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COVID-19 wreaking havoc with Bubbleville teams, schedule

Mohegan — As Bubbleville neared, it was the thing they couldn’t control that worried them most.

Organizers of the audacious, self-contained, audience-free college basketball extravaganza set to start Wednesday at Mohegan Sun were confident they could manage the scheduling, the masking, the COVID-19 testing, the teams’ comings and goings, the games — as many as six a day — in Mohegan Sun Arena, the practices in the Expo Center, the room assignments in the Sky Tower hotel, the meals and team meetings in the convention center and the TV coverage.

But the disease plays by its own rules.

By mid-day Tuesday, at least a dozen of the nearly 40 teams listed on a “final” Bubbleville schedule released Nov. 12 had backed out because of positive COVID-19 cases in their ranks. After the UConn women’s team announced Monday night it would need to “pause” after someone connected with the team became infected, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame announced Tuesday it was canceling the Nov. 28-29 women’s tournament scheduled as part of Bubbleville “due to COVID-related circumstances.”

UConn, ranked No. 3 in the country, No. 6 Mississippi State, Quinnipiac and Maine had been set to play in the tournament, and UConn had been scheduled to square off against No. 5 Louisville in a standalone game on Dec. 4.

The UConn men's team had been expected to play three Bubbleville games, starting Dec. 1, but the schedule remained in flux Tuesday.

“There was always some expectation that changes would be inevitable,” Dave Martinelli, Mohegan Sun’s chief marketing officer, said Tuesday afternoon. “And while we’re sad to see some teams unable to make it out for Bubbleville, we’re still really excited for the start of the NCAA basketball season tomorrow, where many programs will be competing inside Mohegan Sun Arena, as well as broadcast on ESPN networks and FloSports.tv through early December.”

As teams began arriving Monday, news circulated that Baylor, the second-ranked men’s team in the country, had canceled its trip to Bubbleville after coach Scott Drew tested positive Friday and began a mandatory quarantine. At first, Baylor indicated it still would participate but then changed course.

The men’s team from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, was undone Monday by a positive test among its support staff after the team arrived at Mohegan Sun, according to the team's website.

The University of Rhode Island’s men’s team replaced Baylor in the Empire Classic, earning a date with No. 18 Arizona State in a first-round game at 7 p.m. Wednesday and another game Thursday against either No. 3 Villanova or Boston College. ESPN was scheduled to televise both games.

With Bubbleville drawing near last week, Greg Procino, the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame’s vice president for basketball operations, was feeling good “about the things we can control.” In an interview, he said the Springfield, Mass.-based Hall of Fame, which has sponsored basketball tournaments at Mohegan Sun for more than a decade, looked no further than Uncasville when it set about saving the college basketball season.

“What got us moving is Mohegan Sun’s can-do approach,” Procino said. “We had some early-season tournaments scheduled around the country at arenas that just couldn’t handle them after COVID. We wanted to help these teams we had under contract. When Mohegan Sun entered into its agreement with Viacom, we started our discussions with them.”

Mohegan Sun’s corporate parent, Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment, had signed a deal with ViacomCBS to serve as a broadcast center for boxing matches and mixed martial arts events that have been staged, bubblelike, in Mohegan Sun Arena since July, creating a contained environment in which production crews, technicians, athletes and staff undergo regular COVID-19 testing while confined to the premises.

Mohegan Sun unsuccessfully bid on the WNBA bubble awarded to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

“They have so much square footage. They have the ability to distance, to create private zones,” Procino said of Mohegan Sun. “After the measures they took to reopen (the casino) in June, we got moving."

He said Bubbleville is a collaboration among the Hall of Fame, Mohegan Sun and the Gazelle Group, a sports marketing firm that produces numerous events, including several of the college basketball tournaments that have been incorporated as part of Bubbleville.

“Every game has a story behind it,” Procino said, describing the Bubbleville schedule as a “jigsaw puzzle.”

Members of each participating team, including players, coaches and staff — 25 to 30 people in all — have to submit to nasal-swab PCR tests for COVID-19 upon arriving in Bubbleville and before every game they play in keeping with an NCAA requirement that team members be tested three times a week.

“If someone tests positive, we have to isolate them, have them examined (by medical staff), get them retested, contact trace them and plan their exit travel,” Procino said.

Individuals who need to quarantine can do so in nearby hotels that organizers have reserved for the purpose, according to Martinelli.

Depending on the size of its traveling party, a team was assigned to occupy rooms on a separate floor of the Sky Tower hotel or perhaps share a floor with another team. As many as 20 teams were expected to show up on the event’s first couple of days, while on average, about eight were expected to be on site at any one time. With everyone involved, including TV production crews and Mohegan Sun staff, the total Bubbleville population was expected to swell to about 400 people.

Given the slack in casino traffic amid the pandemic, could Bubbleville boost Mohegan Sun’s bottom line?

“It definitely fills a business void,” Martinelli said. “Logistically, it’s a lot, but this is a really good plan. We’re prepared for everything.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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