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It was a "March Mad-Less" year 2020, as we'll all sadly remember forever, but the year is now 2021 and the Big Dance is back! This year's tournament will have a slightly different look and feel to it, starting with the fact that every game will take place in the state of Indiana with a majority of the games taking place in Indianapolis. Host gyms/courts will include Ball State University, Butler University, Indiana University, IUPUI and Purdue University, which are lending both their facilities and staffs to assist with tournament operations. The Indiana Convention Center will be used as a practice facility as well, with multiple courts set up inside - a total of 12 practice courts and six weight rooms in fact - with all 68 teams residing inside the "controlled environment" that includes four hotels all inside the 566,000 square-foot convention center. Those hotels are the JW Marriott, Hyatt, Marriott and Westin Hotel, with a connecting skywalk.
First Things First
Speaking of tip off, we'll briefly mention the "First Four" games here, which begin at 5 p.m. EST on Thursday and will be played in both Bloomington, Indiana, and West Lafayette, Indiana, each location roughly one hour's drive Indianapolis. The NCAA has already been working with the Marion County Health Department to administer regular COVID-19 testing for all players, coaches, staffs, administrators and officials, and the NCAA has already stated that it doesn't plan to pause the 2021 basketball tournament if there are positive COVID-19 tests on teams, with NCAA senior VP of basketball Dan Gavitt going to far to say there is "no reason to believe a team will be knocked out" of they have even have one positive case based on the protocols put in place. We had several high-profile teams with COVID-19 cases this past week as well, with both Virginia and Kansas withdrawing from their respective conference tournaments.
Virginia coach Tony Bennett said that his one negative test player will most likely miss the first two rounds of the tournament while the most of his team undergoes quarantining and contract tracing until the tournament starts this Thursday (the team reportedly plans to arrive in Indianapolis on Friday). Kansas, on the other hand, will travel to Indianapolis today without three players. Bill Self said he hopes two of those players can rejoin the team later this week after following the NCAA-mandated seven straight days of negative tests. NCAA rules specify that players who test positive must miss at least 10 days - and test negative for seven days in a row - meaning that players who test positive now will be forced to miss at least opening weekend of the Big Dance but still able to join their team before the start of the Sweet 16.
NCAA Tournament Travel
Teams are required to have seven consecutive days of negative test results in order to play. The seven-day testing window also include the school’s 34-person travel party. For teams traveling by bus 350 miles or fewer away, guidelines have been set for passenger seating, mandated masks/ face shields and forbidding eating or drinking while in transit. Teams will be assigned three buses each for their 34-person groups.
Teams traveling by charter aircraft, on the other hand, will use only private airports, and only the 34 in the party will be allowed on board. As with the buses, masks will also be required on flights — N95 masks are encouraged — while face shields are only suggested. There will be no mid-flight meals here either. All 68 teams will stay in four hotels upon their arrival and use the city’s downtown "skyways" to reach practices.
When teams reach the tournament, players will have their own rooms and teams will be on their own floors designated by hotel personnel throughout their time in Indiana. Coaches and players will be put through frequent virus testing and contract tracing as well, and to help with contract tracing players will wear SafeTag, a device that weighs less than an ounce and is the size of a domino. SafeTag, as you might recall, is the same wearable device and sensor technology that was used during the NBA Bubble in 2020.
The SafeTag device can be carried in pockets, connected to a lanyard or worn as a bracelet. SafeTag tracks the location and records of who a player has been in close contact with. These records will help speed up the process of contract tracing if there is a positive case. When teams are actually playing, game day operation rules set by the NCAA will still be the same as they were throughout the regular season.
Replacement Teams on Standby
Each team must have five eligible players to participate in an NCAA Tournament game, and the NCAA has not said whether it will adjust the first round schedule for teams who are dealing with positive COVID-19
cases or contact tracing issues. If a team is not able to play in the tournament, they must withdraw and the NCAA will find a replacement team. If the said team that withdraws is part of a multi-bid conference, then we now know that the top replacement options are Louisville, Colorado State, Saint Louis and Ole Miss (in that specific order). If any of the 68 teams in the tournament announce their withdrawal between now and Tuesday, March 16th, due to COVID-19 complications, then Louisville will get the nod to enter.
There will be no re-seeding for any replacement teams, which means that both Louisville and Colorado St. could hypothetically earn No. 1 seeds if Gonzaga and Baylor were to withdraw. These new replacement schools must continue testing with NCAA protocols. If a school from a conference that only has one team pulls out, however, that team will be replaced with a team in that same conference as per replacement criteria submitted to the NCAA last month. This one-bid league replacement team will be part of its league's pre-approved contingency plan, but only if it can produce seven consecutive days of negative tests as well. If any team withdraws after the deadline - or during any part of the tournament, for that matter - their opponent earns a forfeit win for that game and automatically advances to the next round.
