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March Madness in April, or even May? Here’s a plan on how to hold the NCAA Tournament in 2021

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Amid the never-ending din of declarations and cacophony across the past few months in college athletics, there is one statement college basketball fans should keep at the front of their minds going forward. It came from the mouth of Dan Gavitt, NCAA vice president of basketball, the man responsible for much of the decision-making surrounding the NCAA Tournament. 

“If there’s basketball being played anywhere safely in 2021, we will have March Madness,” Gavitt vowed to me in July. It was as direct an on-the-record promise as he could give eight months out from the scheduled start of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. The subtext: We will by any means necessary, so long as we are cleared by health professionals, hold any type of NCAA Tournament possible. Because we pretty much can’t afford not to. 

Today we are publishing the second in a three-part series on what the NCAA can and should do, and contingencies it must have on call, in order to give college basketball its best chance at having basketball in the winter and spring of 2021. The NCAA and its membership needs the tournament to tip in 2021, lest athletic departments “get sent back to the ice age,” as one coach expressed to me recently. Another coach — the most prominent in college athletics, the one down at Duke — has been openly urgent on this as well. 

In July, Mike Krzyzewski said this: “We need to have the NCAA Tournament and we need to have some contingency plans based on when the season would start. Everyone says it’s going to start on time. We’ll see. I would like for us to take a great look at contingency plans, when it might also be. Can it be in April, can it be in May? But we need — and the NCAA needs — (the) men’s NCAA Tournament. If you don’t have it two years in a row, the NCAA, financially, could go in another direction.”

Before we can address contingency plans, we need to acknowledge a few of the major obstacles that could affect the integrity of the tournament’s construction and how we’ll get there. With the Pac-12 announcing Tuesday that all of its sports will not play games until Jan. 1 at the earliest, the 2021 NCAA Tournament manifesto of sorts below is accounting for the accepted inevitability that the season won’t begin until January at the earliest. (Another high-profile coach, UConn’s Geno Auriemma, admitted as much earlier this week.)

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It’s also important to realize that if we can start a season, there is a chance we won’t know the ultimate format for the NCAA Tournament when the season begins. We may learn about potential blueprints in the late fall or early winter, but with the way the virus can flare up, adaptability is obligatory in a pandemic.  

If we can have a regular season in 2021, we can have an NCAA Tournament. Here’s how it’s done. 

March, April or May Madness?

The NCAA will have to see how the regular season can unfold — if it can unfold — before determining a timeline on a postseason. The NCAA should:

Hold the NCAA Tournament in March if: the season starts in January and exclusively or almost entirely includes conference-only games. Flexibility on exact start date will depend on the last day of the regular season and 10 days of quarantine following Selection Sunday. (Details below.) A key point: this is when people expect to see their brackets and college players on TV playing out their dreams. It makes the most sense and is the clear preference for all invested parties.

Hold the NCAA Tournament in April if: the season gets delayed for more than two weeks at any point or if it starts in January with at least some nonconference games allowed. (More on this is coming Thursday in Part Three.) April will be prudent if most teams play north of 20 games — and/or if conference tournaments are held. Pushing back to April would be sensible while also allowing schedule flexibility. More games means more travel means more risk means more likelihood positive tests trigger teams to have different game inventory, perhaps as high as seven or eight outcomes apart. That introduces more issues with the committee and putting together the field, but that’s another manifesto altogether. 

Hold the NCAA Tournament in May if: a full-fledged season can be played beginning in January or if the start of the season is delayed into February or even early March. Perhaps our country’s situation around New Year’s will be improving but not enough to justify a start. But then by St. Patrick’s Day, maybe we are finally in a good spot with a light at the end of the tunnel. If that happened and conference-only games began in March, holding an NCAA Tournament in May would make the most sense and still be achievable — and certainly something the NCAA is considering. 

