament. We may soon be looking at conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament being played in bubbles or controlled environments -- and we want to show that it can be done successfully."
Forty men's and women's teams have signed on to participate in a variety of multi-team events and standalone games at Mohegan Sun.
As previously reported by CBS Sports, Bubbleville will be dotted with high-profile programs. Baylor, Villanova and Virginia -- all teams that occupy the top five of CBS Sports' rankings -- are scheduled to play, as are other top 25-level teams Arizona State, Oregon and Florida. Hall of Fame coaches will be there, too. Rick Pitino, in his debut season with Iona, is involved. As is Geno Auriemma and the UConn women's team, who have multiple games slated at Mohegan Sun.
Bubbleville was made possible because three major entities came together and toiled over the past three-plus months. The Gazelle Group, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and Mohegan Sun have worked in concert to recruit teams and provide as safe and secure an environment as possible.
"I visited Mohegan Sun in early August and was impressed with the facility and with (Mohegan Sun marketing chief) Dave Martinelli's approach to including us," Giles said. "As we both began speaking with teams, the level of interest and the complexity of the logistics kept growing. Keep in mind this will not only be the largest single-site college basketball event of the season, but also probably the largest single site college basketball event in history."
Organizers said they've been in touch with nearly 125 schools in the past two months. There have been commitments, de-commitments, recommitments and inevitable back-outs. Mohegan Sun is not new to these duties. It's the home of the WNBA's Connecticut Sun, but more specifically the resort and the Hall of Fame have put on small college basketball tournaments for a decade every November. In recent months Mohegan Sun has also played host to bubbled-up MMA and boxing events.
"The single site, enormous square footage, the measures taken to open the property, the 'can do' attitude, the Viacom Showtime partnership bubble for Boxing and access to a testing contract/partnership were driving forces behind Mohegan Sun being viable," vice president of basketball operations for the Hall of Fame Greg Procino told CBS Sports. "In addition, Mohegan Sun sits on tribal land so is governed by Tribal Council and has its own health and emergency services department."
Connecticut's COVID-19 case count is rising, like almost every other state, with its seven-day moving average of positive cases coming in at 3.9% (1,754 new positives statewide) as of Wednesday according to the COVID Tracking Project. For perspective: Connecticut's peak was a drastic 39.3% in early May. Connecticut's rate is creeping up but remains less than half the national seven-day moving average (8.7%) as of Wednesday. The number has been steadily climbing nationally since early October and signs are pointing to it only getting worse. In college football, five games featuring AP Top 25 teams have been called off for this weekend, four involving SEC teams.
Procino was careful to note that, even though the season is scheduled to start in 13 days, nothing is 100% set. Though he added, "We are very confident that we have developed a plan and protocol that can work."
Said Giles, "I am fully confident the event will take place. However, I also realize we need to be prepared to adapt to changing circumstances."
The plan begins with administering nearly 5,000 COVID tests in almost two weeks' time. There are four "protected/secure zones," in addition to hotel security on all team floors to ensure safety measures when they aren't playing, practicing, eating as a team or doing anything else as a group. Staff, officials, TV production crews, etc. will also be on isolated floors and be provided with special back-of-house access to the arena, meeting areas, meal spaces and pro tem practice courts. There is immediate PCR testing for everyone who arrives and will be in the bubble-type environment. The busiest Mohegan will be is at the start, when Nov. 25 will feature six games, meaning between 12-15 teams will be arriving in the 24-48 hours prior to that. Procino said the total teams at Mohegan at its peak could be between 16 and 20.
"We will be jumping right into the fire right away," Procino said. "There is clearly no playbook here for this event. Nothing has been done like this in college basketball previously. We have to trust our instincts as a group to make the best decisions."
And what if a team cancels in the 11th hour, or if a team has a player or a coach test positive after they arrive?
"We know there are more challenges coming and there are unanticipated hurdles we will need to get over," Giles said. "We have considered contingencies that we may have to execute on the fly, such as changing formats and/or substituting teams. But most importantly, we are open to any possibility that will get everyone across the finish line."
The protocols in place are set up to prevent this as much as possible. The group has gone through nearly a dozen revisions to its COVID-19 protocols in the past four-plus months. The key to start is this: Everyone attending must produce a negative test the day before leaving for Mohegan Sun, and then a deep-nose PCR test is administered upon arrival. Quarantining in hotel rooms for the next 12-or-so hours will be mandatory while tests results await.
