Expect the unexpected as most unpredictable NCAA Tournament opens against backdrop of pandemic

Paul Myerberg
USA TODAY

There will be 68 teams and then 64, then 32, 16, eight, four, two and, by the end of the first Monday in April, one national champion.

There will be upsets, buzzer-beaters and Cinderellas, and when it’s all said and done the music will play: memorable moments will roll to the tune of “One Shining Moment,” the ubiquitous anthem of March Madness.

And that's pretty much where the similarities will end.

There is no blueprint and no roadmap for conducting an NCAA Tournament amid the protocols and measures that have defined everyday life since last March, when the cancellation of the men's and women's tournaments forced college athletics to come to grips with the new normal created by the coronavirus pandemic.

While several major sporting events have been conducted in the shadow of COVID-19, the tournament represents a uniquely daunting challenge: three weekends of games involving dozens of teams featuring hundreds of players and coaches held at multiple venues in the NCAA's backyard.

"This is really going to be something to watch and a great case study for someone to write about one day," said Wichita State athletics director Darron Boatright.

A regular season that began as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was advising Americans not to travel because of a national surge in COVID-19 cases would go on to have hundreds of games canceled or postponed due to the pandemic, with most conferences shortening or nearly eliminating non-conference play. One conference, the Ivy League, chose to sit out the season.

Earlier this week, a positive result involving at least one person within Duke's program ended the Blue Devils' season, snapping one of the nation's longest active streaks of tournament appearances. One day later, Virginia and Kansas were forced to withdraw from conference tournaments after positive tests, further illustrating the tenuousness of this year's postseason — similar outbreaks this month could destroy brackets and insert asterisks into what is historically a controversy-free national championship.

"I told our young men they have every reason to be disappointed, but it is still very important how they choose to respond," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said in a statement. "We are exhausting all options to participate in the NCAA Tournament.”

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An usher holds a sign instructing fans to wear masks during an NCAA college basketball game at the Big Ten Conference tournament in Indianapolis.

How will the NCAA protect players during pandemic?

To minimize the chances that COVID-19 disrupts the postseason, the NCAA took the drastic step of staging the entire tournament within a soft bubble in and around Indianapolis, where the governing body has been headquartered since 1999.

Conducting the event within a single area congregates every team in one footprint, eliminating the coast-to-coast travel of a normal year and lessening potential exposure to the coronavirus, while allowing for universal coronavirus protocols.

"I think they’re as prepared as can be," said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey. "I expect they’re going to have to continue to adapt. I know when we started, we had to adapt."

Teams will be housed in hotels connected to the Indiana Convention Center, which will serve as the tournament's practice venue, and placed on "dedicated hotel floors," according to the NCAA, with access to socially distanced meeting and dining rooms.

The environment may help schools create a firmer bubble of protection by limiting personnel to three locations: the hotel, the playing venues and the buses tasked with shuttling players and coaches to and from both sites.

"Arena, bus and hotel is a good way to put it," Michigan athletics director Warde Manuel said of the Wolverines' tournament plans.

"As far as pep rallies and the normal things that would go on during the NCAA Tournament, it’s not going to happen. It’s really going to be all about making sure for those that are there, that they are healthy and safe and we minimize those kinds of events so we don’t have any outbreaks occurring because of this."

The tournament's 67 games will be played across six venues. Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Indianapolis Colts, will be the sole host for the Elite Eight, Final Four and national championship game. First Four games, scheduled for Thursday, will be played outside of Indianapolis: at Purdue's Mackey Arena, in West Lafayette, and Indiana's Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, in Bloomington.

The remaining venues are Butler's Hinkle Fieldhouse; Indiana Farmers Coliseum, the home arena for Indiana University — Purdue University Indianapolis; and Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the NBA's Indiana Pacers and WNBA's Indiana Fever.

Before arriving, every member of a school's 34-person travel party must produce seven consecutive daily negative tests for COVID-19. Teams that clinched automatic tournament bids earlier this week began to arrive in Indianapolis on Saturday, with more teams arriving Sunday.

After getting to Indianapolis, members of the travel party will undergo two more rounds of testing in a 12-hour span and isolate in hotel rooms until given negative results, and then be given daily PCR tests for the remainder of their stay.