Host the NCAAs in Indianapolis over two weeks

No matter how big or small the tournament winds up in format, this part needs to be in the planning stages now. College basketball’s already-dwindling regular season is a huge task unto itself, but if we can have some semblance of a regular season, the good news is that the NCAA Tournament by comparison should be exponentially easier to pull off.

Remember: it is the “NCAA Tournament.” Unlike D-I football which has its own bowl and College Football Playoff system outside the NCAA’s purview, college basketball’s biggest event is run and funded entirely by the NCAA. Amid a pandemic, this gives the organization the autonomy it needs — and it will have the money and resources necessary to pull it off. 

Having players confined to one location is the best way. This is an isolated two-week championship event (the schedule will be revealed in Part Three) and the majority of teams will be gone after the first four days of the tournament. 

The metropolis that makes the most sense is the one lined up to host the 2021 Final Four: Indianapolis. Not only is it the place where the NCAA is headquartered, it is also a city built to host dozens of teams in dozens of hotels. The NCAA customarily blocks off 400 rooms per team at the Final Four. For first- or second-weekend hosting duties, that number is 100 rooms per team, not to mention the city being able to have plenty of rooms for fans, band and cheer members, administrators, etc. 

Expecting fans in the stands in spring of 2021 is a long shot, so this proposal presumes fans are a no-go. By removing tens of thousands of fans from taking up hotel rooms, the greater Indianapolis area should have enough space to house all teams. 

It also has enough acceptable sites in close proximity to host games. If a normal-sized bracket is achievable, you’ll need at least four, but potentially eight, courts/arenas/gyms to pull off the first two rounds in four days’ time. Fortunately, Indiana has plenty of adequate barns based on size alone. The coronavirus has forced flexibility with nearly every person and every organization, and so the NCAA needs to be flexible with this. Here are the first eight sites the NCAA should consider, all within reasonable distance of everyone staying in the greater Indianapolis area:

  • Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the Pacers
  • Hinkle Fieldhouse, home of Butler
  • Indiana Farmers Coliseum, home of IUPUI (in Indy) 
  • Assembly Hall, home of Indiana (one hour south of Indy)
  • Mackey Arena, home of Purdue (70 minutes northwest of Indy) 
  • Hulman Center, home of Indiana State (70 minutes west of Indy)
  • Worthen Arena, home of Ball State (an hour northeast of Indy)
  • Southport High School (greater Indy metro area, capacity 7,200)

That’s eight to start, with seven of the options being professional arenas or on college campuses. Lucas Oil Stadium is not listed because it would be absurd for a football stadium to host a basketball game if fans can’t fill it up. (That said, I can see the NCAA considering holding two games at once inside the venue.) Indiana boasts 11 of the 12 largest high school gyms in the country, so if Southport High isn’t good enough, other places such as New Castle Fieldhouse (third largest high school gym in the country, one hour east of Indy) and Lloyd E. Scott Gymnasium (largest high school gym in the country, one hour south of Indy) can be considered. 

There’s also an option to only pick five or six of the locations listed and simply have those sites host all first and second round games. (With that comes more risk and a lot more of a squeeze with games, as you’re upping how many teams use those facilities and crunching TV windows. Cleaning and safety procedures would have to be practically around the clock for the first two rounds.)

It’s important to condense the tournament from its usual runtime of 20 days down to 14 to reduce risk while still plotting for off days between rounds/games. The less time these athletes are in this Indianapolis-based tournament cloister, the better chance the NCAA has at completing the tournament without complications and potential forfeits. The NCAA should be prepared by October to announce it’s eliminating traditional sites (there are 14 for 67 games in a normal year) and instead confining the 2021 tourney to the Circle City.

