How will a one-city NCAA tournament work? This hockey conference offered a glimpse

NCHC hockey pod aerial ice provided by National Collegiate Hockey Conference

Days before the start of the 2020-21 college basketball season, reports emerged that the NCAA was eyeing Indianapolis as a single host city for its entire 2021 men's tournament. Since then, the NCAA has failed to offer any clear detail on how the event could work.

While a single-site option was employed successfully last summer in leagues including the NBA and WNBA, as well as in the annual hoops event The Basketball Tournament (TBT), those events unfolded with far fewer teams than the NCAA's hoped-for 68-team extravaganza. The NBA, WNBA and TBT also possessed the ability for teams to remain in a true bubble environment for the duration -- quarantined venues, hotels and transportation, not to mention consistency across testing protocols. The NCAA tournament, with 68 teams arriving from all corners of the country, with widely disparate protocols, and adhering to a variety of academic-calendar and other logistical concerns, isn't going to have the same luxury.

"It's just a logistical nightmare," said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, who compared the proposed affair to summer in Las Vegas, which once hosted multiple AAU events on the same weekend. But, Sampson added: "If that's what we have to do, let's do it."

Though actual clarity on how the tournament could work is scarce, one Division I men's hockey conference has offered a look at how a single-city, multiweek college sporting event could work, albeit on a much smaller scale than what a 68-team men's basketball tournament or 64-team women's tournament would demand.

The National Collegiate Hockey Conference, an eight-team league stretching from Oxford, Ohio, to Colorado Springs, Colorado, played the first portion of its season in what it called a "pod," held in Omaha, Nebraska, from Dec. 1-21. The NCHC moved the entirety of its operations during that period to Omaha's Aksarben Village and Baxter Arena, a multipurpose facility that is typically home to the University of Nebraska Omaha's men's hockey program, as well as its basketball programs. NCHC commissioner Josh Fenton was charged with pulling together the event, as he tried to keep an entire season from falling apart.

"I think the goal from the start and the goal for the whole year is that we just want to keep playing hockey games and providing the competitive experiences that these guys want and deserve," Fenton told ESPN during the event. "I think the commitment you see from the membership prior to us getting here and now that we're here, with everybody following the protocol and understanding what they have to do to ensure that we can continue to play games -- that's kind of how our membership has always operated."

Top of mind for all entities attempting to hold sporting activities since the onset of the pandemic has been the safety of participants in an environment where coronavirus infection rates have spiraled out of control in many communities.

Inside the pod, Fenton said he spent the majority of his time focused on testing, working closely with the conference's medical director and the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) to ensure proper procedures for testing. Fenton also said the league had to be prepared in the event of positive tests for pod participants.

Every person termed a "Tier 1" participant, which were those essential to the tournament -- players, coaches, on-ice officials and conference staff -- had to undergo testing upon arrival in Omaha. That included individuals who were confirmed to have previously been infected in the months prior, even though risk of reinfection is believed to be low. For those known to be infected at some point in the past year, additional testing was conducted to ensure there was no active virus remaining in their systems.

The NCHC successfully cleared all athletes from all eight schools for participation and did not postpone any scheduled games within the Pod -- going 38-for-38 in that respect over the three-week event.

"We were able to clear everybody, which was really amazing and a huge hurdle to get over to begin with," Fenton said. "We learned a lot through that initial onsite arrival test. When we got through it, we went into more of a cadence of surveillance testing."

Once the event was underway, teams were tested every game day, with those scheduled to play games early in the day undergoing testing the day before.

While there was no outside security to ensure players and staff were obeying protocols, each NCHC team had a designated compliance officer who had to report any issues to the league. Fenton received status updates from each team's compliance officer daily.

According to the NCHC, most of the issues were minor. Some were as simple as having to remind players to wear their masks. Players were expected to stay between the hotels and the arena.

But would similar protocols work in an NCAA tournament environment?

Dr. Jeremy Cauwels, who consulted with the organizers of college basketball's Crossover Classic held in South Dakota last month, said it will be important for NCAA officials to find enough facilities -- both playing venues and hotels -- to spread out the teams.

"In my opinion, the first building block is to find a place to put 68 different teams and not mix them," he said. "You have to be testing routinely so they're [testing] negative coming in."

If the NCHC employed an eight-team bubble, could the NCAA tournament consist of eight eight-team bubbles held in Indianapolis and the metro area for the first weekend?

Lucas Oil Field, which was scheduled to host the 2021 Final Four, and Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the NBA Indiana Pacers, would make sense as facility options, though no prospective sites have been confirmed at this stage by the NCAA. Among Indianapolis colleges, Butler, IUPUI and Division II University of Indianapolis have the requisite basketball facilities to hold games, and other Division I schools within a 60- to 90-minute drive of the city include Ball State (Muncie), Indiana (Bloomington) and Indiana State (Terre Haute).

But once the facilities are secured, the challenges don't end there.

Mike Kemp, a senior associate athletic director of events and facilities at Nebraska Omaha, said some of the biggest problems in the NCHC's event were in ensuring appropriate locker room space. Baxter Arena is a multipurpose center, but it was not designed to host eight Division I hockey teams simultaneously, with as many as three games in a day. Temporary locker rooms were set up throughout the facility, which required teams to move around frequently, dressing in different rooms for practices and games. The NCHC said team and league staff managed to make it work.