"If we can get people on-site and tested negative, we've got a great shot at playing through the schedule that has been created," Procino said. "The attitude from most schools to date has been flexibility and understanding and would expect that to continue."
Fans will not be allowed to attend; the organizers are relying on Connecticut's Health Department, which cites rising case counts as the reason.
"We appreciate all of the teams who have chosen to play at Mohegan Sun and everyone who is a part of this," Giles said. "It's been a bumpy ride for everyone in the college basketball scheduling world and we have maintained a spirit of cooperation and loyalty to each other that is really gratifying -- and that you don't always see."
The almost-finished schedule for Bubbleville is below (all times Eastern; networks and tip times for some games will be decided soon). All games will be viewable via TV or digital broadcast through ESPN, Fox Sports and FloSports. One note: With the AP Top 25 being released Monday, Baylor is officially No. 2 and Villanova is ranked No. 3. The Gazelle Group opted not to have this matchup on the opening night of the season, instead leaving it to chance dependent upon the Baylor-Arizona State and Villanova-Boston College outcomes.
"We have these debates every year as we plan matchups," Giles said. "Usually, we bracket the teams based upon their expected rankings and let the teams decide things on the floor -- building toward the championship game."
Note: Games featuring Oregon and Missouri will be officially added to this schedule in the coming day(s), with the games targeted for Dec. 2 and 3.
Wednesday, Nov. 25
San Francisco vs. Towson | 9:00 a.m. (FloSports)
Rhode Island vs. Stephen F. Austin | 11:30 a.m. (FloSports)
No. 5 Virginia vs. Maine | 2:00 p.m. (FloSports)
Empire Classic: No. 3 Villanova vs. Boston College | 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Empire Classic: No. 2 Baylor vs. No. 18 Arizona State | 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Thursday, Nov. 26 (Thanksgiving)
Rhode Island vs. Towson | 11:00 a.m. (FloSports)
San Francisco vs. Stephen F. Austin | 1:30 p.m. (FloSports)
Empire Classic third-place game: (Villanova, Boston College, Baylor, Arizona State) | 7:00 p.m. (ESPN)
Empire Classic championship: (Villanova, Boston College, Baylor, Arizona State) | 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Friday, Nov. 27
No. 5 Virginia vs. TBD | 11:30 a.m. (ESPN)
Towson vs. Stephen F. Austin | 2:00 p.m. (FloSports)
Central Connecticut vs. Maine | 7:00 p.m. (FloSports)
San Francisco vs. Army | 9:30 p.m. (FloSports)
Saturday, Nov. 28
Hall of Fame Women's Challenge: Mississippi State vs. Maine | 10:00 a.m. (FloSports)
Hall of Fame Women's Challenge: UConn vs. Quinnipiac | 12:30 p.m. (FloSports)
Delaware vs. Siena | 3:00 p.m. (FloSports)
Hall of Fame Tip Off: Rhode Island vs. South Florida | 5:30 p.m. (WatchESPN)
Hall of Fame Tip Off: Virginia Tech vs. Temple | 8:00p.m. (ESPNews)
Sunday, Nov. 29
HOF Women's Challenge: Matchups TBD (Maine, Quinnipiac, Mississippi State, UConn) | 9:30 a.m. (FloSports)
HOF Women's Challenge: Matchups TBD (Maine, Quinnipiac, Mississippi State, UConn) | 3:00 p.m. (ESPN)
Hall of Fame Tip Off: Rhode Island vs. San Francisco | 5:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Hall of Fame Tip Off: Virginia Tech vs. South Florida | 8 p.m. (ESPN2)
Monday, Nov. 30
Siena vs. Liberty | 2:00 p.m. (FloSports)
Boston College vs. St. John's | 9 p.m. (Fox Sports 1)
Tuesday, Dec. 1
Wednesday, Dec. 2
Hall of Fame Tip Off: Drexel vs. Quinnipiac | 8:00 (FloSports)
Thursday, Dec. 3
Hall of Fame Tip Off: Albany vs. Drexel | 1:30 (FloSports)
Legends Classic championship: (BYU, UConn, USC, Vandy) | 7:00 p.m. (ESPN)
Legends Classic third-place game: (BYU, UConn, USC, Vandy) | 9:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
Friday, Dec. 4
Hall of Fame Tip Off: Albany vs. Quinnipiac | 4:00 p.m. (FloSports)
Jimmy V Women's Classic: UConn vs. Louisville | 7:00 p.m. (ESPN)
Saturday, Dec. 5
UConn vs. NC State | 2:00 p.m. (Fox Sports 2)