Can Las Vegas bubble pod endeavor salvage Hogs’ spot in MGM Resorts’ Main Event?

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LITTLE ROCK — As college football prepares to get off the ground in large measure with its regular season this month, college basketball is still at the drawing board considering start dates, “bubble pods”, and the pros and cons of either keeping or scrapping non-conference games as college campuses grapple with increasing covid-19 cases.

An important initial marker will be narrowing down a launching point to tip off the 2020-21 season, which according to recent reports may end up being in late November, only 2-3 weeks later than the original start date. When to start the season will also play an intregral role in the equation of salvaging non-conference portions of the schedule, which could be in similar jeopardy to college football that has seen power 5 conferences either massively scale down or eliminate out-of-conference games altogether.

The Razorbacks football team, for example, will not play a traditonal 12-game schedule with 4 of those being non-conference matchups, but instead will have a 10-game SEC slate that gets under way against Georgia in Fayetteville on Sept. 26. The loss of the non-conference portion of the schedule makes winning enough games to become bowl-eligible a treacherous uphill climb.

In college basketball, there is no fixed number of games that must be won to be worthy of taking part in the Big Dance during March Madness, but what is already a difficult enough task for the NCAA tournament selection committee to determine seedings and ultimately decide which teams are worthy of precious at-large bids will be made much more so if there is an unprecendented loss of non-conference games. Mainly because playing a conference-only schedule does not allow teams to measure their worth against teams from comparable conferences or with comparable resumes, and thus with no crossover teams’ postseason resumes will be judged mostly if not solely on the perception of the strength of their leagues.

The powers-that-be in the NCAA are working with conferences’ leadership to explore “bubble pod” scenarios (bubble pods referring to several teams quarantined at specific locations and playing a series of games while there). So far, these have been viewed as best accomplished between late November and late December when school is out for holiday breaks and/or between semesters, and the proposal discussions include non-conference-only bubble pods and a mix of conference and non-conference bubble pods.

For Arkansas, a team with 10 newcomers among its 12 scholarship players, having a non-conference schedule may be more crititical than usual in terms of building team chemistry, establishing player rotations and personnel combinations, and simply cutting teeth as new Hoop Hogs ramping up for SEC play.

Although the Razorbacks men’s basketball program has yet to release the ’20-21 schedule, several non-conference opponents, game locations, and game dates had been previously confirmed. At least a couple of those seem to minimize risk relative to the pandemic — two games in Tulsa, against Oklahoma and Tulsa, which equates to a manageable drive (two hours) from Fayetteville for the team and fans with the same being true for Sooners and Golden Hurricane teams and fans. With less being more during a pandemic in terms of logisitics, those games stand as being doable.

On the flip side, Arkansas is also set to take part in the MGM Resorts’ Main Event in late November, a 4-team tournament that on the surface may seem like a problem logisitically. But amid the growing talk of multiple-team bubble pods, CBS Sports college basketball analyst Jon Rothstein on Friday tweeted this tidbit regarding the potential for bubble pod play in Las Vegas: “Sources: BDG Sports is attempting to put together preseason college basketball bubbles in both Las Vegas and Florida. Current Las Vegas MTE (MGM Resorts Main Event) features Louisville, Arkansas, San Francisco, and Colorado State.”

The first obvious question that comes to mind is: How many more teams might be added to that field if there is a Las Vegas bubble pod? Leading to many more questions: Which teams and from which confereces might be added? Could the SEC get more than just Arkansas in the field? Will Arkansas remain in the field in Vegas or be moved to another bubble pod closer to home. Would the event still be played in late November spanning three days, or would the dates change?

Obviously, other than deciding on where, when, and which teams are in the field there are many moving parts to work through in determining how to effectively and safely quarantine, test, travel, establish lodging, and play games, not to mention the myriad of considerations for everyting else that must be factored into the equation.