"The equipment managers are probably going to be the heroes of this thing if we get to the end," Fenton said during the event.

Fulfilling academic requirements in a three-week bubble situation was another concern NCAA tournament participants will face.

North Dakota had finals scheduled in the middle of the NCHC event, and UND coach Brad Berry said players were able to consult with their university advisers from inside the pod. The coach also said he made it clear to all of the players that they needed to communicate with their professors before the event, and while it was ongoing, to stay up on assignments.

Nebraska Omaha made academic advisers available to players in the pod. Minnesota Duluth players Noah Cates and Hunter Lellig said they had to commandeer a suite in the hockey arena before practice to record their portion of a human resource management presentation.

"That was definitely a different kind of experience, but whatever it takes to play," Cates said. "I never thought I'd be doing a final presentation in Baxter Arena in Omaha, but we got it done and it's all good."

The Fighting Hawks spent the 20-day event living in one of four hotels being utilized by the conference in the Aksarben Village. According to Berry, his players and staff were the only guests in the hotel. The team had some recreation areas it was able to use, and a designated team room for meals that were completely catered by nearby restaurants. There was little to no interaction with members of other teams, players said, and the Fighting Hawks players could walk to and from the arena -- not requiring that they pack into a bus.

The hotel had lounge areas for each team to gather, with items like pool tables and other recreation opportunities within the hotel walls.

"Being in the hotel with all the guys," Cates said when asked of the best part of "pod life." "Obviously there's not too many worries about corona[virus] like we had back in Duluth."

The only places teams went within the NCHC pod were the designated restaurant, the arena and the hotel. Cates said individual players also were allowed to order outside food, but it had to be delivered or picked up for carry out. Everything could be reached on foot.

With those logistics worked out, playing games -- which brought its own mental challenges -- became the focus.

"Playing games at noon, the five games in eight days was pretty tough," Cates said. "Obviously, it was just so great to be back on the ice, but it's not like a normal series in college hockey. So that's been different, but it's been a lot of fun. Obviously we're happy to be back playing."

"For us coaches, [the important thing is] being mindful of having meetings that are short," Berry said. "If we do skate, it's very short. When you play 10 games in 18 days, energy is a big deal. You have to be very flexible for what your days look like and how you prepare for it, but you've got to be mindful of the energy level you need each and every day."

While the NCHC constructed a model the NCAA could implement on a larger scale, the sheer amount of athletes, teams, officials, staffers, coaches and players would make the NCAA tournament the largest pseudo-bubble attempted so far.

Some coaches wonder if any concept for the NCAA tournament would be challenged by factors outside its control.

"I like [the] one city [concept] but I would go to a state that has COVID-19 protocols that align with the CDC seven-day contact-tracing and also a state that has local contract-tracing that aligns with the CDC," said one Power 5 coach. "You could also have four sites in states, and cities that agree with the NCAA and CDC, and [have the Final Four] meet in Indy."

While other leagues have viewed bubbles as an opportunity to prevent COVID-19-related chaos at the most important juncture of the season, the plan around the NCAA tournament is viewed as essential for an organization that lost $375 million when it canceled the 2020 version of the event. Even last season, the selection committee pondered a smaller field before making its final decision.

"I think [the 68-team, one-site tournament is] feasible given that they have several months to properly plan for it," a Power 5 coach told ESPN. "Let's be real, this is critical to their existence so I think they will give it the proper time, energy and resources to pull it off."

All stakeholders within the game know that leadership within this endeavor is going to be vital. The NCHC couldn't have pulled off its plan without Fenton. Dan Gavitt, the NCAA's senior vice president of basketball, is going to be the figure with the greatest focus where it concerns the NCAA tournament.

"I am very confident in Dan Gavitt," said UCLA's Mick Cronin. "Those of us that know Dan know how detailed and professional Dan is and we have full confidence in him. Nothing will be perfect during this time. I think everyone should realize it and [complement] and help those that are trying to make the NCAA tournament and college basketball season happen."

Florida State's Leonard Hamilton said the country's handle on the virus once the tournament arrives will dictate the NCAA's approach, and noted that guidance from leaders at the federal, state and local level should be part of the paradigm here, too.

"Where is the direction coming from?" he said. "You can't point to the people in Indianapolis. This is bigger than them."

As the game's leadership considers those questions, college basketball might not have to wait until March to see a bubble model employed. Multiple leagues are considering bubbles similar to the one the NCHC employed as Plan B options, should the virus disrupt their conference seasons.

Tom Valdiserri, who ran the 2020 Maui Invitational that organizers were forced to move to Asheville, North Carolina, said some Power 5 leagues have already contacted him about potential in-season bubbles. He has also talked to Gavitt, he said.

Valdiserri said the Maui Invite was the only multiteam event to proceed without any teams withdrawing or canceled games. He said strict measures -- such as security in hotels and frequent testing -- helped make his event a success. He said the NCAA can also complete an event with the proper protocols in place.

"If you can get 68 there, you can handle [it]," he said. "But it's a monumental task."

Most seem willing to gamble -- no matter what the event looks like, bubble or no bubble -- to play the NCAA tournament this season.

"To be honest with you, I just hope we have a tournament," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "We could play in Indianapolis, Florida ... Is it going to be perfect? No, but this isn't a perfect year."