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Why college basketball's 'free year' is going to make for some difficult conversations

Aleem Ford (2), Micah Potter (11), D'Mitrik Trice (0) and Nate Reuvers (35) are among the seniors who will be eligible to return for Greg Gard's Wisconsin Badgers in 2021-22. Photo by Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire

Wisconsin's final home game of the 2020-21 season is scheduled for Saturday afternoon, a pivotal Big Ten contest against Illinois in which the Badgers' six scholarship seniors are set to be honored as part of the traditional Senior Day festivities.

Senior Day always brings the feels, but this year's event will add a new dimension to the tapestry of emotions: uncertainty. No one knows whether this is actually Senior Day at Wisconsin, or anywhere else.

Back in October, the NCAA announced it was granting an additional year of eligibility to winter athletes because of disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, meaning every senior in college basketball is eligible to return to play next season. In theory, coach Greg Gard and Wisconsin could have all of the players they're honoring Saturday back from a team that has been inside the AP Top 25 all season.

Gard addressed it with the team when the NCAA made the announcement, but left it at that.

"I didn't want it to be a distraction and fast forward their thinking," Gard told ESPN. "Everybody's in a different spot. I will wait until the end of the season, gauge where everybody is."

This reality, which will play out in college basketball programs from coast to coast, is the biggest unknown in what will be an unprecedented offseason of roster-building for coaches. In addition to the "free year," there's the chance of a one-time transfer waiver being passed; the possibility the NBA draft is pushed from its traditional June window to August; and the probability of a name, image and likeness bill granting new rights to players -- with all of this happening during an extended recruiting dead period where coaches can't watch prospects, and recruits can't take campus visits until at least June.

"We're all in uncharted territory," said Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner, who has four senior starters. "There's no manual on how all this is handled. Everyone's trying to figure it out."

ESPN talked to more than a dozen coaches throughout the game to get a read on how they'll manage these issues -- and their rosters -- in what will be an offseason like no other.