Players also will wear a SafeTag, devices about the size of a domino and weighing less than one ounce that will assist in contact tracing. The device can be carried in pockets, worn as a bracelet or connected to a lanyard.

"The masking and the social distancing, that’s not easy to ask a young person to do," said UNC Greensboro athletics director Kim Record. "But they made a commitment to one another. We’re almost there.

"In some ways, I feel like we’re been preparing for this since day one."

Teams will be eligible to remain in the tournament as long as five players remain healthy and available. In case of one or more teams being unable to play as a result of COVID-19, the NCAA designated the last four teams not selected for at-large bids as replacements, "if they choose to be considered as such."

But the window for replacing a team lasts only until 6 p.m. ET Tuesday. After that point, teams will not be supplanted in the bracket and their opponent will simply advance to the next round.

Efforts to maintain a controlled environment may be complicated by local ordinances easing coronavirus restrictions and allowing an increase in bar and indoor-restaurant capacity. The NCAA also has allowed up to 25% of full capacity at the six playing venues, though the governing body is leaving the final decision on attendance up to the host school. Purdue will cap attendance at 1,850 and Indiana at 500, for example, while 25% capacity at Lucas Oil Stadium would be roughly 17,500 spectators.

"It's just for show,” David Berri, a professor of economics at Southern Utah University, said of the NCAA's attendance policy. “They can’t be making too much money doing that.”

Yellow Jackets guard Jose Alvarado celebrates after Georgia Tech defeated Florida State 80-75 to win its first ACC tournament title since 1993.

'I think it's wide open'

This unique arrangement will be the backdrop for the most unpredictable tournament in modern history.

By abbreviating non-conference play and creating a wide range of total games played across leagues, COVID-19 has made it nearly impossible to forecast which teams are poised to surprise, which are set to disappoint and which are most likely to advance deep into the tournament.

There are a few safer bets: Gonzaga, the tournament's top overall seed, is attempting to become the first team to go unbeaten since Indiana in 1976. Teams from the Big Ten might be sharpened by playing in the nation's best conference and hold the advantage of already being in Indianapolis for their conference tournament.

But there will be no early-round advantage for top seeds typically placed in regions closer to home. Outside of Gonzaga, there's no insight into which mid-major team will make a run at the Final Four and captivate a national audience, such as Loyola-Chicago did in 2018. At any point, a team could be knocked out of contention by COVID-19. Opponents given a free pass into the next round will have the bonus of additional time to prepare, rest and recuperate.

"I think it’s wide open,” Boatright said. “If we’re fortunate enough to get an opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament, I like our chances to advance and see how much more ball we can play.”

The tournament also will be defined by which blueblood programs failed to make the field. Duke already was firmly on the bubble before this week's positive test. Kentucky won't reach postseason play after the program's first losing finish since the 1989-90 season. Other big-name schools, such as Michigan State and North Carolina, have put together uneven regular seasons and will be outside the top tier of seeds entering tournament play. 

Without being able to rely on historic powers to bolster viewership, the NCAA and broadcast partners CBS and Turner Broadcasting may instead focus coverage on national brands known more for success in other sports, such as Alabama or Ohio State, and highlight Gonzaga's push for basketball immortality. Georgetown, led by former Hoya and NBA star Patrick Ewing, and Iona, helmed by Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, are sure to draw eyeballs.

“I think what will happen is they’ll promote the ones that are there,” said sports media consultant Joe Favorito. “Some people will forget who’s not there. You do have Michigan. You have an amazing story in Gonzaga. You have teams that have come back, frankly with pretty big followings, that haven’t been around for a few years.”

Talk of television ratings and national interest may be premature given the larger question at play: Can the tournament avoid any major setbacks in reaching the finish line? A national champion will be crowned, one way or another. But after a tumultuous regular season, it's increasingly unlikely the NCAA Tournament will escape unscathed.

"The custom is to think about Selection Sunday on ‘Selection Monday.’ You think about whether you’re selected or not, where you’re seeded and what your site is going to be,” Sankey said. “Think past Selection Sunday. How do you prepare yourself and your team for dealing with this structured environment?”

Follow colleges reporter Paul Myerberg on Twitter @PaulMyerberg