It won’t be the sellout arenas that we've grown accustomed to seeing though years, but the NCAA is allowing 25% capacity during every round. This 25% capacity is not just fans though. This number includes all participants, staff and family members of the teams playing. The total number of attendees will depend of the size of the venue, and aside from the players and coaches, all must attendees must wear face coverings and social distance themselves during the game.Cleaning, disinfecting and safety measures will also be continue to remain a priority. Interactions with student-athletes, coaches, team personnel and officials are prohibited. Fans must remain in their seat pods to ensure physical distancing from other groups. As long as local and state policies do not change, this will remain intact for the entire tournament.
Even with the limited capacity we will still be seeing thousands of fans at games, however, with even the possibility for up to 17,000 fans at Lucas Oil Stadium for the Elite Eight/Final Four. The lone exception here is Assembly Hall, of which local health officials and the University of Indiana have said will not accept more than 500 spectators per game (which includes some "vaccinated medical personnel and first responders).
Lucas Oil Stadium, home to the Indianapolis Colts, will actually host two separate courts during the early rounds of the tournaments (with no games being played simultaneously). The other three Indianapolis venues include Hinkle Fieldhouse (home to Butler University), Bankers Life Fieldhouse (home to the Indiana Pacers) and Indiana Farmers Coliseum (home to IUPUI's "Fightin' Dan Rivera's" and other events).
The other two venues available for tournament games are the aforementioned Assembly Hall (home to Indiana University) and Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, which is home to Purdue University. The First Four, as we mentioned at the top of this article, will be held at the two non-Indianapolis venues.
Assembly Hall and Mackey Arena will also host first-round games with the other four venues. Only the four Indianapolis venues will host games from the second round and onward though, with Bankers Life Fieldhouse and Hinkle Fieldhouse hosting the Sweet 16. The Elite Eight, Final Four and National Championship games will be played exclusively at Lucas Oil Stadium, starting on Monday, March 28th.
Thursday, March 18, First Four:
5:10 p.m.: Texas Southern (16) vs. Mount St. Mary's (16), TruTV
6:27 p.m.: Drake (11) vs. Wichita State (11), TBS
8:40 p.m.: Appalachian State (16) vs. Norfolk State (16), TruTV
9:57 p.m.: UCLA (11) vs. Michigan State (11), TBS
Friday, March 19:
12:15 p.m.: Virginia Tech (10) vs. Florida (7), CBS
12:45 p.m.: Colgate (14) vs. Arkansas (3), truTV
1:15 p.m.: Drexel (16) vs. Illinois (1), TBS
1:45 p.m.: Utah State (11) vs. Texas Tech (6), TNT
3 p.m.: Oral Roberts (15) vs. Ohio State (2), CBS
3:30 p.m.: Hartford (16) vs. Baylor (1), truTV
4 p.m.: Georgia Tech (9) vs. Loyola (8), TBS
4:30 p.m.: Oregon State (12) vs. Tennessee (5), TNT
6:25 p.m.: Liberty (13) vs. Oklahoma State (4), TBS
7:10 p.m.: Wisconsin (9) vs. North Carolina (8), CBS
7:15 p.m.: Cleveland State (15) vs. Houston (2), truTV
7:25 p.m.: North Texas (13) vs. Purdue (4), TNT
9:20 p.m.: Rutgers (10) vs. Clemson (7), TBS
9:40 p.m.: Syracuse (11) vs. San Diego State (6), CBS
9:50 p.m.: Morehead State (14) vs. West Virginia (3), truTV
9:57 p.m.: Winthrop (12) vs. Villanova (5), TNT
Saturday, March 20:
12:15 p.m.: Georgetown (12) vs. Colorado (5), CBS
12:45 p.m.: UNC Greensboro (13) vs. Florida State (4), truTV
1:15 p.m.: Eastern Washington (14) vs. Kansas (3), TBS
1:45 p.m.: St. Bonaventure (9) vs. LSU (8), TNT
3 p.m.: Play-in winner (16) vs. Michigan (1), CBS
3:30 p.m.: UC Santa Barbara (12) vs. Creighton (5), truTV
4 p.m.: Iona (15) vs. Alabama (2), TBS
4:30 p.m.: Play-in winner (11) vs. USC (6), TNT
6:25 p.m.: Grand Canyon (15) vs. Iowa (2), TBS
7:10 p.m.: Maryland (10) vs. UConn (7), CBS
7:15 p.m.: Ohio (13) vs. Virginia (4), truTV
7:25 p.m.: Missouri (9) vs. Oklahoma (8), TNT
9:20 p.m.: Play-in winner (16) vs. Gonzaga (1), TBS
9:40 p.m.: Play-in winner (11) vs. BYU, CBS
9:50 p.m.: Abilene Christian (14) vs. Texas (3), truTV
9:57 p.m.: VCU (10) vs. Oregon (7), TNT
Second round: Sunday, March 21 and Monday, March 22
Sweet 16: Saturday, March 27 and Sunday, March 28
Elite Eight: Monday, March 29 and Tuesday, March 30
Final Four: Saturday, April 3
Championship game: Monday, April 5