In our story published roughly three weeks ago, we spoke with MGM Resorts Main Event tournament director Jon Albaugh about the viablity of moving forward with the four-team and two-game-guarantee tournament that technically is still scheduled to be played Nov. 20-22 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

For Albaugh’s thoughts on the 7th annual event, including links to MGM Resorts’ plans to make its event safe, as well as Eric Musselman’s take, the Hogs’ history playing Louisville, and most-recent Hog results playing in a non-conference regular-season tournament format, read the aforementiond story below …

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From August 14, 2020 …

By Kevin McPherson

LITTLE ROCK — If the 2020-21 college basketball season truly is in jeopardy, particularly the non-conference portion of games that would be first on the chopping block due to the coronavirus pandemic, you wouldn’t know it by the recent joint baloon-release by the MGM Resorts Main Event planners and Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman.

“All 4 (participating teams) are on-board and actively planning / promoting it right now,” said Jon Albaugh, tournament director for the 7th annual Main Event, a four-team and two-game-guarantee tournament scheduled to be played Nov. 20-22 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas with a field that includes Arkansas, Louisville, San Francisco, and Colorado State.

Musselman said he’s looking forward to having his Hoop Hogs take part in the competitive desert event.

“We are excited to playing in this premier event versus elite programs on a national stage,” Musselman said. “These are the types of games we look forward to competing in each year. This will be a great opportunity and learning experience for our student-athletes both culturally and athletically. We are also honored to be affiliated with Coaches vs. Cancer and all that great organization represents.”

Although official matchups have not been announced, a source told that Arkansas is “expected to play USF (San Francisco)” in the Friday, Nov. 20, opening-round game with the winner taking on the Louisville-Colorado State winner on Sunday, Nov. 22, for the tournament championship. The losing teams from the first-round games will play each other in the consolation game on Nov. 22.

The potential for a title-game meeting between Arkansas and Louisville is a flirtatiously cute (if not all-out sexy) national-stage matchup. The Hogs and Cards have had nationally relevant games in the past — Louisville leads the all-time series 3-4 — and for Arkansas fans it was U.S. Reed’s 49-foot, halfcourt heave at the buzzer in the 1981 NCAA tournament to upend the defending national champion Cardinals, 74-73, that will forever be part of Razorbacks’ basketball lore. Arkansas is 2-0 all-time against San Francisco and 2-0 all-time against Colorado State.

The last time Arkansas played in a regular-season, non-conference event with a true win-and-advance tournament format was during the inaugural PK80 Invitational in Portland, Ore., in late November 2017. The Hogs finished that tournament 2-1 with wins over Oklahoma and UConn sandwiched around a semifinals loss against North Carolina.

With so many unknowns due to the pandemic that shut down competitive college basketball play indefinitely in mid-March and threatens to do the same to some if not all of the ’20-21 season, there are strong possibilities that the NCAA and / or SEC will eventually rule out non-conference play during the fall semester. But the MGM Resorts’ event planning staff has stepped up efforts to prove its Main Event can offer a safe environment for players, fans, and others involved in helping put on the tourney.

Albaugh said the planning for carrying out the games and hosting the teams is ongoing but that certain protocols are already being executed. 

“MGM Resorts has implemented its Seven Point Safety Plan for its resorts and entertainment venues (click the link here for seven-point safety details …,” Albaugh explained. “We are promoting that as it relates to fans and the hotel environment.

“These measures will be in effect at the arena, too, since MGM runs the building. May be some different language and protocols but basically the same stuff.”

Among several details announced in the MGM Resorts Main Event promotional piece released on Tuesday, tickets have gone on sale with plans to keep capacity at 25% of the arena’s available 20,000 seats (click the link here for more Main Event details … 

If the Main Event is able to actually host the tournament with Arkansas taking part, it could potentially serve as a model for future events, including postseason play in college basketball. There are other ideas being floated on how to create non-conference bubble events for college basketball in the late-November-through-December window that typically precedes the start of conference play, and there have been suggestions that the postseason NCAA tournament could be scaled down from its 68-team field to 32 teams.

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