Can you call it March Madness if the biggest driver of “madness” — the fan — is only at 25% of normal capacity?
That’s the question facing the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 2021, a year after the start of the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions caused sports teams, leagues, and events to shut down for health and safety reasons.
In what will be the most unique of tournaments, all 68 teams playing 67 games will live and compete solely in one location, similar to the bubble used by the NBA and NHL last summer. Unlike every other version of March Madness, which used a number of host sites around the country, the 2021 edition will all take place in and around Indianapolis when the tournament starts on March 18. The Final Four will be at Lucas Oil Stadium, as it was in 2010 and 2015.
“The 2021 version of March Madness will be one to remember, if for no other reason than the uniqueness of the event,” Dan Gavitt, NCAA senior vice president of basketball, said via press release when the tournament format was announced.
COVID already changing tournament
But as has been seen with just about everything over the past year, positive COVID test results can throw the best-laid plans into chaos.
Consider Duke University. The Blue Devils’ streak of 24 consecutive NCAA Tournaments comes to an end this year (not counting last year’s canceled tournament) as the team withdrew from the ACC tournament because of a positive COVID test within the program.
“Since last March when this pandemic started, we have listened to our medical experts and always put safety at the forefront of any determinations regarding participation,” athletic director Kevin White said in a statement about the withdrawal. “As a result, this will end our 2020-21 season. We wish every team still playing college basketball good health and the very best during the next few weeks.”
Duke’s program had gone the entire season without a positive test.
BREAKING: The Duke men's basketball team will not play in the ACC tournament due to a positive COVID-19 test, sources confirmed to The Athletic. pic.twitter.com/bHe8z37cgN
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) March 11, 2021
Until the tournament field was released on Sunday, there was a possibility that Duke could still participate — teams are required to have seven consecutive days of negative tests in order to play, and there was some speculation that Duke would be on the “First Four Out” list. That list comprises the next four teams after the field of 68, and should a team need to withdraw before games start this week, those teams could be called upon as replacements. Duke, however, was not on the list, which includes, in order: Louisville, Colorado State, Saint Louis, and Ole Miss.
Replacement teams would be called on, according to the NCAA, over the next several days, but not once the tournament has begun.
“If we do experience an outbreak — you know, which we do not anticipate and we hope we can successfully avoid — those games would either be postponed or canceled altogether, according to the NCAA’s tournament rules,” said Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett in an interview with NPR.
Games will be spread around six sites
Games will be played on two courts inside Lucas Oil Stadium and at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, as well as at the legendary Hinkle Fieldhouse (Butler), Indiana Farmers Coliseum (IUPUI/Indiana State Fairgrounds) and Mackey Arena (Purdue) in West Lafayette and Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall (University of Indiana) in Bloomington.
Teams will practice at the Indiana Convention Center.
One of the things that makes the tournament unique — and hard to understand for sports fans around the globe — is the intensity of one month of the best basketball being played simultaneously around the country where nearly every fan is pulling for an upset.
Will fans still switch from game to game? Will that feeling of jump-out-of-your-seat excitement still happen in a “bubble?”
“Our emphasis is on the safety and well-being of everyone participating in the event,” said NCAA Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Hainline earlier this year. “By working with local health officials to develop protocols and administer COVID-19 testing, we are confident we will provide a safe environment for student-athletes, coaches, administrators and officials.”
Those safety plans include all travel-party personnel having to clear seven consecutive negative COVID tests before they arrive in Indianapolis.
NCAA bubble vibes consist of me making bangers in my room 🤣🔥🖤 pic.twitter.com/4KtZw9aWtB
— Kaleb Hunter (@hunterkmi) March 15, 2021
And unlike in previous years, the NCAA is arranging charter bus trips or flights for participating teams and their travel party. As was the case with the NBA and NHL bubbles, all participating teams will stay in local hotels for the duration of their time in the tournament. The teams will be housed on dedicated floors in the hotels and will be assigned physically distant meeting and dining rooms.
Meals will either be served in rooms or in physically distant dining rooms, and everyone must be masked except during play on the court.
Technology a new part of the madness
In addition, everyone involved with March Madness will wear a KINEXON, a device that looks like a smart watch that measures physical distancing, to help with contact tracing. The NBA used it in the bubble last summer, and NFL players wore them beginning at training camps last July. The devices measure the distance between people and beep when a pre-determined social distance is compromised, while noting how long each interaction lasts.
And this story takes a closer look at the NFL’s contact tracing efforts with the help of a small device from Kinexon. https://t.co/3GM8SJm5wG
— Colleen Kane (@ChiTribKane) July 30, 2020
Players are allowed to have up to six family members as game spectators, and those family members will count toward the 25% capacity in the arena for games.
It won’t be a completely sterile atmosphere for fans and family traveling to Indianapolis. Hogsett announced at the end of February that the city would relax coronavirus restrictions on bars and restaurants during the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments. Bars will be allowed to move up to 50% capacity and restaurants to 75% to accommodate fans. In addition, bars and music venues can close at 2 a.m., two hours later than established during the COVID lockdown.
As of March 1, Marion County’s positivity rate had dropped from 16.4% at the end of 2020 to 3.8%.
Super Bowl was a learning experience
When the NBA initiated the concept of playing in a “bubble,” athletes not only participated in their “business” games, but players and teams were able to compete in fun games like corn hole or golf. One NBA referee even set up a pickleball court, on which, he said, thousands of games were played. How much of this the college players will partake in will be also defined by how much time around their studies they can break free.
The 2021 Super Bowl was an opportunity for Indianapolis to see how a big event can be altered to accommodate safety measures.
“The protocols that we will follow will ensure that, to the extent that there are fans in the building, that they will be masked, that they will be socially distanced,” Hogsett told NPR. “And, frankly, we’ll apply those same protocols to restaurants, to bars, for people who want to be here for the tournament and want to feel as if they’re participating in the activity, but they’re doing so from a third-party venue.”
The 2021 NCAA March Madness bracket! 🤩
— NCAA Final Four (@FinalFour) March 14, 2021
One way the organizers have tried to keep the teams safe is by having them stay at the site of their conference tournament. “We strongly encourage teams who have a high probability of being an at-large team to stay in their conference championship city until Sunday, March 14,” according to an NCAA document on which the Sporting News reported. Teams would then work with the NCAA on how they would travel to Indianapolis for the tournament.
“I do believe there will be some teams that opt out of conference tournaments knowing they’re a shoo-in for the NCAA Tournament,” the Sporting News reported Louisville’s Chris Mack said ahead of the ACC Tournament. “I would consider it. It probably wouldn’t be my decision alone. That’d be a hell of a choice.”
Discipline key to successful event
But take the advice of Drexel head coach Zach Spiker, whose Dragons won the Colonial Athletic Association title and will be heading to Indianapolis. “The most disciplined team will win,” Spiker said during the post-game press conference after his sixth-seeded team won the CAA title. “I meant on a couple different levels. Obviously first and foremost if you are not being smart with your decisions socially, you aren’t wearing your mask and you’re going to a party and you’re doing other things, you’re never going to have the opportunity.
“I don’t want to jinx things, but I’m very proud of our players from a testing standpoint because we were in a position to play basketball games all season. All season. It was our opponents that had to adjust due to their situations. I’m really proud of that.”
Here’s hoping that that discipline holds for the entire field.