Testing, contact tracing remain top priority

Whenever the tournament field is decided, no matter the size, all teams will depart the next day for Indianapolis. Schools within a 250-mile radius (approximately a four-hour ride) will be mandated to bus to Indy. Schools beyond the radius will have the option to bus or take a charter flight (which are always afforded to teams in the tournament). Once teams arrive, they will be tested for COVID-19. In an effort to keep up the integrity of the tournament field and weed out any potential positive tests that would compromise competition, teams will quarantine for 10 days and be tested every other day at minimum. 

Coaches, players and team staff will be kept to minimal numbers (a traveling party of approximately 25) and will only be allowed in three places: 1) their team’s hotel 2) the venues they are playing/practicing at 3) the buses that will deliver them to and fro. That is it. No exceptions. Any player or team personnel found violating this even once will be expelled from the tournament and team-integrated activity.

Repeat after me: testing and contact tracing matter most. Without capacity to test frequently and get results back in under 24 hours, you can’t hold an NCAA Tournament. 

If the tournament bracket could start on its scheduled date of March 16, 2021, that’s 216 days from now. It’s impractical to expect a vaccine to be available for widespread dissemination by then. Absent a legitimate vaccine, testing and tracing remain paramount. Ideally, seven more months will buy enough time to present two significant upgrades with testing:

1) Tests become cheaper
2) Tests improve to provide results much more quickly, preferably within a few hours

One reason for hope on this front: Research scientists at the University of Colorado are gaining ground on a saliva-swab test capable of returning results in 45 minutes. Obviously that’s a game-changer; it’s at the crux of this mission to unleash basketball madness in ’21. If by March there are reliable tests providing results back in under an hour, the chances of holding a tournament drastically improve. 

How to handle a team having an outbreak

Hypothetically, the testing situation by March is more streamlined than right now. Quarantining teams for 10 days upon arrival should provide latitude to identify and remove anyone who tests positive between entry into Indianapolis and the start of the tournament. 

But of course there is no guarantee for this. The NCAA needs to have a plan for if a team gets compromised by even one positive test. College basketball will not have the scheduling elasticity of MLB. If we have a Marlins or Cardinals situation, there is no going a week-plus without playing a game.

So here’s the harsh reality: if a team has more multiple players test positive within 72 hours of the start of the NCAA Tournament, they forfeit. The tournament cannot afford to chance a team-to-team outbreak situation that sends pockets of the bracket into chaos, so the rules must be strict. If only one person tests positive, the rest of the team will be tested daily and their scheduled game will be pushed back by a day or two, allowing for consecutive days worth of tests. If negatives across the board happen for all others on consecutive days, they’re eligible to remain in the tournament. One additional positive test in that window will force a forfeit. 

If a team is eliminated due to an outbreak right before the tournament starts or even in the middle of it:

  • To keep things as equitable as possible, if a team is eliminated via forfeit, the three remaining teams in a four-team mini pod will play a two-game round-robin. If a team goes 2-0 against the other two teams, it advances and the other two are eliminated. If all three go 1-1, margin of victory will serve as the tiebreaker for the top TWO teams, and then those two will play a winner-take-all to advance. (You can scale MOV to pace to make it more balanced, so a team like Virginia isn’t necessarily at a schematic disadvantage.) This method is a basketball analog to how soccer uses goal differential in pool play. This would apply to the first round just as it would the Final Four. 
  • In the unlikely event we get two teams scheduled to play each other with positive tests, those teams are eliminated and the winner of the other game in that pod moves on. This would also apply if two teams in the same four-team pod in different games had forfeits; the winners would move on to play each other.  
  • In the event a team tests positive after winning a national semifinal but prior to the title game, the other team is determined the champion by (underwhelming) default. Should both title-game teams test positive before the final game, a contingency can be put into place to afford only the final two teams to play a national championship game at a later date. 

There are many other things to take into account, but this is not an official publication of every rule, every contingency, every health recommendation. It’s a first crack and a practical, safe approach in order to try and stage a bracket next year. Someone please make sure this finds its way to Mark Emmert. 

Coming Thursday: every bracket format the NCAA should be preparing for in 2021.

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